NEW YORK—The first big, fat drop of rain may not even have hit the court when Daniela Hantuchova sprinted for her chair. The scoreboard said 12:19 PM, and it had Hantuchova leading underdog Alison Riske, 6-2, 4-4, with Riske serving at 15-0.
She’s nobody’s fool, that Hantuchova. Just minutes earlier, Riske had broken Hantuchova for the first time in the match to get back on serve, and she was clearly making a last-ditch push to avoid the fourth-round loss. It was as good a time as any to re-group—without having to resort to a bathroom break.
Hantuchova’s departure was so swift that neither Riske nor the chair umpire, Eva Asderaki, seemed to have much say in the matter. Hantuchova would have looked awfully foolish if the rain had held off yet again, for it had been threatening to pour for the entire morning. But her meteorological instincts proved flawless. Within, oh, five seconds, the explosive, widely spaced, marshmallow-sized drops ushered in the deluge and everyone bolted for cover.
By the time the next point was played, it was 4:49 p.m., and the silver lining to those turbulent, slate-gray clouds was that the delay extended by a precious if soggy four-and-a-half hours the illusion that the United States had a legitimate contender besides Serena Williams at this U.S. Open.
Make that five-and-a-half hours, because Riske gamely held on to her serve when the women returned, then played a marvelous game to break Hantuchova at love and suddenly find herself even at a set apiece. The break was built upon a string of excellent serve returns against a woman who spat out 15 aces on the day, and later confessed she couldn’t remember another time she’d had that many.
Hantuchova would re-assert her authority and win the match to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the second time in her career (the first was way back in 2002), 6-3, 5-7, 6-2. Riske likely well be studying long into the night when she watches this match again, because she certainly had her chances, especially after she leveled the match at a set apiece.
But I don’t imagine Riske will be studying or Hantuchova will be celebrating much this night. These four- and five-hour delays suck the energy out of everyone, from the least invested ball kid to the intemperate martini loaders in the corporate suites, some of whom were probably hallucinating by the time cocktail hour arrived for decent folks.
It was grim in the players’ lounge, where the elite pros were carefully sequestered from the hoi polloi, leaving all those foosball tables to the youngsters in the junior draw—or at least those of them who weren’t draped over the various couches and plush armchairs like human throw blankets, sleeping or gazing dead-eyed at the latest Twitter or Facebook posting.
Riske said, “I basically just ate and slept for three hours. I probably had one of everything they have in the cafeteria.”
Hantuchova copped to doing the same. But then it’s not like either of them could have gone out geo-caching.
You had to feel for the fans, though. Not only did they take a good soaking, their best laid plans were destined to awry. The Roger Federer fans who had kept a wet vigil, hoping Hantuchova would close out Riske quickly upon the resumption and Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic would quickly finish whatever nasty business they had? Their dreams went up in, well, a mist.
At around 4:30, just when things appeared to be drying out (for the second time since the initial delay), tournament officials announced that Azarenka and Ivanovic had been sent home and instructed not to come back until Tuesday, and Federer was moved from his second home in Arthur Ashe Stadium into Louis Armstrong Stadium. Within minutes, the line to enter Armstrong extended across the grounds and all the way to the fountains—gushers that seemed just a mite redundant on this day. Night session holders stoked to see Rafael Nadal remained hopeful.
The upshot of moving the pieces around the chessboard wasn’t particularly dramatic or likely to have much impact on the tournament, though. Even with the additional WTA match, the schedule for Tuesday is far from loaded. In fact, Grandstand, the third show court at the National Tennis Center, won’t even play host to a singles match.
But let’s get back to Hantuchova’s win over Riske. During the pre-tournament buzz about U.S. women’s tennis, very little was said about Riske. That’s understandable. At 23, she’s significantly older than some of Serena’s other domestiques, and on the evidence at hand she’s more likely a journeywoman than up-and-coming challenger to the elites. Ranked no. 81, she’s still ninth on the U.S. depth chart.
But Riske has had a terrific summer, with a third-round showing at Wimbledon and now a fourth-round finish at the U.S. Open. Meanwhile, Hantuchova, one of the more maddeningly inconsistent veterans on the tour, repeated a familiar pattern. She won Birmingham (eliminating Riske in the semis) but then won exactly two matches before the U.S. Open. “I guess the best things happen when you don’t expect them,” the 30-year-old Slovak said afterward.
Hantuchova has always been one of the most unpredictable and dangerous floaters in any draw. She’s quick and has no compunctions about swinging from her heels when she’s feeling up to it. Ranked No. 48, her groundstrokes are flat and stinging, and at 5’11” she has good reach at the net and the capability to serve rockets. Her shortcomings have always been said to be mental.
Riske, by contrast, is a game and relentless competitor, one of those players who’s always reaching beyond her ability with discipline and diligence, and thus moving her game forward inch-by-inch. It may not be noticeable to the casual eye, but add up those inches and you soon have a foot, a yard, and so on.
In the first set, Riske floundered a bit. She had a narrow escape for 3-all to stay on serve, but absorbed a break the next time she served. Her best quality was her enthusiasm, as Hantuchova stretched her all over the court and kept her off balance with precise serving. Although Riske was finding her game in the mid-portion of the second set, she also welcomed the rain delay. “I was thanking God that it actually rained because I really needed to re-group,” she explained. “I kind of treated it (the resumption) like my second time on Ashe, because the first time was really overwhelming. It was really weird at first, because I wasn’t nervous but my body acted nervous. I was really tight.”
But even the second time around, Riske had too few solutions to Hantuchova’s probing groundstrokes and whiplash serves. To make matters worse, Riske found herself choking up on a changeover during the third set, when the PA announced introduced half-a-dozen servicemen who had been wounded in combat.
“I was sitting on the bench, crying,” the personable blonde admitted. “I’m supposed to be serious right now, but I’m like crying because they’re congratulating our awesome soldiers.”
That was the last straw. Riske had trouble focusing after that, although she didn’t link the two events directly. “I totally lost all focus (in the third set) and missed plenty of balls I should make with my eyes closed. It was really a mistake on me, mentally, to do that. But I’d never been in a moment like that and she’s a seasoned player.”
This may be Riske’s national championships, but being in New York appears to be inspirational for Hantuchova as well.
“I love New York,” she declared in her presser. “I could live here in one second. I just love this city, it’s got so much energy, atmosphere. This tournament is only starting now for me. It just means the world again for me to be in the quarterfinals.”
She clearly loves Gotham, rain or shine.
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