My annual pre-U.S. Open vacation is over; now it’s time for a hard dose of Monday morning reality: Reading the Readers. Today we talk about a couple of the story lines that emerged from the tournament in Cincinnati last week.
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Steve, are we going to have to hear the American press tell us how John Isner is going to win the U.S. Open again?—Jamie
I don’t know about “again”—no U.S. press man or woman I’ve read has ever predicted that the Big Enigma was going to win the Open. But it does appear that we’ve reached that point, which we seem to reach at least once each season, when we need to decide whether to take Isner seriously again at a major.
There are obviously reasons to do so. He won Atlanta and made the finals in D.C. and Cincy. At the latter event, he beat Gasquet, Raonic, Djokovic, and del Potro, and he pushed Nadal as far as you can push an opponent in two sets. In those matches, Isner used his forehand especially well, and avoided the passivity and negativity that have dragged him down so often in the past. Maybe things are clicking with coach Mike Sell, who came on board at the start of 2013; I don’t think I’ve seen Isner compete this well before.
On the other hand, this wasn’t exactly Big John 2.0. He still lives close to the edge, an edge that he tends to fall off when the matches go from best-of-three-set play to best-of-five at the Grand Slams. Nine of the 16 matches Isner has played in the U.S. Open Series thus far have gone three sets, and in that time he has played 20 tiebreakers. For the most part, Isner has walked his personal tight rope successfully; he won seven of those nine three-setters. But he also fallen off. While he won a three-tiebreaker final over Kevin Anderson in Atlanta, he lost two tiebreakers to Nadal in Cincy and Vasek Pospisil in Montreal.
At the Slams, Isner can’t afford to cut it that close or play that inefficiently. Three-setters tend to turn into five-setters for him at the majors, and then he gets tired. In a way, Isner might want to think of a tournament like Cincinnati as his version of a Grand Slam—that’s where he can more reasonably expect success against the world’s best. He did reach the quarterfinals at the Open two years ago, but he’ll need a good draw and a few more breaks of serve than normal to get there again.
Long answer short: I’m happy Isner has returned to his best form this summer, but I’m not ready to say that his success in 2-of-3 in the heartland will translate to success in 3-of-5 in the Big Apple.
After the match between Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Jankovic in Cincinnati, that had something like 20 breaks of serve, I read some people asking about why the women are so much better at returning than serving. Do you have an opinion?—Jess
I tried to do my own speculating on this subject in an article for Tennis Magazine a few years ago. After talking to coaches and watching the men and women serve and return from up close at the U.S. Open for two weeks, I couldn’t come up with a single good explanation for the phenomenon. There are too many factors to pinpoint one.
Theories abounded, of course, some of them less credible than others: Women are passive and reactive by nature; they’re tempted by powerful racquets to go for too much; they never learned how to throw; etc.
Most interesting to me were the words of one Florida coach, who said that the instructional focus for promising young women players was about making their ground strokes powerful and consistent—that came first. The belief was that without the ability to hang in rallies and not get blown off the court, a player stood no chance in today’s women’s game. The serve, in this scenario, was a secondary consideration. This was a departure from the net-rushing past, when the serve had been an essential part of most players' attacking games. You had to have a good serve, after all, to be able to serve and volley. Today, as women’s ground strokes have become more powerful, so have their returns, which has made life even tougher on the server.
Racquets and strings have also tipped the scales toward the return in both the men’s and women’s games. The exception on the WTA side is obviously Serena Williams, to whom the serve seems to come so naturally. Serena and her sister Venus did spend a lot of time tossing footballs around when they were young. It’s often said that American men and women are better servers—and worse movers—because we grow up throwing footballs and baseballs, while the rest of the world is focused on their feet on the soccer field. And it’s true that some of the more powerful women servers now are from the U.S.—the Williams sisters, Madison Key,s Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe.
The match between Azarenka and Jankovic was a tough one to watch. Neither woman is a natural server, and each of them lost all confidence in the shot that night. Still, that was a special case; few serving exhibitions are that bad. While I would love for more WTA players to serve like Serena, it would be a mistake to criticize the women just because they can’t serve as well, or hold with the same consistency, as the men. Rallies, returns, and service breaks are entertaining, too.
After they played in Cincinnati, I wondered whether Roger [Federer] would ever beat Rafa again. He had his chance there and blew it. What do you think?—A Federer Fan
It’s good to see you’re keeping that match in perspective. Before you send Federer into the sunset, consider that Cincy was his first tournament after having back trouble this summer, and his first hard-court tournament since Indian Wells in March. In some ways, this match was encouraging for Federer when it comes to playing Rafa. Their other two meetings this year were straight-setters in Nadal's favor, and the one in Rome in May was destruction city.
But I sort of see what you’re saying. I know many people thought their Cincy match was played at an “insanely high level,” but I thought Nadal was off for most of the first two sets. Part of that was Federer’s good play, but part of it wasn’t; Rafa sent a lot of routine shots yards long. Once he broke through in the second set and relaxed, the match was his. That’s not something I would have expected between these two on hard courts in the past.
All we can say is: We’ll see. Right now, the future seems to be with Rafa. He’s No. 2 and Federer is No. 7. That trend could continue forever, or the world could turn again. Last year at this time, Federer was riding high—he was No. 1, the Wimbledon champ, and had beaten Novak Djokovic in the Cincy final—while Nadal wasn’t even playing tennis. For now, I’ll be interested to see if Federer still has the upper hand on Rafa in the indoor events this fall. History says the tennis world turns, and so does this rivalry. It may have another one left in it.