Each day during the U.S. Open, Peter Bodo will recap the previous day's events and look ahead to the upcoming day's play. We encourage you to discuss the action from Flushing Meadows in the comments section below.
NEW YORK—John Isner and Jack Sock, two of the three American men left in the draw yesterday (the third was Tim Smyczek, who will play today), found themselves in similar straits. Both punishing, aggressive players still with a few rough edges, they were matched with smaller, versatile men whose games have few—if any—holes.
On paper, Janko Tipsarevic (who played Sock) and Philipp Kohlschreiber were certainly beatable rivals and reasonable third-round foes. But neither of those crafty veterans was likely to stumble out with poor strategy or execution; both would have to be beaten. So let’s review those matches, and a tough, tight struggle involving American Christina McHale as well.
Sock had good reason to feel confident against Tipsarevic. Recently a Top 10 player, the 29-year-old Serb hit hard times early in the year and fell out of the Top 20 on the eve of the U.S. Open. And for the better part of the first two sets, the dynamic 20-year-old, who’s got the build of a lumberjack, was able to impose his rough-hewn, muscular game on one of the game’s outstanding—and outstandingly smooth—middleweights.
But Tipsarevic began to find his A-game in the second-set tiebreaker, and Sock let up ever so slightly—enough for Tipsarevic to level the match at a set apiece. From there, it was all downhill for Sock, as Tipsarevic put on an impressive display of all-court tennis. His ground game on either side became impregnable and he attacked at just the right times, striking a perfect balance between forcing Sock back off the baseline, but never going for the quick kill or a put-away too early.
Sock grew increasingly frustrated and error-prone. By the late stages of the third set his forehand was misfiring as often as it hit the mark; there was no place he could go for the easy or cheap point.
“He (Tipsarevic) just competes really well,” Sock would say after he lost, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-2. “He’s very, very solid off both sides—you can’t go to one side or the other and look for the error. And he moves really well. He’s been top ten and you don’t get there without being really good so I was ready for a battle.”
Although it seemed that Sock ran out of gas, the reality is that he ran out of options. And being so young, he seemed to grow discouraged, lashing out at the ball with little apparent purpose or thought.
“I felt great physically,” Sock insisted. “He just stepped up his game, and at the same time my service percentage dropped and I began to spray balls. . . I don’t even know, I just wasn’t there, I was wasn’t hitting (my forehand) as clean as in the beginning and my feet might have been off a little bit. He was hitting deeper, and I wasn’t able to stand still and dictate like in the first set.”
Tipsarevic chipped and chipped and finally brought the promising youth crashing down—and out of the Open.
Ana Ivanovic: The Vigil Continues
At about the time Sock was manhandling Tipsarevic early in their match, the Serb’s friend and compatriot Ana Ivanovic was engaged in a struggle of her own against another American, Christina McHale.
Unlike Sock, McHale has had a rough year. Her ranking plummeted from No. 24 at around this time last year to her current No. 114. But she played two good matches on home turf at Flushing Meadows this week, and she was well aware that the No. 13 seed Ivanovic has a reputation for struggling with her confidence. She’s still trying—with little success—to recapture the form that enabled her to win the French Open and hold the No. 1 ranking for a brief period in 2008.
McHale came a lot closer than Sock to pulling off the upset; she served for the match at 6-4, 5-4. But at just that moment her resolve flickered, enough to allow Ivanovic back into the match. McHale played that match game tentatively, forgetting that she had come that far by playing aggressively and precisely.
“The first point (of the game) I served right, like, to her forehand and she hit a winner right down the line. Maybe I could have done more with the serve on that. That first point was to set the tone for the game,” McHale explained after she lost, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4. “She stepped up and hit some really good shots, and maybe I got a little passive. I think I just need more experience in this stage of a Slam. I think I'll be able to do better next time.”
But let’s not sell Ivanovic short here. She’s worked awfully hard for years now to get another crack at a Grand Slam title, experimenting with different coaches, tinkering with her technique, and enduring some puzzling ups and downs that seem to support the idea that this quintessential “nice girl,” no matter how sincere and enthusiastic, just isn’t mentally or emotionally tough enough to assert her dominion, even over the relatively brief two-week Grand Slam period. Give her credit, though, for discounting five years of frustration and openly admitting:
“My big goal is to win another Grand Slam. You know, I really want to work hard for it. It’s long way. I have to beat players like Vika, Serena, other top players to get there. I’m aware of that. I have luxury that I've been there, so I know what it takes.”
Ivanovic can take another step toward that goal when she meets No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka in the next, fourth round.
“I know what to expect,” she said of that imminent clash. “It’s going to be revenge seeking. I really want to play against the best and challenge myself, because I’m ready to take them on. I had close match with Vika recently (Ivanovic lost a three-set semifinal to Azarenka in Carlsbad late in July). I really look forward to this opportunity.”
It was an egregious error; everyone in Louis Armstrong stadium knew it, most especially the man who committed it. John Isner failed to serve out the fourth set from a 6-5 lead, and Philipp Kohlschreiber, buoyed by an escape that nobody had expected, went on to win the ensuing tiebreaker and eliminate Isner from the U.S. Open for the second consecutive year, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5).
You had to feel for Isner, who really seemed to have taken his game to a newer, higher level this summer, positioning himself beautifully to make a deep run at the U.S. Open—and perhaps put a dampener on the incessant chorus, “What’s wrong with American tennis?”
Isner fired 26 aces on a sultry, humid afternoon, and he hit an impressive 65 winners. But a lot of that good work was canceled out by his 40 unforced errors, the frequency of which increased as the match wore on and Isner lost energy.
Ironically, Isner felt that his own enthusiasm and supercharged emotional state late in the match were part of his undoing. Generally a phlegmatic competitor who keeps his emotions in tight check, Isner found himself caught up in the atmosphere in packed Louis Armstrong Stadium. He became demonstrative, and engaged the crowd late in the fourth set, trying to cross the finish line with some 15,000 fans in tow.
“I felt like I wore myself out,” he said not long after the dust settled. “It's hard to explain, but I used too much energy doing that in that fourth set, the game when I broke him and the one before, too. It was stupid on my part, because I was pretty gassed there. Had I kept it calm, I think I could still be out there right now. But all that said, he played a smart match. He was better than me, simple as that.”
Tactically, Isner’s major mistake was settling into a predictable serving pattern, particularly on critical points. “I didn’t mix up my second serve enough against him, so he was able to camp out and know that it was pretty much going to his backhand. Looking back on it, I should have changed that.”
Kohlschreiber agreed with the assessment. “Maybe I’m guessing a little bit, you know, taking the right corners.” He added, “I think the good thing I do is try to move him a lot. I don’t go for the winners, or like with the first serve I try to have a high percentage.”
In other words, Kohlschreiber was the anti-Isner, and once again that one proved more lethal than the genuine article.
The main event tomorrow will be Serena Williams vs. Sloane Stephens; check out Steve Tignor’s advance, and the above video I shot with Nick Bollettieri, on what promises to be as closely watched and heavily hyped as a women’s final. In other action:
Jelena Jankovic (No. 9) vs. Li Na (No. 5)
Both of these women have been to see the elephant, and both of them are playing well. Theirs has been one of the better if less heralded of WTA rivalries; they’ve met more times (8) than any of the other pairings in the round-of-16.
This is a connoisseur’s special, as the 4-4 head-to-head record suggests. Oddly enough, Li won four of the first five matches they played, most of which coincided with the best years of Jankovic’s career. Then Jankovic won the three most recent matches over the period when Li put up her best results (between 2009 and 2013).
That topsy-turvy history tells you that when it comes to each other, the women aren’t subject to the same ebb and flow of fortune as against anyone else. Their games are more similar than different, characterized by excellent speed and clean, solid strokes. Both struggle with consistency and Li’s serve is just a shade better, while the down-the-line backhand is Jankovic’s money shot.
Give Li the edge in this one on recent record. In fact, Li has been the better player since 2009, the year after Jankovic was No. 1 and began a mystifying, extended slump that has continued to plague her to the present day.
Tim Smyczek vs. Marcel Granollers
Ranked No. 109, Smyczek is the only American still in the hunt among the 15 U.S. players who were in the main draw. If he fails to beat Granollers to make the fourth round, it will be the first time in the Open era that no U.S. men will have survived the third round.
Ranked No. 43, Granollers has never faced the Milwaukee native, which will make both men a little nervous but probably work in favor of the underdog Smyczek. Both men survived tough five-setters in the previous round, which means this one may become a weary war of attrition won by the player who’s got the best stamina and consistency.
When Isner was apprised about the situation involving Smyczek and American tennis, he replied frankly: “I don’t care. I’m going to watch football for a while. That’s all I care about.”
If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at TENNIS.com, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.