First Ball In, 8/28: Army of One
NEW YORK—"At the end of the day, it was really a fight and a battle."
For once, those words, which were spoken by Genie Bouchard after her late-night win on Thursday, weren't just clichés.
Bouchard had been to the semifinals at the Australian Open and French Open. She had reached the final at Wimbledon. She had made the cover of the New York Times Magazine. She had inspired the Genie Army and the tweets from Bieber and the comparisons to Chris Evert. This week she had been the subject, on ESPN, of the poll question, "Which Grand Slam do you think Genie Bouchard will win first?"
But none of those things could help Bouchard when, in the middle of the second set, on a windy night in the big city, she suddenly hesitated. None of those things could help her when her streaky, often shaky, but very talented opponent, Sorana Cirstea, decided that she was going to make the most of the opportunity no matter what.
Bouchard and Cirstea threw everything they had at each other for the next set-and-a-half, and produced the first desperate, old-school U.S. Open night match of the tournament. Bouchard is known for her grit and determination, but Cirstea matched her in both departments the whole way. The Romanian came back from 0-2 in the second set to win it, and 1-3 in the third set to tie it. She also showed off the ball-striking talent we've only been treated to intermittently over the years.
But Bouchard still won. Forget the magazine covers and the stuffed Wombats; Bouchard still won this match, against an opponent who was poised to outplay her, and a half-crocked New York crowd that didn't mind seeing her lose. Bouchard saw Cirstea's best game and found a way to take her out of it. Sorana was out-hitting her when they went toe-to-toe, so Genie made her run from side to side. In the final game, down 0-30 at 5-4, having been broken four times already, Bouchard came up with her best four service points of the match. She hit her second ace at 0-30, and a big service winner down the T at 30-30.
No amount of hype, and nobody's army, can help you do that.
“Was that, like, a really depressing answer?”
That’s what Madison Keys asked the assembled, and conspicuously silent, media after she had given her first answer in her press conference today. Her question only elicited more silence, until someone finally spoke up and said, in a concerned voice, “You look really upset.”
There was no denying it, Keys looked devastated after her three-set loss to 145th-ranked qualifier Aleksandra Krunic. Keys had, as she nearly admitted, choked. She struggled with the wind, she struggled to keep her serve near the court in the third set, and she struggled with her shot selection at the key moments.
And the 19-year-old wasn’t afraid to face it and say it.
“Uhm, I just play didn't well when it mattered," Keys said. "I played OK at times. I played better in the second set. But then when it really mattered, I just didn’t play well.”
That’s about as damning a self-indictment as an athlete can make—to play well “when it really matters” is the ultimate point of pride for every tennis player. To say you didn’t do that is far worse than to admit you played horribly all day.
As sometimes happens after tough losses, the interview turned into a mini-therapy session for Keys. After a couple of questions, she had begun to think her way through what had gone wrong.
“I think she was very consistent,” Keys said. “I was going for too much, trying to force things that weren’t there. I definitely think I should have backed off and just tried to play a little bit slower and smarter...I think sometimes I try to hit my way out of situations because I know in certain times I can do that. You know, I can get away with it. Then sometimes like today it backfires on me.”
Keys says in those situations that she “needs to figure out another way to win.” And that's the big question with her: Can she develop a second gear, the flexibility to go to a Plan B? It certainly sounds doable, but it won’t be easy. At nearly the same time that Keys was bowing out on Thursday, another seed, Sam Stosur, was losing a match she should have won in a third-set tiebreaker. Stosur is much like Keys, a great althete with a live arm who can outhit anyone on the right day. She’s never learned to do anything else.
“That’s not funny anymore.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there has never been a player before Nick Kyrgios who could play a match while simultaneously starting friendships and ending them. On Thursday, the 19-year-old Aussie bantered with half the crowd on tiny, jammed Court 5. He talked to them between points and even between serves. He pretended to be hurt after falling down, and then jumped up laughing. He jawed with the chair umpire and the ball kids. He discussed his mistakes with some people and started running jokes with others. Finally, he ended one of those jokes, by telling a guy in the audience who talking to him, “That’s not funny anymore.”
Kyrgios played on the court next to 17-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia. We’ll be seeing more of these two, but this made for an easy, early contrast. Coric, who has the high spiky haircut of a 50s rockabilly star, is solid all around. Kyrgios, who has a faux-hawk and leans toward hot pink in his fashion choices, is a pure, rangy athlete. The Aussie has two years on the Croat and it shows. He used his bomb serve to beat Andreas Seppi, a former Top 20 player, in straight sets. Coric was eventually ground down by 34-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos, who is making his U.S. Open debut.
We’ll see how it works out for these two. But one thing that amazed me while watching them side by side is how much energy teenagers can waste and not have it matter in the least. Kyrgios, as I said, was holding a dinner-party conversation while he played. Coric hit every shot with coiled intensity, breathed out loudly as he swung, and punctuated his winning points with leaps and shouts and fist-pumps. After a medical time-out, he ran at top speed back to the court—just because, I guess, he could.
Perhaps all of this extra-curricular exertion would have caught up with them in a fifth set. But none of it seemed to matter tonight. It’s good to have young people around again.
“Yes, this is exactly what I think I have to reassess. I had great lead-ups to every Grand Slam. I played a lot of matches and won a lot of matches. And big matches, as well. At the Grand Slams I just haven’t performed well.”
Yesterday I wrote about how sometimes a player will quash the narrative you've constructed around them in a matter of seconds. My case in point was Agnieszka Radwanska, who shot down the popular idea that her losses in Grand Slam semis the last two years have had a profoundly negative effect on her career.
Today the opposite happened. Ana Ivanovic acknowledged what has become the most obvious peculiarity of her season: Her strong record outside of the Slams, and her mediocre one in them.
Ivanovic lost in two sets to Karolina Pliskova this morning on Armstrong. The result isn’t a total shock; Pliskova is in the Top 50, and the wind made things tough and unpredictable. It’s also the third straight early exit for Ana at a major. As usual, though, she came to the interview room with a game smile and tried her best to tell us what went wrong.
Q: Have you felt different on court at the Slams?
A: You know, I do put a lot of expectations on myself. You know, I tried to, yeah, to overanalyze and overthink instead of just playing the game.
I think that are lots of exercises to try to stop [over thinking]. I think I have done that really well. I changed a lot in that manner. But you know, still sometimes when I want it too much, then I go back to those patterns.
Ivanovic knows her psychological patterns; now she just has to find a way to break them. If that doesn’t sound easy, that's because it isn’t, especially when she only has four chances to do it at the majors each year. But Ana's battle against over-thinking have been going on for a long time. Four years ago, I wouldn’t have put money on her making it back to the Top 15, yet she has. She'll break her Slam pattern someday.
See Friday’s Order of Play here.
Venus Williams vs. Sara Errani
Venus, unfortunately, usually slows down at some point during a Slam, but judging by her history with Errani, she can afford to be at something less than her best. They’ve played three matches and six sets, and the Italian has yet to win more than three games in any of them. Winner: Williams
Jerzy Janowicz vs. Kevin Anderson
It’s not often that these two 6'8" towers meet someone who’s their own size, but that’s what they’ll be facing Friday. Anderson won their only meeting, on clay last year, but Janowicz has been showing signs of recovering from a season-long slump. Winner: Janowicz
Angelique Kerber vs. Belinda Bencic
Before CiCi Bellis, 17-year-old Belinda Bencic was the WTA’s teen phenom of the year. She cooled off this summer, but remains a talent waiting for a breakout. Kerber isn’t the most likely opponent for it to happen against, though; the No. 6 seed, who has a good shot at the semis, makes you earn everything you get. Winner: Kerber
Dominic Thiem vs. Ernests Gulbis
These two are buddies and training partners in Germany; Thiem has even taken the dangerous step of allowing himself to be mentored by Ernie. Thiem has game, but so does Gulbis, and he finally looks ready to leave the French Open hangover behind. He won their only meeting, two years ago in Winston-Salem. Winner: Gulbis
Bernard Tomic vs. David Ferrer
Here have one of the great contrasts in tennis—the grinder vs. the un-grinder. It should be interesting to see Bernie in Ashe Stadium again, and to see if he can throw off the single-minded Ferrer with his tricks. Not too surprisingly, Ferrer has both of their previous matches. Winner: Ferrer
Roger Federer vs. Sam Groth
Federer said what he expects from the flame-throwing Aussie—“big serves”—and that’s surely what he’ll get. These two have never played. Groth is ranked 104th. Winner: Federer
Maria Sharapova vs. Sabine Lisicki
There will be bombs going off late in Ashe, as these two take the court for the second match. Sharapova has won five of their six previous meetings; Lisicki’s lone victory came at Wimbledon two years ago. Maria is money at night here, but she hasn’t made anything easy on herself lately. Winner: Sharapova