First Ball In, 9/1: Lost, and Found, in Ashe
“I looked up and I was lost out there.”
NEW YORK—That was how Aleksandra Krunic, with a dramatic roll of her head, described her reaction when she warmed up for the first time in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday. Krunic is 5’4” and Ashe is...a lot taller than 5’4”, so you could understand its dizzying effect on the 21-year-old Serb.
Three games into her match with Victoria Azarenka, Krunic, who is ranked No. 145 and had played just one round at a Grand Slam before this tournament, was still very much at sea. She could hardly put a ball in the court, and appeared to have trouble keeping her feet in working order.
“In first three games,” Krunic said, “I really felt I’m so nervous I cannot hit the ball.”
Azarenka, seven inches taller, looked like a player from a different age group or weight class. It seemed that the Krunic magic, which had swept her through the first week of the Open, was coming to its inevitable end, and that we would finally get an idea of why she’s ranked where she is.
We're still wondering.
“The first goal,” Krunic said, “was to let it all go and first of all accept that, OK, I’m nervous, but go on and hit the ball, and [the nerves are] going to go away."
I don’t think Krunic, who says she has been discovering new things about herself every day at this tournament, had any idea how quickly those nerves would vanish. By the end of the fourth game, she had her entire arsenal of shots back at her command. And it’s quite an arsenal. Krunic has more strokes and ploys and changes of pace than most players in the Top 20. She can also smack a serve 117 M.P.H., which may or may not be an all-time record for someone 5’5”.
From the baseline, Krunic caught Azarenka flat-footed by looping a ball deep, slicing the next one short, and then suddenly adding 15 miles an hour to her forehand. Other times, she carved under a backhand drop shot, and passed or lobbed Vika with the next ball. On one of those points, in the middle of the first set, Krunic even faked Azarenka out by changing from a pass to a lob in mid-swing. By that stage, the crowd was fully behind her. Every leaping Krunic forehand sent an “Ooooo” and of surprise through the audience. Aleksandra was lost on Ashe no more; the tennis audience around the world had found her.
“You know, I don’t know my limits,” Krunic had said after beating Petra Kvitova on Saturday. “Today I think I pushed myself to my total limits.”
Monday night, in a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 defeat, she pushed beyond those limits and ran up against some new ones. In the second set, Azarenka began to find the corners with her ground strokes and move Krunic off the court with her serve. But Krunic also learned something about the limits of her own game, at least as it stands at the moment. Too many times in big moments she chose the finesse shot, the touch shot, the tricky shot. She went with a difficult lob or drop or angle, when a simple, powerful drive would have served her best.
Always looking to learn, and seemingly quick on the uptake, Krunic understood what she had done wrong by the time she reached the interview room.
“I know everybody can hit forehand or backhand or serve,” she said. “It’s more about how you get it all together. Especially the important moments like today. You know, that’s why Vika is twice a Grand Slam champion. Because she doesn’t play the drop shot when it’s deuce. I have to work on myself...I let my emotions [rule] a little bit more today in the important points instead of really being disciplined.”
As for Vika, this will go down as a hard-earned but never pretty W. She found her dominant groove only late in the second set and then lost it again in the third; she finished with 40 errors against just 23 winners, three fewer than Krunic. But Azarenka was her old boiling, battling self, and she even provided some a little extra entertainment along the way.
In the third set, after one of her shots dribbled over the net and gave her the crucial break of serve, Vika made one the great “Oops, I’m sorry,” faces in tennis history. And when the match was over and she had to speak to the fans who had cheered for her opponent all night, Vika managed to force them, grumbling all the way, to listen to her attempt to sing “Happy Birthday” to her friend Gael Monfils, who was watching on TV. Few will be able to unhear what came next.
They do say that revenge is best served cold.
"I just generally didn't feel good."
Genie Bouchard could have been forgiven if she thought she had stumbled into a nightmare here on Tuesday. Instead of playing in her beloved, glamorous Ashe Stadium, she had been exiled to creaky, noisy old Armstrong. Instead of playing under the lights at night, she was staggering through a monumentally muggy late-summer afternoon. And, worst of all, across the net there was a woman who bore more than a passing resemblance to the one who had steamrolled her in the Wimbledon final two month ago. Was Genie delirious? As a matter of fact, Bouchard did have a few woozy moments out there in the second set.
“I was feeling very light-headed and dizzy on the court,” said Bouchard, who needed an extra hour or so of recuperation before her post-match press conference. “Just seeing things a little blurry on court.”
Bouchard took a medical timeout with Makarova up a set, but nothing was going to change the outcome of this one, which the Russian ended up winning 7-6 (2), 6-4. In fact, Makarova welcomed the break.
“I thought, ‘Thanks’,” Makarova said with a smile, “because I was also tired. It was really help for me because I had some time to recover and also to use some ice bags. It was actually kind of a good medical timeout.”
Makarova won in straight sets the last time these two played, in Washington, D.C., last summer. Like her fellow-lefty Petra Kvitova, she was able to use her crosscourt backhand today to open the court against Bouchard. Makarova was most impressive in the clutch. She ended the first-set tiebreaker with a flurry of winners, and after letting Bouchard break back for 4-4 in the second, she closed with her best stuff again.
At No. 18, Makarova is ranked 10 spots below Bouchard, but anyone who has been watching this summer won’t be surprised by this result. While Genie made the Wimbledon final, Makarova reached the quarters, and followed with making the semis in D.C. and Montreal. With quarterfinal appearances at three of the four majors, she may qualify as the game’s most underrated player. Makarova seems to lie in wait before springing her best tennis, and her tricky lefty angles, on unsuspecting seeds—including Serena Williams at the Australian Open in 2012—at the majors.
“Maybe I have more motivation in Grand Slams,” she said when asked about her success at these events, “and it’s different for me like for everyone, I think? Sometimes maybe on the smaller tournament I don’t have that motivation or, you know, that feeling that I have in the Grand Slam.”
As for Bouchard, she had her chances, but was unable to capitalize. She was two of 10 on break points, and this time a better opponent made her pay for her up-and-down play; Bouchard hit 21 winners but made 31 errors, and spent much of her time chasing balls side to side rather than pushing forward the way she likes. She’ll never be a player who can hit herself out of trouble with one shot. And as she said today, the Open never seemed hers to win.
“I didn’t have the highest expectations from myself for this tournament,” Bouchard said. “Since Wimbledon, it’s been a little bit of a struggle with nagging injuries.”
Makarova was asked at the end of her press conference whether she wishes she received the kind of media and fan attention that Bouchard does. No, was the short answer.
“I think I prefer to stay in the shade,” she said with a smile.
Has her shyness crossed over onto the tennis court? Does Makarova, who we know can beat anyone, have the ambition that’s usually a prerequisite of a Grand Slam champion? We’ll know a little better after this week. A few more wins and she may not have a choice but to come out of her hiding place.
See Tuesday’s Order of Play here.
Things slow down considerably after the long weekend, as the women begin the quarterfinals and the men finish the fourth round. Just a few days ago, there were singles matches all over the grounds. Now they’re down to Ashe and Armstrong.
Shaui Peng vs. Belinda Bencic
It’s hard to say which of these two quaterfinalists is more unlikely. The 17-year-old Bencic is ranked No. 58 and playing her first U.S. Open; the 28-year-old Peng has been on tour for a decade and has never reached a Slam quarter before. But there’s no denying they’ve been sharp at Flushing Meadows. One player is young, but neither has much experience in the second week of a Slam. Winner: Bencic
Marin Cilic vs. Gilles Simon
What can Simon do to top his four-set grind down of David Ferrer? If you go by his head-to-head with Cilic, he shouldn’t have to do nearly as much. Simon is 4-0. But none of those matches have ended in straight sets, and their second-rounder in Melbourne this year went the full five. Winner: Simon
Grigor Dimitrov vs. Gael Monfils
The Frenchman said he would request Armstrong for this one—it was a nice idea, but the Open has put the day’s showtime special in Ashe. Monfils has been weirdly focused so far at Flushing Meadows, winning all nine sets he’s played. And he beat Dimitrov when they played here three years ago. But that was a different, much greener Dimitrov from the confident one he’ll face on Tuesday. Having already come back from an 0-6 first set should help keep the Bulgarian calm in the face of any Monfilsian theatrics. Winner: Dimitrov
Tomas Berdych vs. Dominic Thiem
This battle of the blasters will be another rookie-veteran affair. Thiem is making his U.S. Open debut, while Berdych wil be trying to avoid his second straight round-of-16 defeat here. The two have never played, and while I think someday Thiem will reach the same ranking heights as Berdych, I don’t think he’ll be quite ready to match him yet. Winner: Berdych
Roger Federer vs. Roberto Bautista Agut
It can’t be easy to play Federer for the first time, let alone have to do it in a night session at the Open. But that’s what the 19th-ranked Spaniard will do Tuesday evening. Bautista Agut can certainly play, but it would be a triumph of sorts if he simply matched his countryman Marcel Granollers and took a set. Winner: Federer
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sara Errani
We have the showtime special and the battle of the blasters earlier, but the night will close with some combat between counterpunchers combat. Errani and Wozniacki are tenacious defenders who give you everything they have competitively. Each has had a signature win over a big hitter here, Errani over Venus Williams and Wozniacki over Maria Sharapova. In their own matches against each other, the Dane and the Italian are 1-1. Sunday was Wozniacki’s moment; will it give her more confidence, or leave her feeling let down? Winner: Wozniacki
All full-width photos by Anita Aguilar.