First Ball In, 9/2: New York Marathoners

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Shuai Peng reached her first career Grand Slam semifinal with a lopsided win over Belinda Bencic. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

“It’s a little bit too exciting.”

NEW YORK—Shuai Peng had to turn away from the on-court interviewer. He had just reminded her that, after 37 tries, she had reached her first Grand Slam semifinal. When she turned around again, there were tears in her eyes. We knew then that Peng wasn't going to react to these situations quite like her countrywoman Li Na. Where Li is always dryly funny, Peng was sincere and emotional. She was almost whispering.

Which may have come as a surprise to anyone who has been following her lethal progress for the last nine days at the U.S. Open. The 28-year-old Peng, a pro since 2001, has been as dominant as anyone in either draw here. She hasn’t lost more than four games in any of the 10 sets she’s played, and she’s knocked off two seeds, Agnieszka Radwanska and Lucie Safarova. Peng has done it by attacking and going after the ball relentlessly. She uses two hands on both sides, which gives her style a simple, but not brutal, sense of efficiency and positive energy, and allows her to create extreme cross-court angles.

“Maybe before in matches I was like tight or nervous, afraid to play,” Peng explained when asked why she was having this success now. “But for this time, this moment, I feel myself was quite OK.”

Peng answered the expected questions about playing in the shadows of Li, about resolving an old dispute with the Chinese government over the direction of her career, and about the moments she almost quit the game in the past—something Li has talked about numerous times as well. 

Peng didn’t talk specifically about how Li, a two-time Grand Slam champion, had inspired her, but tennis is filled with examples like this one—of indirect, maybe unconscious, inspiration. It’s happened in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. Someone sees a player do something, and starts to think it’s not impossible for them to do it, too.

Now the U.S. men just need someone like that.


“One goal we set out was to make at least the semifinals of a Slam this year, when we sat down at the beginning of December and talked. So I got that aspect.”

Milos Raonic was talking about the goals he had set for his Grand Slam season in 2014. That season is over now, and he can look back with some satisfaction on the fact that he met objective by reaching the Wimbledon semis. Only one other young player, Grigor Dimitrov, matched him in that respect. Raonic has, if anything, been even better outside the majors this year: He’s reached at least the quarterfinals at 10 events, and has his ranking at a career-high No. 6.

Yet there’s still a question about whether the 23-year-old is destined to be a champion, or another player who can hit the big serves but can’t quite win the big events—that’s traditionally been the way it has worked for tennis’ ace machines. Raonic, despite his rarefied ranking, struggles against his peers, the guys with the good returns. Over the last two years, he’s 3-15 against his fellow Top 10 players, and 1-6 in 2014. During his one title run this year, in D.C., Raonic didn’t face anyone in the Top 35. 

In his wee hour, five-set marathon with Kei Nishikori, I got the sense that Raonic thought he had the match won in the fourth set. He had just won a tiebreaker, and Nishikori looked beat up. But Kei got better, and Milos didn’t.


“Overall I improved my game and I learned actually to play with my sort of new style. I’m serving a bit better than what I used to a couple of years ago.”

When Marin Cilic was pressed to explain what his “new style” was, he smiled and said, “I mean, no new style, but just a little bit different. I’m serving much better.”

That is a good idea for how to improve: Hit your serve better. Why didn’t the rest of us think of that?

Yet emphasizing the serve makes sense for Cilic. His coach, after all, is his fellow Croat, Goran Ivanisevic, perhaps the greatest ace machine of all, and one of the few to go all the way at a major. Getting Cilic to play a little bigger, without changing the rest of his game, would be a smart, realistic improvement strategy. Cilic says he feels like it’s working, and he had proof of it today. In four hours and 13 minutes, he beat Gilles Simon for the first time in five tries, and reached his first back-to-back quarterfinals at Grand Slams since 2009-2010. 


OOP Analysis

See Wednesday’s Order of Play here.

Donald Young/Taylor Townsend vs. Abigail Spears/Santiago Gonzalez

The day in Ashe will start with two African-American lefties trying to reach the mixed doubles final.

Victoria Azarenka vs. Ekaterina Makarova

I’m curious about this one, which leads off the singles in Ashe. Azarenka leads their head to head 3-2, and has won both of their matches on hard courts. But even Vika said that Makarova is a tricky opponent who “reads the game well.” Makarova has made herself a consistent quarterfinalist at the majors; at 26, can she make herself into something more? Winner: Azarenka

Stan Wawrinka vs. Kei Nishikori

These two have played twice, and Wawrinka has won both matches, one on hard courts and one on clay, in routine fashion. It also likely won’t help Nishikori, who has never been a physically robust player, that his last match ended at 2:26 in the morning. Wawrinka reached the semis here last year, and in hitting 75 winners against Tommy Robredo, he showed signs of transforming back into the Stanimal just in time to do it again. Winner: Wawrinka

Serena Williams vs. Flavia Pennetta

These two over-30s have played five times, and Serena has dropped a total of one set. And that was back in 2008. Three weeks ago in Cincy, the American took care of the Italian, 6-2, 6-2. Pennetta can’t hit with Serena, and she can’t grind with her. She can't even trick her. Winner: Williams

Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray

There won’t be any secrets between these two, who have been facing off since before they were teenagers. Djokovic leads 12-8 in their professional head-to-head, and he won their only match this year, in Miami, in straight sets. But Murray has turned the tables on him several times in big matches, including the final here in 2012 and the Wimbledon final in 2013. In his last round, Murray, due for a big result, played some of his best tennis of the year. Djokovic, meanwhile, seems to have put his Wimbledon/wedding hangover behind him—he’s won all 12 sets he’s played at the Open. On balance, all things considered, he’s the better player, and there’s no extenuating reason that should be different tomorrow. Winner: Djokovic

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