NEW YORK—It was a relatively quiet day at Flushing Meadows yesterday, just the kind you expect on the eve of a three-day holiday weekend. Or it was until around 9:30 P.M. when Lleyton Hewitt, after badly mangling an opportunity to go up two sets on No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, began to slowly recover from that failure and wear down the Argentine.
Two hours later, Hewitt put the finishing touches on an extraordinary upset, taking down the “Tower of Tandil,” 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1. It was yet another inspirational chapter in the biography of a tennis warrior nonpareil. Hewitt, the 32-year-old former U.S. Open champ and world No. 1, a slightly built middleweight who’s had five surgeries and recently struggled to keep his place in the Top 100, said after the match, “It’s amazing, I was pumped, I knew I was playing del Potro and I knew that could be on (Arthur) Ashe (stadium).”
That’s Hewitt in a nutshell; A used-up, over-the-hill, no-longer-relevant and largely ignored street fighter who’s somehow managed to retain a neophyte’s sense of wonder and good fortune. That’s the fountain-of-youth for you, and it springs not from the ground but the heart.
Apart from that late-breaking surprise, it wasn’t an outstanding day for upsets or intense dust-ups. But it was a heck of day for press conferences. Let’s check out some of those pearls of wisdom, and the fate of some lesser known players:
A Man of Quality
Has a champion ever worn the mantle of greatness as comfortably and easily as Novak Djokovic? This once baffling and socially awkward Serb, spawned in a culture of rough, passionate, hard men, has developed into someone who seems utterly real and entirely engaged. There’s nothing aloof about him, and he doesn’t draw the boundaries almost all great players delineate in order to protect themselves. Ask him something too personal and he’ll just look you in the eye and gently tell you. . . “it’s too personal.”
Djokovic sometimes seems almost eager to share his thoughts and feelings, even though it often forces him to answer the same question(s) more often than he’s hit those patented inside-out forehand winners.
The top seed here at the Open, Djokovic cleaned Benjamin Becker’s clock yesterday. During his press conference, the subject inevitably turned to his diet. One journalist even said, “I tried your diet for a couple of days, I found it to be challenging.”
Now, that’s a little like saying, “Nole, I tried to hit my backhand down-the-line like you do, but I had trouble.”
But Djokovic didn’t deflect the question with a simple, “too bad,” or a snide, “Glad to hear it.”
He sounded sincere when he asked if the scribe had really tried it, then added, “You don’t seem very happy.”
When the laughter died down, Djokovic wandered into a lengthy discussion of the diet, and how difficult it was for him to embrace it. And he asked the reporter, “What do you find challenging now?”
When the reporter said, “the (manuka) honey,” Djokovic seemed surprised, and he carried the conversation further.
Okay, I’m not nominating Djokovic for the Congressional Medal or Honor here, but dealing with a guy who’s such a square shooter, and who doesn’t just profess respect for one and all but actually delivers it, well, that’s a pleasure that brings a measure of dignity to both parties.
Does it ever get easy?
As I wrote yesterday, the Jamie Hampton vs. Sloane Stephens match was a dud, largely because, except for a brief period in the second set, Hampton couldn’t find her game. Her comments afterward were a refreshing departure from the usual buffet of bromides and clichés rendered with tight lips and averted eyes.
“I don’t know, I think that I’ve had tendencies, shown tendencies, to play really bad in big moments. Kind of sucks. I’m incredibly, incredibly disappointed in the way I played today. Nerves, you know. . . I think I felt fine going out there. Stadium is pretty big. But I got to hit on it before. I’ve played on Rod Laver and Indian Wells stadium a couple times, as well. I don’t think that was too overwhelming.
“I think that she’s (Stephens) had a lot more experience on the big stage. I think personality-wise she embraces it a little better than I do. With my personality, I tend to shy away from it a little bit. It’s a little bit of a struggle, but it’s something that’s being addressed currently.”
Hampton revealed that she’s dealing with her shyness with the help of a sports psychologist. Journalists being a lot like dogs—neither likes to let go of a bone once he or she gets hold of one—Hampton was asked to describe some of her “issues.”
“You don’t want to hear my issues, believe me,” Hampton said, smiling as much to herself as the assembled scribes. “Everybody has their own issues. The girls differ from the guys. Girls are a little bit more emotional. We’ll just leave it at that.”
More and more, it seems like the struggle with nerves, shyness, or other “issues” is more habitual than we may think, and more commonly managed than overcome. Li Na, the No. 5 seed who avenged her third-round loss to Laura Robson last year earlier in the day, admitted that she was “pretty nervous” before the start of her match. The 31-year-old former French Open champ took her troubles to her coach, Carlos Rodriguez.
“I say, ‘Hey Carlos, look, I was so nervous.’ He say something to me like to speak out and to put the pressure out, you know?”
I’m assuming that Rodriguez’s reaction was to tell her to simply let it out, to get it out in the open. She went on, “So after talk I was feeling much, much better. Because before, I never try to share the feeling with the team.”
Just imagine how much stress Li has had to deal with over the years. Being Chinese, she has had trouble communicating in almost all the places where tennis is played. And on top of that, she’s obviously been averse to communicating for a long, long time. It looks like one of the greatest contributions Rodriguez has made thus far (they only started working together at the start of the year) has nothing to do with forehands or backhands.
Running on Fumes
Although two of the three American men who played their second-round matches yesterday fell by the wayside, both Denis Kudla and Rajeev Ram acquitted themselves honorably against tough, experienced opponents.
Ram, a 29-year-old ranked No. 128, gave ATP No. 43 Marcel Granollers of Spain all he could handle over the course of a three hour and 21-minute match before the Spaniard won it, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 7-5. The eye-popping stat to me was Ram’s 81 percent conversion rate on what was a load of serve-and-volley points (he was 29 of 36). The romantic dream lives on, and it almost came true out on Court 17.
Denis Kudla didn’t get a set off Tomas Berdych, but don’t let that fool you. Berdych’s 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3), 6-3 win took two hours and 45 minutes. Ranked No. 104, Kudla was up against the No. 5 seed who, in his last appearance here, knocked off Roger Federer. After he won, Berdych said: “The match could have been really, really long. After two hours (each of the first two sets lasted over an hour) we could have still been there for many hours.”
It was up to Tim Smyczek, a 25-year-old whose goal is to crack the Top 100, to salavage a bit of pride for the U.S. contingent. He met that challenge, overcoming Alex Bogomolov Jr., Boca Raton’s most celebrated Russian, in another long (three hour), draining, tense match, 6-4 in the fifth.
Smyczek became famous at the Open on Wednesday when the courtesy car driver taking him to the National Tennis Center ran out of gas on the highway. Fortunately, a tournament official on his way to the site saw the car on the shoulder and drove Smyczek the rest of the way. Smyczek has adopted the man he described his “rescuer”—or maybe it’s the other way around. In any event, the man has been escorting Smyczek to and from his matches and Smyczek has superstitiously embraced him as a talisman.
I guess it worked for Smyczek yesterday. After he toppled Bogomolov, who had been stretched to a fifth-set tiebreaker in the previous round, Smyczek said—with a completely straight face: “I knew coming into the match he had to be a little bit tired after the first round he had. . .But, I mean, he sure didn’t show it in the first set. Then after I won the second, I thought he seemed like he was maybe running out of gas.”
Now, let’s look at some of the appealing options on today’s schedule:
No. 7 Roger Federer vs. Adrian Mannarino
These two have met just twice before, both at big tournaments in 2011, once on grass (Wimbledon) and once on hard courts (Paris Masters 1000). Mannarino never managed to get more than three games off Federer, so what’s the Swiss icon got to worry about?
Well, he’s at that point in his career when his overall fitness has to be listed as “day-to-day.” Take that word “fitness” literally, because I don’t mean to imply that he’s neglected his training. But let’s remember he’s had a sore back, and in a larger sense fitness means prepared and motivated. Federer is at that stage in his career when he must guard against mental lapses, and when he’s inevitably prone to have off days, physically as well as mentally.
A southpaw who hits a fairly flat ball, Mannarino is a threat for any right-hander when he’s on his game.
No. 13 Ana Ivanovic vs. Christina McHale
Ivanovic has won both matches she’s played against McHale, but they were in the summer and early fall of 2012, which was right about the time McHale began to slide into the slump she now seems to be pulling out of—and struggling mononucleosis.
McHale is coming off an excellent three-set win over Alexandra Dulgheru, and seems to be recovering her form and the mental toughness that once characterized her game. She’s playing with greater aggression and doing more damage with her serve than in the days when she was shooting up to her career-high ranking of No. 24. She’s presently No. 114.
Ivanovic has never recaptured the confidence and easy spirit she possessed when she won the French Open and became world No. 1 (2008), and has taken some puzzling losses while working extremely hard to insert herself back into the mix at the top. Having to play a resurgent American player at the U.S. Open may be a bit too much for her despite the great disparity in their rankings.
No. 8 Richard Gasquet vs. No. 32 Dmitry Tursunov
I’m promoting this one because it promises to be a real shoot-out between two of the more spectacular ball-strikers in the game. This is a good opportunity for Gasquet, who’s been more or less treading water in the bottom half of the Top 10 for some time, and has progressed through the draw with quiet efficiency, winning his two matches in straight sets.
Tursunov, who can be as inconsistent as he is dangerous, won his second-round match when his opponent, Guillaume Ruffin, retired early in the second set (Tursunov had won the first).
Tursunov’s objective will be to lure Gasquet into a hitting contest, and there’s little evidence to suggest that Gasquet is prepared to decline the offer and play a modulated, patient game. If he does that, though, he ought to take another step toward re-establishing himself among the clutch of players in the middle area of the Top 10.
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