NEW YORK—Yesterday was one of those days for me at the U.S. Open: A day when no matter what you’re doing, you have this nagging feeling that you’re missing something. You’re watching Dan Evans and Bernard Tomic, but maybe you ought to be at the Christina McHale vs. Elina Svitolina bout.
Or, you get sucked into the Sam Querrey vs. Adrian Mannarino battle of the tiebreakers while a little voice inside your head keeps telling you that there’s a lot more to contemplate and perhaps even enjoy over on Court 17, where Feliciano Lopez and young American prospect Bradley Khlan are going at it, hammer and tong.
But wait! Isn’t Jack Sock playing Maximo Gonzalez at the same time on Court 11? Help!
What it all added up to was an outstanding day of tennis, so let’s take a look at some of the notable results:
The One That Didn’t Get Away
For a long time now, the monkey on John Isner’s back was his poor record in five-set Grand Slam matches. In 2012, Isner lost five-set matches at all four Grand Slams. This year at Roland Garros, he outlasted fellow countryman Ryan Harrison in five sets in the second round, only to fall to Tommy Haas in the next round, 10-8 in the fifth.
Isner didn’t go five sets with Gael Monfils last night on Louis Armstrong Stadium, and that’s the good news—he put the kibosh on any chance that he might let a really close one get away once again with a little preventative medicine. It was a strong dose of just the kind of tennis Isner needs to play in order to avoid those agonizingly long and uncertain bouts, and to make the best use of his finest assets.
Isner served thunderbolts, raining down 23 aces. More important, he also attacked the net far more frequently than usual, winning 37 of 63 net approaches, and demonstrated vastly improved footwork and a sort of purposeful aggression that was once woefully lacking in his relatively one-dimensional game. The match lasted two hours and 55 minutes, and Isner slammed the door on Monfils before the Frenchman could reach the haven of a fifth set, 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (4).
Of course, it’s never easy slamming the door on Monfils. He’s an explosive, uber-athlete, but as a tennis player he’s always been a little too eager to play fetch rather than work out tactics and strategies that would enable him to assert authority over the match. He deferred to Isner on that score last night, and Isner had the good sense to take advantage of that invitation.
Monfils is such a natural ham and showman that he also accomplished something few might have predicted, given the time and place of this match. The way he flung himself around with abandon, joked with spectators, kept up a running commentary with his team and mugged for the cameras won over the American crowd. After Monfils won the third set, the crowd frequently chanted his name, time and again, as Isner stood by, stoically suppressing what hurt and surprise he must have felt.
But that was okay; Isner knew that winning is the best revenge, and he did that with a convincing game plan and great style to overcome an enormous second-round hurdle. Afterward—on court—he was forgiving and understanding of the American crowd that had turned on him: “He’s a very fun loving guy,” Isner said of Monfils. “He gets cheered on wherever he goes, not just in France.” (For some of Isner’s off-court comments, click here.)
Riske and Reward
Two American women whose chances going into the U.S. Open might have been rated slim-to-none delivered impressive second-round tidings for the home fans. Christina McHale survived a tense struggle with Elina Svitolina, winning 7-5 in the third. Even more impressive was Alison Riske, who knocked out No. 28 seed Mona Barthel.
Let’s look at some of the numbers that tell the tale of those two outstanding wins. McHale, mired in a terrible, 12-month slump (due only partly to illness) and currently ranked No. 114, hadn’t won two main-tour matches in a row since Doha in February. But she played a brand of aggressive tennis that could ultimately lift her above her career-high ranking of No. 24 (achieved last August). She made 57 unforced errors, 10 more than Svitolina, but she won 51 percent of the second serves she hit, and hit more unreturned serves than her opponent (31 to 22).
Even at her best, McHale was thought by many to be too defensive, and saddled with a mediocre serve. So this newfound willingness to go for her shots and her effective serving are encouraging signs.
Riske’s win drew even more heavily on the serve. Although she put just 62 percent of her first serves into play, she won 79 percent of those points (compared to just 55 percent for Barthel). She was also consistent, making just 12 unforced errors to Barthel’s 21. And she put 77 percent of her returns into play, while Barthel managed to return 69 percent of Riske’s serves.
Despite the orgy of interest in U.S. women players in recent months, No. 81 Riske has largely flown under the radar even though she made the semis in Birmingham (on grass) and the third round at Wimbledon. “I’m definitely excited,” the grass-court standout said after the win, “I mean being in the clouds? I’m not really in the clouds because I only won a couple of matches. Obviously, I came here to do more than that.”
The Man With the Jesus Tatoo
Hand it to the British: They have a way of coming up with refreshing characters who manage to acquit themselves well as professionals while retaining all the down-to-earth charm of amateurs—regular guys, easy-to-talk to guys, glad-to-be-here guys. Who can forget Jonny Marray, the 2012 Wimbledon doubles champ? Or John Lloyd, or even that gentleman overachiever, Tim Henman?
The newest member of that fraternity is Daniel Evans, who posted his second big win in as many rounds at Flushing Meadows yesterday. He bumped off Australian bad boy Bernard Tomic, backing up the big win he had over No. 11 seed Kei Nishikori in round one. Tomic blitzed Evans in the first set, but then ran out of energy and gave it up in four.
After Evans’ win over Nishikori, Laura Robson (who fits this British mold as well) was asked if there was anything she didn’t like about her most likeable compatriot, and she replied:
“Well, he’s got a Jesus tattoo. I mean, if you’ve ever spoken to him. . . he’s really not the most religious person.” After the laughter died down, she continued: “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But you know, Dan is a very interesting character, and I think, you know, he can be a really great player.”
Worth noting: During his match with Tomic, Evans called for a medical timeout. Apparently, he’s been having some trouble with his. . . er, nipples. Some sort of irritation. “I had it at Aptos (a recent Challenger event) as well. It was just agony. Oh, the stick I’m going to get back home. . . it’s, like, devastating.”
Anyways, the result was sweetened considerably for Evans by the fact that in Miami in 2012, he had signed up to practice with Tomic only to find himself rebuffed when he showed up at the sign-in hut. “Yeah, it was quite funny, actually. I was there playing qualies and his dad (persona non grata, John Tomic) sort of fobbed me off and said I wasn’t good enough to practice with Bernard. It was a bit embarrassing, but hey. . . ”
Evans characterized Tomic’s game as “slow and strange,” and said it lulled him into passivity for the first set and a half. Tomic explained his fade over the final three sets like this: “I think one thing I do is, I think I get lazy on the court. My tennis sort of comes a bit slow. I don’t really know how to put guys away. . . I always tend to slow down, stop using my feet. In tennis that’s not a very good thing.”
And now today's matches:
That was 2012, This is Now
Last year, Laura Robson stunned No. 5 seed Li Na here in what proved to be a career steppingstone. Now they meet again, at the same third-round stage of the tournament. Robson has more at stake now, even though she’s still just 19 years old. She’s improved enough to have earned the No. 30 seed, while three-time Grand Slam finalist (and one-time champ) Li is playing well and undoubtedly looking for a little payback.
Robson has kept a low profile since satisfying her fellow British countrymen by making the fourth round at Wimbledon a few weeks ago. Since then, she’s played just one tournament (Carlsbad) in which she was hammered in her second match by Petra Kvitova.
Both women looked sharp in their first two matches, so this will be an excellent if daunting test for up-and-coming Robson.
Is there a tennis player out there whose life seems more star-crossed than that of Donald Young? A shockingly accomplished prodigy, Young is 24 now, and struggling for his professional life, ranked No. 157 and constantly playing catch-up with career. Each time he makes some strides that lead you to think he might carve out a solid career as a Top 50 player for a decade or so, he goes into a tailspin.
The other day, Young won his first ATP main-tour match of 2013 with perhaps his finest day as a pro. He absolutely demolished world No. 46 Martin Klizan, who made the fourth round at the U.S. Open just last year, giving up just two games in three sets.
Young’s accomplishment was thoroughly overshadowed by Victoria Duval, who upset former champ and No. 11 seed Sam Stosur at roughly the same time. Young didn’t even get called in to do a press conference.
Today, he’ll meet 29-year-old Florian Mayer on the Grandstand. It’s a winnable match against an opponent much like himself—a good ball striker who relies more on guile than power. There ought to be plenty of spectacular shotmaking in this one.
Sloane Stephens and Jamie Hampton are rivals, but they’re also good friends and prominent names in the resurgence of American women’s tennis. That means this bout will be just as much of a celebration as a clash.
Hampton, seeded No. 23, has a classic, versatile game in which quickness and finesse loom large. Stephens, the No. 15 seed, has more dangerous, volatile weapons and an excellent record in big matches. Stephens leads their head-to-head, 2-1; she’s won twice on hard courts, where her superior power is more dangerous, while Hampton won their meeting on clay.
None of their matches has gone the three-set distance, but this one might, given the strides Hampton took this summer and the nerves that are bound to hammer away at each of these young ladies.