Summer Lightning

by: Steve Tignor | September 14, 2015

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NEW YORK—Sizzling heat, a crashing drone, debilitating cramps, a new roof, an arrest gone wrong, a frightening fall in the locker room, a rattling SABR, a gala sister act, a stunning upset, an even more stunning retirement: These were some of the headlines that made the 2015 U.S. Open such incident-filled entertainment over the last two weeks. Maybe in 30 years we’ll look back on it the way we look back on those free-for-all Opens from the 1970s, as a window into the wild-west days of New York’s De Blasio administration.

There was also some good tennis played at Flushing Meadows. Here’s a look at who played it well, and who played it not so well. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

*****

Novak Djokovic

“Now, actually sitting down here with this trophy and reflecting on what I have achieved, it’s quite incredible.” The world No. 1, as calm and content after his victory as he was stubborn and tense during it, said those words a few minutes after he had fended off 23,000 tennis fans, and the man he described as “the best player in history,” to win his 10th Grand Slam title. As in 2011, his previous annus mirabilis, Djokovic put an exclamation point on an historic season with a U.S. Open title, and ended what he jokingly called his “tradition” of losing finals in New York. In a career that is fast filling with dramatic, tightrope-walk victories, his win over Federer may have been his most spectacular circus act of all. He could have let the match slip innumerable times, but he never did. As it was, Djokovic remained the sole barrier to a tidal wave of tennis-fan joy in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Even in this individual sport, few have shown what a lone individual is capable of the way Djokovic has. A+

Flavia Pennetta

“I couldn’t think to finish in a better way,” Pennetta said as she announced that this would be her last U.S. Open, just a few minutes after winning it. I doubt anyone was happy with the news, but no one could argue with her. She didn’t just finish on top; she finished much farther up the mountain than she probably ever thought she would. Before last week, Pennetta had reached just one Grand Slam semifinal, at the Open in 2013, and just last year it seemed borderline miraculous when she won the title at Indian Wells. Pennetta said knowing this was her last Open helped her relax, and while she lost a set in her first-round match and two more along the way, she closed like a seasoned champ, pummeling Simona Halep in the semis and running away with the second set against her friend Roberta Vinic in the final.

Flavia’s win will be celebrated on tour, and her absence mourned when she stops at the end of the year. When I think of Pennetta, I think of balance: She was (and will continue to be) elegant but athletic, regal without being haughty, charismatic without being a drama queen—she gave the tour a flavor that it will miss. But we always knew that about her. Now we’ll get to remember as something even better: A champion. A+

Roberta Vinci

The shot that will stay with me longest from this year’s Open may be the backhand slice approach that Vinci carved, with such elegant forward-moving force, down the line in the final game of her semifinal against Serena Williams. Vinci, who followed that slice with a drop volley winner, said she was shaking as she tried to serve the match out. Instead of being overtaken by her nerves, as others had against Serena this season, Vinci was fueled by them. A

Mardy Fish

“I want to help people who have gone through it, and try to be a role model for people who are deep into some bad times, that they can get out of it, because I was there. They can conquer it.” Athletes are supposed to show us grace under pressure. Fish said he was here to show what weakness looks like. It felt like a breakthrough. A

Roger Federer

“Lost too many times in finals,” Federer said with a little more frustration than normal in his voice on Sunday night. The man who won his first seven Grand Slam finals has now lost five of his last seven, dating back to 2009. He’s also 2-6 in three-out-of-five-set matches against Djokovic since 2010. Federer looked like he had his doubts about this one from the start; after hearing a monumental roar go up when his name was announced in Ashe, he followed it with four forehand errors in the first game. Yet even at 34, he was able to inject some fun and controversy into the game with his SABR return—how many other great players were still innovating at his age? There’s a reason why, despite his defeat, the crowd roared as loudly as it had all night when he said, “I’ll see you next year.” A-

Serena Williams

Few people believed her when she said that winning the calendar-year Grand Slam wasn’t the be-all and end-all for her. And if she had pulled it off, she surely would have been pleased. But can a player really be disappointed in not winning five majors in a row? Who could ever imagine doing it? Only Serena. For someone who didn’t always play her best in 2015, she got close. Or, as she said, “I did win three Grand Slams this year. Yeah, I won four in a row. It’s pretty good.” Pretty great, really. A-

Simona Halep

“Fighter girl” fought: She survived a sweltering afternoon against Sabine Lisicki, and held on to win the match of the tournament over Victoria Azarenka. But she couldn’t dodge Pennetta’s bullets in the semis. The uphill battle continues, and it continues to be fun to watch. A-

The Roof

Has much-maligned Ashe Stadium just been waiting to be covered all these years? The 18-year-old arena felt new and improved with its half-finished roof structure hovering above it—somehow, perspective-wise, it made the place feel a little more intimate. If the stories of James Blake, Eugenie Bouchard and the drone brought a wild-west feel to this Open, the roof, and the atmosphere it created in Ashe, felt perfect for our moneyed moment. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but the lights were brighter and the music was louder than ever. Now we just need it to keep out the rain. A-

Marin Cilic

“Extremely great tournament,” is how the 2014 champion described his run to the semifinals. “Considering the first time having to defend a Grand Slam title, I feel that I accomplished well.” It’s true, this may have been his best result since last year’s Open. He won two five-setters and lost to the world No. 1 with a twisted ankle. Maybe he can build on it this time. B+

Venus Williams

At 35, she wasn’t all that far from winning the title. She dismissed the teen of the summer, Belinda Bencic, and dictated many of the rallies in her three-set loss to her sister. If she didn’t watch the final, she must have heard by now that Pennetta won it. If Flavia can do it, why not Venus? B+

Victoria Azarenka

It won’t be any consolation to Vika, who lost another Grand Slam heartbreaker, but no one gives better value for a ticket than she does. She now has the dubious distinction of having lost the best women’s match at the French Open (to Serena) and Wimbledon (to Serena again), and the second-best at the U.S. Open (to Halep). At least this time she won the third-best match, against Angelique Kerber. B+

Johanna Konta

While some of us were touting Belinda Bencic as the sleeper of the tournament, the 24-year-old, 97th-ranked Konta beat two Top 20 players, Garbiñe Muguruza and Andrea Petkovic, to reach the fourth round. B+

Feliciano Lopez

He made his first U.S. Open quarterfinal at age 33, and told us why he continues to thrive on tour: “When you’re old, as I am,” Feli said, “you enjoy more what you do.” B+

Kevin Anderson

From the ritz to the rubble. The 29-year-old Anderson played some of the best tennis of his career to beat Andy Murray over four hours in the fourth round. Two days later, when he lost a bagel third set to Stan Wawrinka, it looked like he still hadn’t recovered. Still, it was two steps forward, and just one step back for Big Kev. B+

Donald Young

Ten years after being touted as the next John McEnroe, Young proved he was the next...American to reach the fourth round at a Grand Slam. That may sound like a disappointment, but Young did it the hard and entertaining way, and helped create the best atmosphere at an event that had a lot of it, when he came back from two sets down to win what will likely be the last men’s singles match on the Grandstand. “It was 90 percent you guys, 10 percent me,” he told the rowdy Labor Day weekend crowd when it was over. DY, who had never made a comeback like that in his decade as a pro, matured as a player for these two weeks, and he did as a person as well. B+

Petra Cetkovska

The 30-year-old Czech rose to the night-match occasion when she saved four match points, with four winners, to beat Caroline Wozniacki. Cetkovska’s roll continued through a 6-1 first set against Pennetta in the next round. Fortunately for Flavia, that’s where it ended. B+

Eugenie Bouchard

The calamity of the fortnight. Before Bouchard slipped and suffered a concussion, she really did look like she was back to her old fighting form, and her draw looked clear to the semifinals. Even worse, the woman she defaulted to, Vinci, went all the way to the final. For now, we can only hope Genie is OK physically, let alone ready to continue her comeback. B+

Fabio Fognini

He played perhaps the most jaw-dropping tennis of the two weeks to beat Rafael Nadal, and he was still around to take a selfie inside Ashe as his girlfriend, Flavia Pennetta, won the title and announced her retirement. What more can the Fog man ask? B

Stan Wawrinka

He reached his third Grand Slam semifinal of 2015, which shows that sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks. Then, in the semis, he let himself be rattled by Federer’s SABR and went away quickly, which shows that sometimes you can’t. B

Lleyton Hewitt

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate exit. Rusty lost in the way he has lost so often in recent years. He fought all the way until he finally had a lead, and then he let the lead slip. Hewitt began his career in the 1990s as a rebel who was hard to love. He ended it as a respected elder statesman, a fan favorite, and the most human of players, all without ever really changing or trying to be anyone but himself. B

Benoit Paire

He beat Nishikori. He crushed Robredo. But just when we were beginning to wonder who this fabulous new Frenchman was, he reverted to form. Against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round, Paire banged his racquet twice; when he was warned by chair umpire Mohammad Lahyani, Paire protested that it was unfair, because “no one saw" him do it. B

Petra Kvitova

Kvitova’s collapse was Pennetta’s gain: The Czech led the Italian by a set and 3-1 in the second, but succumbed to the heat. Just when it looked like Petra had learned to love New York, she had to leave. B-

Andy Murray

It was destiny: Murray had reached 19 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals; his opponent, Anderson, had lost seven straight fourth-round matches at majors. Both streaks had to end eventually, so why not kill both birds with one stone? Murray was on his heels in that match, but it was a rare slip in an otherwise consistent season. And he fought like a madman. B-

Bernard Tomic

He hung in long enough to send his pal Hewitt out of the Open for the last time. Then he came back two days later and threw in the towel against Richard Gasquet. He was probably gassed, yes, but did he have to grin about it at the end? C+

Rafael Nadal

It seemed prudent, as the season went along, to reserve judgment on Rafa’s mediocre play. Over the last 10 years, his valleys have always been followed by another peak. Now that the four majors have been played and he failed to reach the semifinals of any of them, it’s clear this is a dip unlike the others. Watching him lose a two-set lead against Fognini, fight to come back in the fifth, and lose it again in the end, I was reminded of Hewitt’s struggles in recent years—Rafa doesn’t want to go down that road. He used to be a master at winning the points he needed to win. He couldn't come up with any of them against Fognini. C+

Garbiñe Muguruza

This star keeps being not quite born. After losing to Konta in the second round, she’s 1-3 since reaching the Wimbledon final. C

Nick Kyrgios

The man who beat him described the young Aussie’s issues—the on-court ones, that is—best: “Just sort of 5- or 10-minute periods in the match,” Murray said after their first-round match, “it happens a little bit too often, where he has dips, misses a few serves, like gets distracted or loses concentration.” Were you happy that Kyrgios's jabbering energy was mostly absent the last two weeks? Or did you miss having a villain in the drama? I can’t decide myself. C

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