First Ball In, 9/4: Midnight Runaround
“At times, the tennis was not so nice.”
NEW YORK—That was Novak Djokovic’s assessment of his 7-6 (1), 6-7 (1), 6-2, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Andy Murray on Thursday night. As usual, their 21st match-up went on long enough to have its share of ups and downs, sprints and lulls—it went, as Djokovic said, from the very nice to the not so nice. And its shifts came in three distinct phases.
The first could be termed the, “Is this ever going to end”? phase. The match began at 9:30 P.M., and after 22 minutes, the two had played three games. Not that anyone was surprised. Murray-Djokovic play three-hour affairs, minimum. For a brief moment, as they wound their way through 25-shot rallies and left each other huffing and puffing before the first set was over, it seemed that they might challenge the all-time record for finishing times at the Open, 2:26 A.M. This type of tennis was, to be honest, what even the most patient tennis fans have never loved about this rivalry—seemingly endless rallies ending, inevitably, in an error, because neither could get the ball past the other.
Stage II, thankfully, kicked in before the first set ended. As each player settled in, their shots picked up speed and accuracy, and they began to pull each other up, back, and side to side at top speed. With Murray serving at 3-4, Djokovic won a 29-shot rally and flapped his arms to bring the crowd to its feet. On the next point, Murray fired a backhand winner and flapped his own arms in response.
The battle had been joined, and it was a very good one for the next set and a half. Murray was especially good: He began to slap his forehand crosscourt, connecting on it cleanly enough to put it past Djokovic numerous times—no easy feat. Has Murray ever hit it so well? He finished with 46 winners. For his part, Djokovic struggled to maintain the initiative when he had the lead. Three times he grew tentative and gave a service break back.
"For some reason," Djokovic said, "I let him come back into the match."
Stage III began when Djokovic finally managed to hold after he had earned a lead. Up 3-1 in the third set, he faced two break points, but Murray sent a backhand long and ended a 27-shot rally by putting a forehand into the net. Murray yelled “Gone!” (mysteriously) at his camp, and Djokovic roared in response. When he held for 4-1, he finally seemed to relax.
"I get the feeling," Djokovic said of playing Murray, "that if I stay with him and kind of work, work, and not get too loose and too frustrated with points, and not let him get into a big lead, I feel like there's a point where I have the edge, maybe physically. That's what I try to focus on, and it paid off tonight."
The 27-shot rally was that point tonight; Murray never recovered from it. Stage III was marked by his physical decline. First the stamina went—“Nothing in my legs!” Murray yelled—and then the back and hips stiffened up.
Still, Djokovic again struggled to put the hammer down when he had the chance; he appeared to be waiting for Murray to miss. Serving at 4-5, Murray did miss, with his forehand, three times into the net. Djokovic, in a modest three hours and 32 minutes, and at the surprisingly reasonable hour of 1:00 A.M., had advanced to his eighth straight U.S. Open semifinal. That, he would have to admit, is a pretty nice run.
Q: I assume that you heard at the end of the match they played the music for the Macarena. Do you say Makarova or Makarova?
As far as reading a press-conference transcript goes, this particular back and forth doesn’t rank among the most useful. But it did bring up an interesting point. If you’re DJ-ing an Ekaterina Makarova match, and the chair umpire is pronouncing her name mu-CAR-uh-va, can you still play "The Macarena" if she wins?
That was the dilemma the DJ faced in Ashe Stadium on Wednesday, when Makarova beat Victoria Azarenka with surprising ease, 6-4, 6-2. At 26, she’s reached her first Grand Slam semifinal, a result that was a long time coming. She had made the quarters of three of the four majors, and was at the top of the list of best players, on either tour, never to make a final four. Makarova herself was more than ready to lose that dubious distinction.
“It’s not hit me yet, I think,” she said afterward. “Of course, I’m happy that I came through, finally through the quarters and I’m in semis now.”
“I played [the quarterfinals] in Wimbledon,” she continued, “and I really believed that at U.S. Open I can do my best result. I felt that I’m ready, you know, and believe in myself. I was feeling that I can do more than quarter.”
It’s about time: As the New York Times' Chris Clarey noted today, this is a woman who has now beaten, in the last three years, Venus and Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Sara Errani, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Genie Bouchard, Angelique Kerber, and Azarenka. Not a bad Top 10 haul for a woman who has only now, a decade after turning pro, reached a career-high No. 18. Makarova is a woman who, as she says, prefers to “stay in the shade,” but she could only hide her talents for so long.
What was different this time, aside from that glacially gestating belief in herself? From the baseline, Makarova did something that was once drilled into young player’s heads, but which you don’t hear mentioned very often these days: She kept the ball deep. She put her returns, especially from the backhand side, at Azarenka’s feet, and pushed her back during rallies. While Vika is typically the bigger hitter, Makarova finished with 23 winners to Azarenka’s 22.
And with her serve, Makarova made a weakness into a strength by using her lefty hook as effectively as I’ve seen.
“She did serve really well,” Azarenka said, “especially in the important moments. I think it gave her a lot of opportunities.”
As for Vika, there was word afterward that she had suffered from food poisoning the previous day and couldn’t practice.
“I feel like I tried my best with whatever I had,” she said.
Her best on this day was one good shot followed by two bad ones. Azarenka has obviously made progress in her comeback since her early exit at Wimbledon, but her point-to-point intensity, which is off the charts when she’s at her best, isn’t anywhere close to what has been in the past.
“Yeah, he’s helping me mental, too. Very strong mental he has. You know, he’s telling me a lot of things to, I don’t know, stay focused in the match and never get frustrated too much and always pump up yourself.”
If there’s one thing a celebrity knows, it’s himself. If there’s one thing a celebrity tennis coach knows, it’s what he or she did well. Ivan Lendl made Andy Murray’s forehand a weapon. Stefan Edberg is helping Roger Federer to volley. Goran Ivanisevic has Marin Cilic serving better. What has Michael Chang done for Kei Nishikori? What else? He’s made him mentally stronger, and, at this U.S. Open, a five-set warrior.
On Wednesday, Nishikori beat Stan Wawrinka, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (5), 6-4, in four hours and 15 minutes. This came two days after he had beaten Milos Raonic, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4, in a match that ended at 2:26 in the morning. Kei has always been a fragile player physically. Has Chang, the king of comebacks, fifth sets, and never giving in, changed him into something new?
“Him and Dante is working me very hard and a lot of practice on the court and couple things to change my tennis,” Nishikori said. “You know, a little more aggressive than before and stepping in. A little bit minor change, but it’s working well.”
Nishikori was certainly impressive, from a physical standpoint, against Wawrinka. His smoothness masks how hard he works in rallies. At just 5’10” he spends a lot of his hitting time in the air.
At times this match was a battle of the backhands, with Stan detonating his one-hander down the line and Kei crunching his two-hander to either corner. The two reached a peak of power in the second-set tiebreaker—Stan took the racquet out of Kei’s hand with one his heavy drives. But despite generating its usual share of oohs and aahs, from the crowd in the stadium and on Twitter, Wawrinka’s backhand lost this battle. He finished with 37 errors from that side; Kei’s backhand, while it was never praised as an oil painting, only misfired 20 times.
See Thursday’s Order of Play here.
Tomas Berdych vs. Marin Cilic
This is a tough call. Berdych leads their head to head 5-3, but Cilic won their last match, at Wimbledon, in straight sets. Cilic is having one of the best seasons of his career, and just recorded his first win in five tries over Gilles Simon. Berdych has been slumping, but he was in top form in his last match, an imperious win over Dominic Thiem. Is it back to the norm, which would mean a Berdych win? Or is it time for something new, which would mean a Cilic win? Winner: Berdych
Roger Federer vs. Gael Monfils
Federer says it’s always “hard” against Monfils, and while he leads their career series 7-2, the last four times they’ve played have indeed been tough. Each man has two wins, and three of the matches have gone the distance. Federer came out on top in their last meeting, a month ago in Cincinnati, 6-3 in the third set. In that one, Monfils was his usual self, drifting in and out of the match with each set. So far at the Open, the Frenchman hasn’t been so flaky. I can imagine the two players splitting sets in this one, and the decisive moment coming in a third-set tiebreaker. Some of us have wondered what tennis would have been like if Monfils, instead of being a showman, had been a Federer-esque champion. Here’s his chance to show us. Winner: Federer