First Ball In, 7/11: Newport News
Have a Seat
On my way to Newport on Wednesday, I listened to a radio segment about penalty kicks in soccer, and how significant a role psychology plays in the oft-dreaded contest. As if on cue, I watched Argentina and Holland decide their semifinal in a shootout later that afternoon, and the persuasive argument seemed to play itself out.
What is the equivalent of a penalty kick in tennis? Or, to put it another way, what’s a winning shot you should make almost every time? I’d say it’s when you’re well in the front court, ready to hit a ball your opponent got back with hardly any pace. Yet how often have you missed one of those shots because you overhit the ball, or bashed it into the net?
John Isner did both today in his quarterfinal match with Jack Sock, and both misses were extremely costly. The first—a forehand after a harmless, floated return—landed a couple feet long and gave Sock what would be the only break of the match. Then, in the second-set tiebreaker, Isner gave his friend an early birthday present when, already down a mini-break, he clipped the net with his “sitter” forehand. This, it should be said, came directly after the top seed gave Sock a point when an apparent ace was called out (there is no Hawk-Eye review in Newport).
Despite leveling the score at 3-3, Isner lost the final three points of the tiebreaker to fall, 6-4, 7-6 (4). Sock, who reached his first ATP semifinal with the win, had almost no celebration afterward. The two are regular practice partners, and the college standout certainly helped the high-school star with his mistakes. But this was a well-deserved win for Sock, who fired his forehand and displayed a versatility that translates well to grass.
As for Isner, he’ll be left to think about those two shots. Unfortunately, that’s probably what he was doing before he went up to hit them.
We know grass keeps the ball low, and that’s especially true on the softer turf in Newport. But that doesn’t mean higher-hit shots can’t be used to great effect. The lob is an unlikely weapon on grass, a surface on which it’s difficult to quickly change direction. If a player comes to net—a more common practice on grass—they’ll likely be stuck there for the rest of the point, so even a mediocre lob can yield great results. (And should they retreat in time? The low bounce will help the lobber.)
Lleyton Hewitt doesn’t do mediocre, through, even at age 33. Steve Johnson was the latest to find that out the hard way today in Newport, losing to the grass-court great, 6-4, 6-4. The American was the victim of Hewitt’s relentless baseline barrage and renowned service return, but was also done in by some lovely lobs. Hewitt won a point outright with one in the first set; in the second set, a running defensive lob turned the tables on a point the Aussie looked out of.
When a Johnson slice backhand strayed a blade of grass wide, Hewitt, who owns grass-court titles from Wimbledon, Queen’s Club, Halle, and s’-Hertogenbosch, reached his third straight semifinal at Newport, an event he’d surely love to win.
—Grace Min, who had won just one tour-level match this year, has now won three this week in Bad Gastein. She’s been quite good there, winning all six sets she’s played by scores of 6-3 or better. Today, the 138th-ranked, 20-year-old American trounced eighth-seeded Karolina Pilskova, 6-2, 6-1, to reach, as you might expect, her first career WTA semifinal. She’ll face Andrea Petkovic next.
The Gastein Ladies is played on clay, a surface that’s treated Min well this year. Her lone WTA victory I spoke of came in Charleston, and she’s won two ITF titles on the dirt. She also qualified for the French Open (winning 30 games and losing just 11 in those three matches) and tested Garbine Muguruza in a 7-5, 7-6 first-round loss.
Lleyton Hewitt (3) vs. Jack Sock (7): These two have never played, which probably benefits Sock—he’s probably watched Hewitt play dozens of matches on TV, after all. As I said before, Hewitt, a likely Hall-of-Famer down the road, would love to capture this championship. But Sock got past a huge obstacle in Isner and will be able to play many more rallies against Hewitt. That might benefit the former No. 1, but Sock is on a roll and appears ready for a mini-breakout. Winner: Sock
Fabio Fognini (1) vs. Roberto Bautista Agut (3): Fognini has won four of their five matches, including two this year and two on clay. After a pair of disappointing third-round exits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it would be fitting for Fognini to thrive on this below-the-radar clay-court swing. Winner: Fognini
Simona Halep (1) vs. Monica Niculescu: Niculescu will have nothing to lose in this all-Romanian semifinal. But Halep will still have plenty to win; it would be a massive disappointment not to win her home tournament after all her success this season. Winner: Halep