First Ball In, 8/30: Three Times Unlucky

Saturday, August 30, 2014 /by
John Isner lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round of the U.S. Open for the third consecutive year. (AP Photo; rest by Anita Aguilar)
John Isner lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round of the U.S. Open for the third consecutive year. (AP Photo; rest by Anita Aguilar)

“He’s a big guy, I try to move him around.”

NEW YORK—This was all Philipp Kohlschreiber could come up with when he was asked how he had just beaten John Isner for the third straight year at the U.S. Open. It must be hard for Kohlschreiber to know exactly why he keeps beating Isner here. Whatever he does at the Open, it doesn’t work anywhere else: He’s 0-4 against the big man outside of Flushing Meadows, 3-0 inside it. 

But this has been the way of Isner’s career: Everything changes—i.e., gets much worse—when he moves from best-of-three to best-of-five. All of his wins over Kohlschreiber have come in the the shorter format; all of his losses in the longer one. 

Isner has struggled at Slams in the past because he’s run out of gas after playing a long match. But one thing he has done one well across the board, in any format, is play tiebreakers. He had won nearly 70 percent of them over the last 12 months, while Kohlschreiber had won less than 50 percent. Yet Kohlschreiber won all three breakers they played today. Isner says he typically relaxes when he gets to a breaker; his serve is always there for him. But today, in front of an Open crowd that he has long struggled to deliver for, that wasn’t the case. The No. 1 American double-faulted twice in one tiebreaker, and when he tried a surprise serve-and-volley foray at 4-4 in the final breaker, he was passed. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong play: Isner served-and-volleyed four other times during the match and won each point. 

Isner said he wasn’t as disappointed in losing the tiebreakers as he was in having to play three of them in the first place. He converted on just one of 12 break points in the 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) loss.

“I had my chances,” he said with a shake of his head later. “I put pressure on myself, and you want to do well for that fantastic crowd. He beat me fair and square obviously, but I gotta be better than that.”

Credit Kohlschreiber, as Isner said, for “beating me three times in a row here.” The German, who is a full foot shorter than the American, once again played bigger than his big opponent when it mattered. He won four fewer points than Isner, was 0 for 5 on break points, and survived 42 aces in four sets. Kohlschreiber countered with 55 winners of his own, without the benefit of a rocket serve, and he had the answer to every surge from Isner and roar from the crowd. For Kohlschreiber, it came down to one shot.

“The last [tiebreaker],” he said, “I made just one return. I think he made four aces or five. Yeah, what should I say? I was guessing in the right moment, right time.”

Only against John Isner can you be aced 42 times, make one return, and win a match.

“It’s annoying,” Isner said, understandably, in summation.

***** 

“I thought we needed to put on a show for you guys.”

Genie Bouchard says she’s “never felt anything like” playing in front of a night crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium. She certainly seems to like being out there. For the second straight round, she went the distance before pulling through 6-4 in the third set. This time, Bouchard advanced to the fourth round by beating Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, in 2 hours and 31 minutes. 

Those were exactly the same scores of Bouchard’s last win, over Sorana Cirstea. This match wasn’t as good as that one, but the pattern of play was virtually identical. Bouchard started quickly against an opponent who seemed a little overwhelmed by the surroundings. In the second set, she hesitated just enough to give that opponent some hope. And in the third, the two scrapped back and forth, through holds and breaks, quality points and awful mistakes, before Bouchard proved to have the steadier hand when she needed it. 

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Bouchard was off-kilter for much of this one. Whether it’s her reactions, her emotions, or her shots, you never know what’s coming next from Zahlavova Strycova. She shouted something after virtually every point, whether she won or lost it. She stared at her coaches almost as often. She hurt her upper leg sliding early in the match and almost looked ready to call it a night. She played indifferently through the first set and showed little power on her forehand, before throwing herself intensely and vocally into the match and making her forehand into a weapon over the last two sets. Her game itself is also unorthodox; she’s liable at any time, even on the biggest points, to thrown in a tricky, hard to read two-handed drop shot. 

There were 11 breaks in the match, BZS was a wretched 13 of 30 at net, and each player made more errors than winners. Neither could hold onto the momentum, or their best form, for long. But Bouchard did what she’s been doing at Grand Slams all year: She stopped the rot when she needed to, and just in time to win. Genie even punctuated this win with an uncharacteristic scream of triumph. She's in a New York state of mind.

*****

“Yes, I’m very disappointing.”

These were the first words out of Petra Kvitova's mouth in her press conference after her upset loss to Aleksandra Krunic on Saturday. Was there a Freudian slip involved here? Obviously she meant to say “I’m very disappointed,” but by using “ing” instead, she ended up speaking for her fans rather than herself. 

This was a particularly disappointing performance from Kvitova, because over the last two weeks she had, perhaps for the first time in her career, done a pretty convincing impression of a future U.S. Open champ. She had won New Haven without dropping a set, and reached the third round here in the same straightforward fashion. She was even, I thought, starting to get that look, the one that stayed on her face for all two weeks at Wimbledon this year.

Today Petra went from her Wimbledon look back to the more traditional one she shows us at the U.S. Open: Red-faced, flustered, and breathing heavily, when she wasn’t trying and failing to get the ball past the speedy Krunic, she was being run ragged by her. If you didn’t know either of the players, and were asked to guess which of them was ranked 141 places higher than the other, you probably would have said Krunic. 

“She really played unbelievable tennis,” Kvitova said, “and she put a lot of balls back. Almost all of them...I didn’t really expect how she played so well. Suddenly she just pushed very hard the ball. It was just coming very quickly then, so it was really difficult. I just didn’t really have an answer for it.”

Kvitova said that the 21-year-old Krunic is Top 10 material. Based on this match, she should certainly be closer to 10 than 145, which is where she’s ranked now. At 5’5”, Krunic lacks size and heft, but she makes up for it with her whirling court coverage and well-timed ball-striking. She has a live arm, she counterpunches and changes directions well, and she can do a lot of different things with the ball. 

As a talker, Krunic is also Top 10 material in the words-per-second category. She doesn’t quite match the tumbling flow of her fellow Serb Ana Ivanovic, but Krunic probably breaks the mile-a-minute mark. She was asked today if she had any stories similar to Ivanovic’s oft-told tale of practicing in a swimming pool as a kid. Krunic didn’t. She has a sponsor who has helped get her anything she wanted, including real tennis courts to play on. What was interesting was Krunic’s observation about the negative effects of getting what you want.

“When you have everything,” she said, “yeah, it’s a big plus, but it can also be a big minus. When you have everything, you don’t know actually what you actually need. I wasn’t used to fighting for some things myself.”

Kvitova, in her own way, was just as deep in her own post-match comments.

“That’s the tennis,”’ she said philosophically, “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.”

That is the tennis, it’s true, and as her fans know, it’s the Petra, too.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Sunday’s Order of Play here.

Sara Errani vs. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

The Italian probably won’t need to shush the 11:00 A.M. crowd in Ashe. This is a match between the long and the short, but the story, of course, is Lucic-Baroni: Does she have another moment of inspiration in her? Errani won their only meeting, on clay in 2010. Winner: Lucic-Baroni

Maria Sharapova vs. Caroline Wozniacki

The answer to this match will lie on Sharapova’s racquet. If she is on her game and accurate with her lasers, she should win; if she’s not, she should lose. For a brief time, Wozniacki had the answers to Sharapova’s pace, but the Russian has won their last three matches. Can the new, unfettered, and improved Wozniacki take the iniative back? Winner: Wozniacki

Gael Monfils vs. Richard Gasquet

La Monf has tried to stir up trouble so far, but things have gone surprisingly smoothly for him—he must be disappointed. He leads his head-to-head with Gasquet, a semifinalist here last year, 6-4. When they played at the Open in 2010, Monfils was proud of how he got in Reeshard’s head and intimidated him. Winner: Monfils 

Belinda Bencic vs. Jelena Jankovic

Each has been impressive here so far, so something will have to give. The setting—Ashe at night—could make a difference: Jankovic has played many matches in the big stadium, including a final; Bencic, an Open rookie, will be making her first appearance there. The Swiss and the Serb have never faced each other. Winner: Jankovic

Grigor Dimitrov vs. David Goffin

Night-session ticket-holders might not be excited by the moderately famous names here, but they should be treated to a shot-maker’s special under the lights. Both of these young guys are light on their feet, and not afraid to let the ball fly from anywhere. And they’ve both played well this year: Dimitrov has cracked the Top 10, and Goffin recently went on a tear through the Challengers. They’ve never played an ATP match, but Dimitrov was 3-0 against Goffin when they were in the minors. Winner: Dimitrov

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