First Ball In, 8/1: Anything You Can Do...
Today we make the turn from July to August; in tennis terms, that means we move from Wimbledon’s month to the U.S. Open’s, and that’s the way it has felt the last few days and nights. Summer tennis in the States is in full swing, and it will get even fuller next week when it moves north to Canada.
Whatever season it is for the sport, one old cliché about tennis remains true: Match-ups matter. They don’t determine everything, of course; usually the better player wins. But the way two players’ styles mesh can lead to some surprising results, and that’s what happened in D.C. and Stanford on Thursday.
Anything You Can Do...
The most-anticipated match of the day was Venus Williams vs. Victoria Azarenka. Looking up their record yesterday, I was surprised to find that Venus hadn’t lost so much as a set in their three previous meetings. After her 6-4, 7-6 (1) win last night, she still hasn’t, and you could see why. While Azarenka is still in the midst of a comeback—she had played just four matches since January—this one was about Venus’s game, and how well it's suited to Vika’s. In Stanford, anything Azarenka did—i.e., hit flat and run fast—Venus did a little better.
The American, who has won this tournament four times, served for the match at 5-3 in the second, but had to wait until the tiebreaker to close it. Despite that hiccup, she was the better player, the player on top of the rallies, from start to finish. There’s obviously something about Azarenka’s shots that feeds into Venus’s game; even Vika’s attempts to do more with her second serve weren’t enough to keep Williams from attacking it.
“It feels good,” Venus said. “But she also hasn’t been playing as much, so I think she’s still looking for her range. But I think both of us played at a high level, and it just got better as the match went on.”
“It was a pretty good match,” said Azarenka, who does look like she’s at least closing in on her normal game. “I think the level was pretty high....I think Venus came out with a little bit better execution at the important moments.”
Either way, it was good to see both of these oft-injured champs able to give their best against each other. Next time, let’s hope they meet a little later in a tournament.
Speaking of match-ups, I think it’s safe to say that Vasek Pospisil, a Canadian of Czech descent, likes playing the man from his mother country, Tomas Berdych. In fact, Berdych seems to be his personal catalyst, the man who shows him how good he can be. Last summer, in Montreal, Pospisil beat Berdych during his first and so far only run to a Masters semifinal. This time, in D.C., Pospisil displayed some of his best, most complete tennis since that breakthrough week a year ago. As with Venus against Vika, there’s something about Berdych’s flat ground strokes that grooves the ball perfectly into Pospisil’s stroke zone. The Canadian jumped to a 3-0 lead and rolled to a 6-2, 6-4 win. From his serve to his flick defensive forehand, he had everything clicking, and he was more than capable of trading lasers with one of the tour’s biggest hitters.
“His game is there, so he just needs to find it also in other matches,” Berdych said in a vaguely Serena-esque statement afterward. “It’s not the case when he plays me.”
“That was definitely not my best tonight," Berdych also said. "It’s something where I just need to go on.”
Should Berdych and his team be more concerned than that? He lost badly to two lower-ranked players, Ernests Gulbis and Marin Cilic, at the French Open and Wimbledon. And against Pospisil, Berdych was even worse—I’ve never seen him so off-balance.
Is this a temporary dip for the Birdman, who will be 29 next month, or the beginning of a longer descent?
It’s been a tough week, visibility-wise, for the women in D.C., but today they really get the second-class treatment. All four matches on the stadium court are ATP; all three on the second show court are WTA.
Kevin Anderson vs. Donald Young: DY has made a quietly strong run in D.C., where he has knocked off Benneteau and Istomin. A win over Anderson would be another, unlikely step upward.
Kei Nishikori vs. Richard Gasquet: The Frenchman is 4-0 in their head to head, so Kei is due. Either way, it should be a pleasure to watch this baseline duel.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Ekaterina Makarova: Can the second-seeded Makarova, who beat Radwanska at Wimbledon, make herself a threat to go deep at the U.S. Open? She has always had a game that can beat the best.
Garbine Muguruza vs. Angelique Kerber: Just how good is the young Spaniard? Kerber, the great German wallboard, is as useful a litmus test as any.
Venus Williams vs. Andrea Petkovic: This is a popular one, and it should be a good one. Venus has won their last two meetings in three sets.
Serena Williams vs. Ana Ivanovic: They're 1-1 this year.
David Goffin vs. Maximo Gonzalez: Goffin comes in to this Kitzbuhel quarterfinal on a torrid winning streak.
On This Day...
Jack Kramer was born in 1921. Big Jake, who died in 2009, may have been the most important figure in men’s tennis in the 20th century. No one else did more to turn to it from a pastime into a profession. It’s symbolic that Billie Jean King would take on a similar role on the women’s side, because she built her career largely in opposition to her fellow Californian Kramer.
I talked to Kramer once, in the 90s, for a piece about how Pete Sampras could win the French Open. Sampras never pulled it off, of course, but not for lack of advice from Kramer. He gave me an earful, and all of it was interesting.
Kramer’s 1979 autobiography, written with Frank DeFord, is a seminal tennis text. Appropriately, it’s titled The Game—that’s what Kramer was.
Here he is winning Wimbledon, in proto-James Dean T-shirt and shorts, over countryman Tom Brown in 1947. Kramer, who turned pro later that year, would never play there again.