by Michael Mewshaw
And so another season ends, for once with a punctuation point rather than a whimper. It was the often maligned Davis Cup tie which provided 2014 with a fitting conclusion. What began with Stan Wawrinka’s breakthrough win at the Australian Open, neared the end with him getting Switzerland off to a 1-0 lead over France. Then, after Roger Federer was blown off the court by a rampant Gaël Monfils, Stan helped to right the ship and win the crucial doubles rubber. This put Roger in a position to acquire the one jewel missing from his crown. On Sunday, he imperiously dismissed Richard Gasquet for his first Davis Cup title, and moreover, Switzerland’s first in its 114 years of competition.
The delight this spread surely exceeded the frontiers of his tiny landlocked nation. Given the enormous letdown of the ATP World Tour Finals, perhaps “relief” is a better descriptor than “delight.” Only a cynic could take pleasure in the debacle sponsored by Barclays in London. After slogging through half a dozen tournaments to qualify for the event, homeboy Andy Murray fell into a swoon, surrendering meekly to Kei Nishikori, then barely escaping a double bagel against Federer. With local interest nosediving, who would have imagined worse lay ahead?
Djokovic dispatched Nishikori in one semi while Federer hung on in the other to beat his fellow countryman and Davis Cup partner, Wawrinka, in three hotly contested sets. The heat boiled over afterward in the locker room when Stan objected to what he saw as excessive celebrating in Federer’s box. For tennis historians, it’s significant that news of this fracas reached the public via, of all people, John McEnroe, who during his career frequently referred to reporters as “scumbags” who kept their ears pressed to the locker room door. He was especially vituperative at Wimbledon in 1982, when reporters asked after his defeat by Jimmy Connors in the final whether his previous day’s shouting match with Steve Denton had anything to do with the loss. Oh well, what goes around comes around.
Speaking of which, Johnny Mac is now a permanent fixture on the tour who both comes around and goes around more than almost anyone else. At that same 1982 Wimbledon, when asked what he thought of Billie Jean King still playing at the age of 38, McEnroe snarled, “By the time I’m that age I’ll be far, far away from tennis.” Instead, he’s locked in a Laocoön embrace with the game and one has to admit that it would be greatly diminished without him.
There he was at the ATP World Tour Finals, shape-changing from a journalist into a competitor and playing a doubles exhibition with Murray against Pat Cash and Tim Henman after the thunderous anti-climax of Federer’s last-minute default in the singles final. It must be said that the doubles exo managed—and this isn’t saying much—to be more exciting than the pro set between Djokovic and Murray, during which Andy once again played like a man with a severe vitamin deficiency.
Then the show moved across the Channel to Lilles, France, where a clay court was installed in an indoor arena. As Christopher Clarey pointed out in the international edition of the New York Times, all of the players on the French Davis Cup team—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Monfils, Julien Benneteau, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon—are Swiss residents. So in effect this was less a match between nations than between Swiss cantons. Actually, some wags observed that Federer didn’t appear to be playing for Switzerland at all, but rather for Nike. He was the only player whose nationality wasn’t stenciled on the back of his shirt. Contractual obligations once again appear to have trumped tradition.
But apart from that and the blowout against Monfils, Roger came through the tie in fine form, and his victory in doubles with Wawrinka raised an interesting question. Writer Gianni Clerici wrote that doubles matches at the ATP World Tour Finals were something of an afterthought, and he pointed out in La Republica that none of the specialists had a singles ranking that would raise them above obscure mediocrity. Boundlessly energetic and entertaining as the Bryan brothers are, one has to wonder how they would fare against top players, should the stars ever deign to play doubles the way that John Newcombe and Tony Roche, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, McEnroe and Connors, once did.
But as the fellows in the top 10 endlessly repeat, the season is already too long and arduous. They have to conserve their strength, and in the next six weeks, free from tournament obligations, they’ll kick back and…no, not rest, not recuperate, they’ll go off and play exhibition matches. Thus the men’s circuit moves on, a snake endlessly eating its own tail.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books, among them Short Circuit, now available as an e-book.
By Bill Simons
GOING BIBLICAL: Jon Wertheim said, “[Kimiko] Date-Krumm is so old, if she mentions having played mixed doubles with Noah, she’s not talking about Yannick.”
IS IT ‘GRUNT THEN HIT,’ OR ‘HIT THEN GRUNT’? On Letterman, Marin Cilic offered a dandy Top 10 list of the thoughts which were going through his mind as he won the US Open final. They included:
• Is it “grunt then hit,” or “hit then grunt”?
• Why doesn’t it go 15, 30, 45?
• If I win this, do I have to play Serena?
• Only 16 more titles to catch Federer.
THINK OF THE CHILDREN: Novak Djokovic’s wife Jelena Ristic gave birth to a son, Stefan.
CLINGY DOGS, SWIRLING SHARKS AND ENDANGERED DOLPHINS
• When asked about dealing with her tough injuries, Vika Azarenka told a reporter, “You’re making it sound like I almost died and there were 10 sharks and I got attacked and survived. And I saved a dolphin as well. It’s not that complicated.”
• When IT asked Serena how things were going with her dog Chip, she confided, “We need a little time apart. He’s been annoying lately. He cries … He’s talking to me and I don’t quite understand him. It’s really stressful.”
SAY IT ISN’T SO: For the third year in a row, John Isner lost in the third round of the US Open to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber … Rafa Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, was critical of the naming of a woman, Gala León, as Spain’s first female Davis Cup captain … Neil Harman, the renowned tennis writer who had been suspended on charges of extensive plagiarism in the Wimbledon yearbook, no longer works for the Times of London … Spain’s Guillermo Olaso was banned for five years for match-fixing … Alexander Dolgopolov made a string of negative remarks about gays on Instagram and Twitter.
OUT OF OBSCURITY (OR SEMI-OBSCURITY): No other recent tourney has spotlighted more obscure or semi-obscure players than the US Open: think teen CiCi Bellis, Russia’s semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, China’s semifinalist Shuai Peng, Croat Mirjana Lucic Baroni and Serbian Aleksandra Krunic. Even the men’s finalists Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori weren’t exactly household names.
MUSINGS ON ‘ROGER TENNIS’
• If football folks can call Johnny Manziel “Johnny Football,” why can’t tennis call Federer “Roger Tennis”?
• Jon Wertheim said, “Roger Federer is the belt that is holding up this tournament.”
• Mary Carillo said, “Lately, Roger has been approaching incandescence.”
• After his pupil Marin Cilic dismissed Federer in straight sets in the US Open semis, Goran Ivanisevic said, “When you give tennis lessons to Federer, it means you are amazing.”
• Federer observed that one of his “big, big strengths” when he was young was his ability to “learn very quickly. You didn’t have to tell me things 10 or 50 times.”
• Roger said, “I can walk around screaming [that] ‘I have 17 Grand Slams. I have the record…’ [So] when you can play for history … that’s really cool. You can then be compared to other greats or you pass another great, even though it doesn‘t mean you’re better … It’s like that moment you’ve gone into the unknown where nobody else has been before.”
• Federer came back from being down five match-points in the second round in Shanghai then sprinted to his fourth title of the year.
SERENA CALLS RUSSIAN CZAR A RACIST AND BULLY: When, on a Russian talk show, former Olympic Gold Medal champion Elena Dementieva was asked what it’s like to play the Williams sisters, Shamil Tarpsichev—the head of the Russian Tennis Federation who has long coached Russia’s Davis and Fed Cup teams, and for 18 years has been the Chairman of the WTA’s Kremlin Cup tournament—interrupted and said “the Williams brothers” adding, “it’s scary when you really look at them.”
Russian Maria Sharapova said the comments were “disrespectful,” especially since Tarpsichev is a key member of Russia’s Olympic Committee. While the WTA fined Tarpischev $25,000, suspended him for a year, and will be asking him to stand down as the Chairman of the Kremlin Cup, the ITF merely issued a statement.
Serena said she thought the WTA did a good job in taking the initiative and added that she thought the Russian’s comments “were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist … I thought they were, in a way, bullying.”
ANDY THE SCOT: On the eve of the vote for Scottish independence, Andy Murray, who had long been intensely noncommittal on the controversial issue, came out for independence. He tweeted, “Huge day for Scotland. Campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. Excited to see the outcome. Let’s do this!” But voters said no. Now it will be interesting how often-skeptical British fans react to Andy, who may well again face the US in Davis Cup play in Britain in February. Murray reportedly once said that he would be rooting for “anyone but Britain” in a big international soccer tourney. One caustic tweeter wrote, “News for you Andy: most people would now prefer to see you representing anywhere other than Britain.” Another suggested, “Expect boos at Wimbledon if you manage to get a visa!” Then again, once Murray starts winning big time again, he could be a force for reconciliation.
‘MR. TENNIS’ AND MS. SERENA: When asked about the difference between Federer and Serena, Sam Querrey said, “One is a man and one is a woman” … Federer said Serena “basically revolutionized the game,” adding that the biggest similarity between him and Serena is they “serve about the same speed” … Reflecting on her and Federer‘s differing efforts to win their 18th Grand Slam, Serena said, “At least one of us made it.” She added, “Roger and I both have such a passion for the game. We’ve been playing for a really long time. We both just love the sport.”
UNBREAKABLE RECORDS: The Bryans have now won 101 titles. It’s doubtful any other team will match that, or equal Jimmy Connors’ record of winning the US Open on three different surfaces, or Martina Navratilova’s 358 overall singles and doubles titles. BTW: Wimbledon was played with yellow balls for the first time in ‘86. So when ‘85 runner-up Kevin Curren lost in the first round in ‘86, he became the only player ever to lose successive Wimbledon rounds with different-colored balls.
RISKE FACTOR: American Alison Riske won the first title of her career in Tianjin, China in October.
LIFE IS ROUGH: Boris Becker confided that he lives and dies each point from the friends box while his pupil Novak Djokovic is playing. “I have to keep my poker face and have a very cool demeanor … [But] inside it’s a volcano, I’m burning. After matches he needs to take a quiet minute to relax—I need to take one too!”
A SUGARY ANSWER: When asked if her line of candy has sugar free products, Maria Sharapova replied, “Sugar free? With the name Sugarpova I don’t think I will be doing anything sugar free very soon.”
NEW GUY IN CHARGE: Doubles specialist Eric Butorac is replacing Federer as the head of the ATP Player Council.
“The moment of enlightenment is when a person’s dreams of possibilities become images of probabilities.”—Vic Braden
By Bill Simons
The late, great Vic Braden began coaching Tracy Austin when she was two, and went on to advise Muhammad Ali. He pioneered the concept of a tennis college, and cooked up more scientific research than a PhD. He gave more clinics and offered more tips than just about any other mortal. He has turned about as many phases as Vin Scully, lost almost as much weight as John Madden, and was the only pro we knew of who referred to a player’s fast-twitch fibers.
Born in Michigan, based in Coto de Caza, and universally recognized in tennis circles, Braden was one of the game’s great enduring figures.
He so enriched my life, and the lives of countless others. Such heart, such curiosity, such courage. A groundbreaking pioneer who loved sports and loved tennis and, more than anything, loved people. Always so positive, so quick with a quip, he told his pupils he’d “make them famous by Friday.”
The man was a scientist, cerebral and serious, yet also a fun-loving elf with a sparkle to his presence. Once, before addressing a USTA meeting, he asked with a glint in his eye, “Can I have a glass of water, if it’s within your [$150 million] budget?”
The man was a lover of life and all things tennis— little and large.
The man was an expert in brain types.
But there was no type like Vic.
He was a force, a spirit, like no other.
He could be blunt, telling us, “If you can walk to the drinking fountain without falling over, you have the physical ability to play tennis well.” Yet, he also spoke of nirvana, saying, “The moment of enlightenment is when a person’s dreams of possibilities become images of probabilities.”
All the while, Braden delighted in debunking esoteric theories. He insisted, “Basically, the reason you choke is that you don’t have the strokes.” He added, “Everybody says ‘be natural’ . . . [yet] nearly everything I’ve seen about tennis that’s natural is wrong.”
Irreplaceable and irrepressible, he popularized the game in its boom daze. Now, his place should be in the Hall of Fame.
Yes, he will be so missed. Yet we will always embrace the wonder of the man from Michigan.
Back in 1988, during one of our many conversations, Braden was quick to inform me that while Jimmy Connors’ serve only traveled at 72 mph, his grunt was 130 mph. I learned that it takes 200 milliseconds for the brain to get the hand to respond to a command, and that the athlete who requires the quickest hand-eye coordination is a hockey goalie.
Braden always insisted that no one actually sees the ball hit the court. In fact, “When a ball hits, it rolls about two inches before it takes off. So if you think of all the people you’ve cheated, you might want to go back and apologize.”
A kind of Johnny Appleseed for tennis, Braden reminded us, “Fifty percent of all the people who played around the world today lost. So if you have to win to be happy, millions of you may well have to take gas today.”
Braden was a trained psychologist, but he often came across as a tennis engineer more than as a self-help guru. “If you’re working on attitude and the racket is pointed the wrong way,” he scolded, “all you’re going to be is a happy loser. The ball doesn’t care. The ball doesn’t know you have a funny grip. It doesn’t know anything except how the racket hits the ball for four milliseconds.
Look, [the former French champion] Francoise Durr had the strangest grip. But she could choke a bull with two fingers. You can have your finger in your ear and your legs crossed, (but) all you have to do is get your racket pointed straight on a vertical plane at the point of impact.”
While Braden is most famous for his dictum, “Hit it deep and down the middle and you’ll be famous by Friday,” I was most impressed by a simple bit of advice. “Take care of yourself as a person,” he said, “rather than worrying about becoming a Wimbledon champion. You’re very valuable as you are. Your success doesn’t depend on your ranking.” And remember, you don’t have to be 8 feet tall to hit a pretty decent serve.
When we spoke 26 years ago, Braden said tennis is “such a great sport, which even managed to survive some bad, apathetic leaders.”
As for what he’d added to the sport, he said, “I brought humor into the game and put tennis in perspective. People tell me, ‘Look, I’ve learned to play for fun. Now I don’t get so wrapped up in my losses.’ But I feel my biggest contribution has been to get people to think more intelligently about the game.” And if Braden could give just one tip, “it would be to women on how to serve, because women have been so discriminated against on how to throw a baseball.”
According to Braden, the best serve of all time belonged to Pancho Gonzales. The best forehand was Bjorn Borg’s. The best backhand was Ken Rosewall’s. The best returns: Rosewall and Jimmy Connors. The best volley: Jack Kramer. The toughest mentally was Steffi Graf. As for his biggest regret, it was “that we’ve paid lip-service to getting the kids on the street, but we haven’t done enough to make the game affordable to them.”
Fourteen years later, in 2002, I sat down with Vic once again, and had this exchange:
You were smack in the middle of the boom in the ’70s. Tennis was soaring. Everyone was wearing tennis outfits at Safeway.
It came so fast. We had rooms for 72 people at our tennis college…People were bribing pros to give them extra lessons. Celebrities came in droves. It was important to be No. 1 in the celebrity world. Celebrity tours were everywhere. I was working with Debbie Reynolds and Lana Turner. Hollywood’s thing was, if you;re not playing tennis, you’re nobody, you don’t have that image. The demand for tennis in corporate outings exceeded golf for about six years.
Was the boom just a cycle, or did tennis squander an opportunity?
People found out it’s a difficult sport. Everybody wanted to get in, even pro athletes. They’d say, “It’s so easy. it’s simple—just get that little ball back…[But] it was painful. It requires time. Even [Ivan] Lendl, who tried to become a volleyer in two weeks, couldn’t learn to volley.
People like tennis’ allure. But it’s a tough mother.
What’s interesting are the testimonials when people come back to tennis. “I tried golf, but I want some action. I was a good high school athlete and I was sure I’d be a 5.5 player, but now I realize I’m going to have to settle for being a 3.5. it’s humiliating.”
And the one thing you’re most proud of—
Trying to get the facts out about the sport. It’s a beautiful sport. No one can come up with a sport that’s better. You can get carpal tunnel syndrome turning the key on a golf cart. When you play tennis, you’re active. At a 90-and-over tournament, a 93-year-old was losing to the 91-year-old who’s getting every ball, so the 93-year-old guy yells out, “Oh, to be 91 again.” Can you imagine a sport where you can start at 60 and still have 30 years to work on your game before you even qualify for the event?
You’ve been called the funniest man in tennis, yet you’re into the science of the game and have done extensive research on brain types. Is there a connection between humor, psychology, and biomechanics?
If you can get a person to laugh and have fun, the signal from the brain is more precise. The brain sends down a signal for a perfect forehand stroke. But if we put a little pressure on or get you uptight, we get the signal to change. When people who have more fun playing get into tight situations like they’re more apt to send the proper signal for a good stroke.
You always said, “I’ll make you famous by Friday.”
I want people to be Wimbledon champions in their own bodies … Sports is one of the quickest vehicles to get people to feel good about themselves. But we’ve done a lousy job. First of all, 50 percent of the people who play today will lose. So you have a lot of unhappy people. People want to master something. We need to find ways for them to feel good about themselves, ways to make everybody a champion.
And the key to making people feel good?
Success. To be aware of who they are is number one. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
You’ve mentioned dysfunction in sports. What’s the one thing to avoid?
Parents who are getting their kicks from the process; they’re living their lives through their children.
And if you could change one thing in tennis…
I would teach the beauty of the game. If you play, you’re a winner. If you win, you’re a double winner.
And if you could change one thing in your career…
My wife says I got so interested in education, but now that I’m 71, I’m still out there on the court six, seven hours a day. A lot of guys 71 and over are just having fun. Well, I can’t. I’m still feeding balls. But I don’t have a single complaint.
You’ve been a psychologist years. So tell me, what is the allure of sports?
Young kids adore athletes because they get privileges. Even a six-year-old stickball player is treated differently. His peers adore him, they put him on a pedestal, he’s revered. But athletes should not be allowed to compete until they’ve taken a program on their social responsibilities. Athletes are no better than singers or the best spellers. Recently, it was said that what top athletes want more than anything else is to be in a Nike commercial. Athletes have money, yet they want to go even deeper into people’s hearts and minds. We transfer the importance of sports to our status in life. Athletes want all the publicity…Yet they only have a specialty in one thing. But actually the great athletes have a specialty in five or six things and they work hard for charity. [Sports] is one of the few places where you can be the biggest jerk in the world, an absolute criminal, a felon, and still be extremely popular. And our culture buys in.
Why do we even have…boxing, where the purpose is to create brain damage? Yet these events sell out. Athletes are a reflection of who we are. If we don’t like the people, shouldn’t the stands be empty? I refuse to go to hockey games. I can see fights on playgrounds—I don’t need to pay money to see them beat each other up. I don’t like it when they hire enforcers, or when a baseball pitcher hits a batter so the opposing pitcher is obligated to brush back the other team’s batter. They could maim a person for life. If you did that on the street, you’d go to prison. But in sports, you get away with things.
I’m going to run through some names. Just shoot from the hip. Tracy Austin.
Sets goals and will do anything to meet them.
I think about his marriages [laughter].
I just love the lady. One of the greatest natural talents I’ve ever seen.
Unbelievably hard worker. I used to see her in the Aspen gym pumping iron. Couldn’t believe what she went through.
Jekyll and Hyde. She’s not who she appears to be. She was all business on the court, but she could be funny. She was the opposite off-court.
A beautiful surprise. I didn’t think she would be that successful.
The smartest guy I’ve run into in the game. When I see Sampras, I see Kramer. And they’re both from the same club [the Kramer Club in Rolling Hills Estates].
A technical question—how long does a ball sit on the strings?
Approximately four milliseconds. Nobody has ever felt a ball on the strings.
It’s too fast?
It’s off before it reaches the cerebral cortex.
So there’s no such thing as muscle memory?
That’s a myth. It’s really a motor program coming from the brain to the muscle.
Can you ever think too much on the court?
Oh, sure. You’ve got to shut it off. That’s why Sampras only looks at his racket. He can’t afford to start thinking. He’s learned not to let bad calls and things like that get to him.
LIKE HIS BELOVED COACH, CROAT MARIN CILIC CLAIMS HIS FIRST SLAM ON A MONDAY
By Bill Simons
Sometimes it just comes down to numbers.
100: The Bryans get their 100th title, no problemo.
18: Serena wins her 18th Slam, but Federer falls short. Age, a tall Croat, and our heartfelt expectations got in the way.
Now, on the last day of the 2014 US Open, 14 is the number. When Marin Cilic was 14—just a lanky kid—he met and hit with his nation’s idol, Goran Ivanisevic. It was transformative. Maybe it was not as consequential as Arthur Ashe meeting Yannick Noah in the Cameroons. But the moment changed his life.
And 14 was a key year for Kei Nishikori. Without any English, but with plenty of promise, he traveled almost 8000 miles from Japan to the Bollettierri Academy in Florida. His father wanted him to be a world citizen. Fine, but unlike every other populated continent, Asia had never produced a men’s Grand Slam champion, and in this day of galloping giants, the 5’10″ Nishikori is, shall we say, diminutive.
Enter Michael Chang. If Goran was the obvious mentor for Cilic, Chang was the go-to guy for Nishikori. After all, if you want to learn about taking advantage of a lack of height and the importance of heart and a relentless fighting spirit, “who you gonna call” but the ’89 French Open champ and former No. 2? Plus, long before Li Na, Chang began to popularize tennis in Asia.
And it worked. Rather suddenly, Nishikori seemed to transform his considerable talents—fabulous backhand, blazing speed, uncanny defense, incredible hand eye co-ordination—into noteworthy wins. He broke into the top 10 for the first time this year, streaking to the finals on clay in Madrid, where he had the world’s best claymeister, Rafa Nadal, on the ropes before a back injury forced him to retire. His career has been stalled by injuries—in fact, he underwent an operation to remove a cyst from his foot just three weeks before the Open.
So, why deal with the hassle of New York? Why not just skip the Open and re-group?
“No way,” advised Chang, ever the battler. Just enter and see what happens—after the first couple of rounds, anything goes. Never mind that last year Nishikori lost his first match here to a qualifier ranked No. 179—this year, Nishikori was one “Special Kei.” His cyst was gone and all systems were go as he defeated Milos Raonic in a five-set epic that ended at 2:26 AM, tying the record for the latest match to finish at the Open. From there, he downed Aussie Open champ Stan Wawrinka in another five-set marathon, after which he beat the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic in four gritty sets. Successive wins over the No. 5, 3 and 1 seeds—that’s sure okay, Kei.
But Cilic’s results weren’t exactly shabby either. He beat Gilles Simon, who had owned him, knocked out fellow big-hitter Tomas Berdych in the quarters, and then came the shocker: up against a fellow named Federer in the semis, he almost made the 33-year-old whiz seem ordinary. Prone to over-thinking in the past, now Cilic was in confident, clutch command of his huge game.
Going into this final—a shoot-out at “The Oh Kei Corral” between the big man from the small, but over-achieving, Euro nation and the small man from the big, but underachieving Pacific nation—it was hard to say who should be favored.
In an arena crowded with Japanese writers, photographers, and fans, Nishikori had a look at a break point in the first game. It proved to be one of his few bright moments on a cloudy afternoon.
Goran Ivanisevic may have been infamous for having three personalities, but his pupil needed just one game plan. Serving with power, often holding at love, as he did against Federer, Cilic ran his overmatched foe from corner to corner, unleashing a Juan Martin del Potro-like arsenal of forehand winners, along with virtually unreturnable serves.
Cilic leaned into backhands and moved with surprising ease, delivering 17 aces, well-timed slices, and one baseline blow after another against a foe who lacked his usual explosiveness and had few—well, make that almost no—answers amidst the onslaught. The Prince of Tennis who was televised on Japan’s WOWOW TV network had very little “pow pow.” After only 70 minutes, Cilic already had a two-set lead.
Still, as the New York sunset went golden, the man from the land of the Rising Sun collected three break points, deep in the third set, to keep his slight hopes alive. But once again, Cilic raised his game. When Nishikori counter-attacked, Marin stepped up his game. An inspired heavyweight—fresher and fighting hard—downed the good, but weathered middleweight. Maybe it was simply that Kei had been on court for so many hours. Even Nishikori’s last stroke—a cross-court backhand—was underwhelming.
And Cilic, at last, was overwhelmed—falling to the court, raising his considerable arms to the sky, and then climbing high to the friends box for a hefty group hug with his team.
Soon Mary Carillo was asking how he did it.
“This is all hard work, especially this year,” responded the good-natured 25-year-old, who returned to the tour in January, after a contested doping-related ban. “This time has brought something special to me, especially Goran. The most important thing he brought … is joy in tennis, always having fun … I played the best tennis ever in my life …Everything I was working for and dreaming [of] came [true] today … This is a big sign that if you’re working hard, things are going to pay off.”
Cilic then told Mary Joe Fernandez, “I was putting a lot of pressure on Kei … Through the rallies … [It's been an] amazing two weeks for me, especially the last three [straight-set] matches. My mindset was that I would have to do it, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble.
[Goran] brought big knowledge and different small pieces … [My] serve was really important, and especially when playing bigger guys, the belief that I can play aggressively over a five-set match. And the joy, the joy of practice … It’s not been easy. I was working for this for a very long time. The stars crossed. Goran won his Wimbledon on Mondays. Mondays are special probably for Croatians.”
All the while, in a back corridor, a cadre of Japanese reporters bowed as they interviewed a top official of the Japanese Tennis Association, while Inside Tennis had this flash interview with the singular Goran Ivanisevic:
How did Marin do it?
He took advantage. Marin beat him by just pressing, pressing, pushing, pushing—serving well, playing from the back well. He did everything that we talked about tactically before, and Nishikori didn’t have any chance.
What makes Marin such a great champion?
Listen, for him to play a final like this—after a couple of games, he was like a guy who had played 10 Grand Slam finals. That was the key. He was a better player than Nishikori today.
You won Wimbledon on a Monday 13 years ago. How does this compare?
It’s great for this country, Croatia—we have two Grand Slam winners. This is unbelievable, an amazing story.
In your heart, what do you feel right now?
I feel proud of him. He really worked hard, he really deserved it.
Are all three Gorans thrilled?
Everybody. Ten Gorans are thrilled!
By Bill Simons
This cannot be.
Serena Williams, the most turbulent figure in tennis since a man named Johnny Mac, brought order back to the game.
In a tournament with wild bees and painful cramps, up and comers cramped the style of the Big Four. None of them—Federer, Djokovic, Nadal or Murray—made it to the men’s final. The sky was falling.
And woman’s tennis was even more chaotic. Aussie Open champ Li Na didn’t show up. French queen Maria Sharapova went down to a final-bound Caroline Wozniacki. Wimbledon wonder Petra Kvitova fell to the little-known qualifier Aleksandra Krunic.
Well, at least it seemed that way. Eight of the top ten seeds had fallen before the quarterfinals.
All the while, who was the pillar of both patriotism and stability? Serena, our Serena, the diva whose middle-name should have been Stormy.
Serena, who’s yelled obscenities at a US Open linesperson, stepped on glass in a Munich bar, and fought for her life in a LA hospital. Serena, who was booed as a kid in Indian Wells, and who yelled out “C’mon!” at an inopportune moment to derail a critical comeback in the 2011 US Open final. Serena, who was cheated on line calls here in New York, a blunder which led to USTA apologies and the establishment of Hawk-Eye.
Put it this way: If Federer is serenity incarnate, Serena is anything but serene.
But, once again, while American tennis faltered badly, Serena alone held our banner high. Goodness, she was the sole American to reach the second week in singles, and she zoomed to the finals with single-minded focus, as if she were a corporate VP reviewing a quarterly report.
Of course, the quarterly reports for Serena Inc. had been somewhat gloomy this year. Last year, she won Wimbledon and the US Open and still said it wasn’t that great a season. In 2014, Serena had collected enough titles to remain No. 1, but she hadn’t even reached the quarters of a Slam.
Yet here at the Open, sprinting to the finals, she didn’t drop a set, losing no more than three games in any of the 12 sets she collected.
So, reporters were left to ask her tangential questions. Did she feel more pressure trying to match icons Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 Slam wins? No, she quipped, 18 just means “legal and legendary.” Going into the final, the media wondered if it would be tough for Serena to play her gal-pal Caroline. No way, she said: “If I can play Venus, I can play anyone.”
Not surprisingly, in the final, Serena started slowly. She’s often broken from the gate as if she was under a cloud. And Sunshine—that would be Wozniacki—has a fine “defense is the best offense” game. Plus, the Dane of Polish descent with a Big Apple apartment who is still on the rebound from a certain Irish golfer, is the most popular darling to never win a Slam. “She’s not exactly boo-able,” observed Mary Carillo. “She reacts to everything with grace.”
But it’s hard to react to Serena’s imposing ferocity with grace. In fact, the woman whose ponytail got snared in her racket earlier in the tournament was soon caught in the torrent that is the Serena storm, a familiar force that has reigned for so long. Smooth, powerful bail-out serves; no-time-to-breathe returns; she-can’t-be-32 movement; and no-nonsense defense-to-offense—Serena was, well, Serena. Even let cords went her way. She won challenges. She hit a nifty two-handed volley winner and prevailed in a a captivating 26-stroke baseline rally.
But once again—oh no—we had a US Open final that was less than captivating. At times, fans were more enthralled with the A-list celebs in the stands—Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Gladys Knight, Billie Jean King, Andy Roddick, Debra Messing, and Judd Hirsch—than the battle on court. Serena, who has traveled so many tennis miles, ran the wannabe marathoner Wozniacki from corner to corner. Sadly, the Dane’s serve was not great, and her winners were as infrequent as the Scandinavian sun in January.
Wozniacki struggled mightily to hold even once before the close of the first set. Seventy-three mile-per-hour serves just don’t cut it against Williams. Never mind that Serena was broken three times. She broke back at will.
Afterward, Caro admitted she’d been nervous, adding that facing Serena isn’t much fun, and with the crowd “screaming so loud you can’t even hear what you are thinking … it is kind of overwhelming.” But, in fact, it was Williams who was overwhelming.
“She’s so strong,” noted Wozniacki. “She has a good serve and she puts pressure on you straightaway … I had a game plan in mind, but it was kind of difficult at the start. I tried to push her back, but that didn’t work … She really just stepped in and she was playing aggressive.”
So IT asked Caro whether Serena is a step above the others. “Her results and her career say it all: 18 Grand Slam titles. You don’t get that unless you’re exceptional … She is one of the greatest of all time. To have 18 Grand Slam titles, and still be the person she is, is really something very rare. I admire her both on and off the court. I definitely think when Serena is on her game there’s not much we can do.”
According to Wozniacki, it isn’t just talent: “She’s a hard worker. She works hard every day, just like us, but when she needs to, she can pull out that big serve. She has the power. She can push us back on the court and take the initiative. She definitely has the experience … because maybe back in the day she might not have made the right choices. Now she knows what she needs to do out there, and it makes it even harder to beat her.”
That Serena won her third straight US Open and sixth overall might open as many questions as it answers. Is she the best of all time? Can we dare to say she is, relatively speaking, greater than The Mighty Federer, who has “just” 17 Slams and can’t approach Serena’s record in doubles, the Olympics, and team competition? (Serena has won 22 women’s doubles titles, including 13 Slams; two mixed doubles Slams; one Olympic gold in singles and three in doubles; and a Fed Cup title.)
Yes, today was about numbers, heady numbers. But, too, it was about history and emotion. “It feels so good to have the support of the crowd and hear the roar,” Serena—whose signature tune at the Open this year was “Roar” by Katy Perry—told IT. “No other roar at any stadium is like the one at Arthur Ashe. It’s a great feeling. I think it’s my favorite feeling.”
After a moving victory speech, Serena talked about the importance of reaching 18. “I could never have imagined that I would be mentioned with Chris Evert or with Martina Navratilova, because I was just a kid with a dream and a racquet. Living in Compton, this never happened before … Who am I?”
Well, Serena, you are Serena—our Serena, our diva and darling, our champion: sometimes calm, often tumultuous and always compelling.
By John Huston
In just a few hours, Serena Williams will be playing for her third consecutive US Open women’s title and 18th Slam singles win. On the eve of the match, here’s a tour through 12 of the wackiest, wildest moments in Williams family lore. While Serena hasn’t won a Slam yet this year, she has added another vivid entry to this list, with her dazed and confused performance in women’s doubles at Wimbledon. Will Serena grab that elusive No. 18, or will this list grow in number to 13? Or both?
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA: Richard Williams sees Virginia Ruzici win a tournament in Salt Lake City on TV, and when Bud Collins congratulates Ruzici for earning $40,000, Williams contemplates raising some money-making tennis champions. The rest is history.
THE BIRTH OF VENUS (ON THE TOUR): In 1994, 14-year-old Venus Williams makes her pro debut at the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland. “It was almost like Elvis arriving in the building,” then-coach Rick Macci observed afterward. Venus wins her first match and then races to a 6-3, 3-1 lead against world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario before Sanchez-Vicario rallies back to come out on top. Little sis Serena Williams watches from the stands. “I just lived and died every moment,” she said this year, when IT asked about watching Venus’s first-ever pro match.
THE SPIRLEA BUMP: In a 1997 US Open semi, Romania’s Irina Spirlea deliberately bumps into 17-year-old Venus during a changeover. Venus fights off two match points to win. In her post-match presser, Spirlea—the first WTA player ever disqualified from a match for misconduct—criticizes Venus, saying “She thinks she’s the —-ing Venus Williams.” Richard Williams later calls Spirlea “an ugly, white turkey.”
OUTRAGE AT INDIAN WELLS: In 2001 at Indian Wells, Venus withdraws from a semifinal against sister Serena, and the news is announced to a packed stadium shortly before the match. Two days later, Serena—along with Richard and Venus in the stands—is jeered by an angry crowd throughout the final against Kim Clijsters. Afterward, Richard states that he was subjected to racist insults. Serena wins the match, but the Williams’ begin a thirteen-years-and-counting boycott of the greatest tournament in the American West.
HENIN AND THE HAND: At the US Open, Serena’s foot sparked a Williams controversy. At the French Open in 2003, it was Justine Henin‘s hand. As Serena served up 4-2 up in the third set of a semifinal, Henin raised her hand to signal she wasn’t ready. Serena—who netted the serve—saw Henin’s gesture, but the umpire didn’t. Serena was forced to hit a second serve, and Henin—with a highly partisan French crowd behind her—broke Serena and won the match. In 2011, Henin admitted, “It’s true that it is not the best memory.” In response, Serena tweeted, “I keep hearing about an admittance to someone cheating me and lying about it after at the French Open. Did she confess finally?” Well, Serena, not exactly.
THE FIRST WILLIAMS WIMBLEDON WOBBLE: The 2004 second-round match between Venus and Karolina Sprem at Wimbledon was a ferocious battle, with dynamic rallies. But ump Ted Watts, daydreaming during the crucial second-set tiebreak, awarded an extra point to Sprem when she hit an out-of-play ball for a “winner” after missing a first serve. Neither player recognized the decisive error, and after fighting off a set point, Sprem won the tiebreak to take the match. Watts was removed from his post.
THE MATCH THAT KICKSTARTED HAWK-EYE? In the history of late-stage Slam matches in the Open era, the worst officiating may have been during a 2004 US Open quarterfinal between Serena and Jennifer Capriati on Arthur Ashe. In the third set’s first game, after one botched call against Serena, umpire Mariana Alves overruled a line person to declare another one of Serena’s shots out, and TV replays quickly showed it landed well inside the line. In the final game, Serena was wronged by two more line calls. “Hawk-Eye, please,” John McEnroe exclaimed on TV after the final botched call. Alves was removed from the chair for the tournament, but still officiates today.
FOOT-FAULT FUROR: In a 2009 US Open semi, on a second serve while down 4-6, 5-6, Serena is called for a foot fault that gives opponent Kim Clijsters a match point. Serena erupts at line judge Shino Tsurubuchi, pointing her finger and saying, “I swear to —-ing god I’m —-ing going to take this —-ing ball and shove it down your —-ing throat, you hear me?” The chair ump gives Williams a point penalty and Clijsters the match. Afterward, Serena is fined $82,500 and placed on a two-year probation period at the Slams. (Commentator Mary Carillo asserts the punishment should be more severe.)
WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS: After winning Wimbledon in 2010, Serena steps on glass at a bar in Munich, severing a tendon and requiring 12 stitches on her right foot and six on her left. The injury forces her to miss the US Open and prompts a surgery. While recovering, she is hospitalized for a life-threatening pulmonary embolism the following March.
THE C’MON! HEARD ROUND THE WORLD: During the 2011 US Open final, a few days after her Slam probation is lifted, Serena loses her cool again. Down a set and break point to Sam Stosur, she yells “C’mon!” while an apparent winner is still in play, and umpire Eva Asderaki awards the point (for hindrance) and game to Stosur. Serena berates her during a changeover, saying, “If we’re ever walking down the street, stay on the other side. You’re totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. What a loser.” Stosur wins 6-2, 6-3, and Serena is fined $2,000 for the outburst. Ironically, Asderaki had called Serena for “C’mon” hindrance once before, in Doha in 2009. In that instance, Serena said “Sorry,” and she, Asderaki, and Svetlana Kuznetsova shared a laugh.
AN UPSET SERENA IS UPSET: Going into the 2011 French Open, Serena—who turned pro in 1995—had never been beaten in the first round of a Slam. That all changed when Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano, two years after losing her fiancé to cancer, rallied to overcome Serena in a drama-filled match marked by hindrance calls from umpire Eva Asderaki (this time directed at Razzano) and a crying spell from Serena after a disastrous second-set tiebreak.
THE SECOND WILLIAMS WIMBLEDON WOBBLE: After suffering a surprise loss in singles, Serena arrives for her second-round doubles match looking dazed and confused, netting volleys during the warmup and hitting four double-faults in a row before she and Venus retire from the match. “Viral illness” is the official reason given for her woozy state, but that doesn’t stop commentators Chris Evert, Pam Shriver, and Martina Navratilova from speculating, and asking how she even was allowed to step on court.
By Bill Simons and John Huston
The new is always hard to deal with.
It just doesn’t feel right.
What comfort is there in the unknown domain, such uncharted territory?
And at this US Open, it is a new day, the feeling odd. The middle didn’t hold. Tennis’ Big Four have been vanquished.
Rafa Nadal, his wrist injured, didn’t even appear. Too often this man’s great career has been hampered by injuries—think Mickey Mantle.
Andy Murray—the Gold Medal Olympian, 2013 Wimbledon champion, and 2011 winner here—could not sustain his strong play, falling to Novak Djokovic. And today, Djokovic seemed off, almost lethargic, as he lost “The Battle of the Uniqlo Brand” to Japan’s rising son, Kei Nishikori, the first man from his nation to reach a Slam final.
And then came the shocker, the moment of acceptance and realization.
Roger Federer is a tennis mortal. We know this—we saw him fall agonizingly short in the fifth set this July at Wimbledon.
But then we forgot.
Federer went into the US Open fresh from a title win. After his amazing comeback from two sets down against Gael Monfils under the Ashe lights, we just knew he would be destiny’s darling. Certainly the man who could father two sets of twins could tweak tennis mortality.
We presumed that Federer would deliver the ultimate feel-good tale. This would be Roger’s Open, his 18th Slam. It was still Saturday, but with his nemesis Djokovic gone from the picture, he was ready to place the cherry atop his more-than-delicious Slam sundae. The port was in sight. He’d only have to beat the No. 14 seed, Marin Cilic, who he’d never lost to in five meetings (including one less than a month ago) and Nishikori, who’d be playing his first Slam final.
But Cilic is a man on a mission. He’s from Croatia, whose neighbor, Serbia, has claimed a lion’s share of tennis headlines. And he is coming back from what he considers a most unjust four-month drug suspension. Against Federer, he started out on a roll and stayed there, unleashing a powerhouse performance which silenced Michael Jordan and 23,000 others. Sealed with a trio of aces in the final game, it was the definition of stunning.
Cilic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic agreed. Moments after the stunning 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 beatdown, the legendary Wimbledon champ talked with IT’s Lucia Hoffman. “You saw everything,” he said, near tears. “When you give lessons of tennis to Roger Federer, it means you are amazing. That’s too good.”
Marin Cilic was now The Man Who Taught God a Lesson.
A quick lesson—lasting only one hour and 45 minutes, the match was over before the Fed-loving New York crowd could even turn it into a fight.
For years, thanks to the Big Four’s dominance, men’s tennis has been telling some familiar if well-loved tales, adding new chapters along the way: the evolving sagas of Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Andy have been the story of the modern game.
That is, until today, September 6, 2014, the day tennis changed.
THE RIVERS RUNS DEEP: The late, great Joan Rivers was famous, among many other things, for her tennis bracelets, sold on QVC. She is also from Larchmont NY, the home of legendary USTA woman’s pioneer Barbara Williams, the late umpire Jack Stahr, and many other tennis figures.
ASIA SPECIFIC: This year’s Open is the first in the Open era in which an Asian man and woman— Japan’s Kei Nishikori and China’s Shuai Peng Shuai—have reached the semis. Nishikori is only the ninth Asian man to reach a Slam semi. The previous one was Japan’s Jiro Satoh in 1932. Shuai is the fifth different Asian woman in the Open era to reach a Slam semi. China’s two-time Slam champ Li Na has reached six Slam semis.
THE HAPPIEST 23,000 YUPPIES IN THE WORLD: The Ashe crowd, deep into a scintillating big night match.
BIG ASK: Navigating the steep concrete steps at Ashe Stadium while carrying a cold drink and a hot ticket and a big program and a little phone while wearing six inch spike heels.
TAKE THAT, WIMBLEDON: There is no sound like the crescendo roar of the night crowd at Ashe.
BEST PEOPLE-WATCHING IN TENNIS? Is the best people-watching in tennis at the Wimbledon Tea Room, at the French Open players restaurant, or on the big Diamond Vision big screen at the US Open?
INSIDE THE BELTWAY QUOTE OF THE YEAR: Jon Wertheim said, “Roger Federer is the belt that is holding up this tournament.”
A TALE OF THREE HEADLINES: You could say that almost all you need to know about New York’s “different strokes for different folks” journalism is illustrated by the headlines that three different NY papers ran on the same story, the departure of Patrick McEnroe as the Head of Player Development for the USTA:
• USTA Makes a Change as American Players Keep Struggling (New York Times)
• McEnroe to Resign From USTA Post (Wall Street Journal)
• Mac is Sacked by the USTA (New York Daily News)
THE INVISIBLE GENIUS OF TENNIS: Roger Federer‘s fitness trainer Pierre Paganini.
A HEATED WOMEN’S SEMI: As part of her training regimen, Caroline Wozniacki used to box. And on this stiflingly hot New York afternoon at the US Open, tennis and boxing merged just a bit, when Caroline’s semifinal foe Shuai Peng repeatedly fell to the court from heat-related cramping. “Throw in the towel like in Rocky?” quipped Peng’s former coach Alan Ma when asked whether coaches or trainers should be allowed to retire an ailing player from a match. “I don’t think so.”
But for a ten-plus-minutes stretch near the end of the curtailed match, Peng’s misery at times appeared to be prolonged rather than immediately treated, while the scoreline remained the same. “This is both unsafe for Peng and unfair for Wozniacki,” Mary Carillo commented on CBS. “I feel sick to my stomach watching this,” John McEnroe said, as Peng left the court on a wheelchair only to return to attempt to compete one last time. “This is a serious black eye for our sport.”
Unfortunately, from opening day at the Open, excruciating cramping has been a hard-to-take visual. Early in the tourney, Andy Murray and American Steve Johnson were the ones suffering. Murray didn’t know what hit him and it seemed the same with Peng, who suffered mightily during the match’s second set. Going into the semi, Peng hadn’t dropped a set at the Open, while recording fantastic winner-to-error stats, but up against the marathon rallying and superb anticipation of the Great Wall of Denmark, her angled, aggressive game and winning stats began to crumble, followed quickly by her physical health.
In a curious twist, Wozniacki, with a kind of misplaced sympathy, twice double-faulted while Shuai was cramping—about the only way Peng could win points in the match’s late stages. As is often the case with cramping and heat illness in tennis, there was much confusion. There are rules, and questions, and arguments about those rules and questions (and the medical conditions attached to them).
Ironically, Wozniacki has been involved in two other memorable cramping incidents. In 2009 at the WTA year-end championships in Doha, she suffered full-body cramps jn the late stages of a match she eventually won against Vera Zvonareva. And in 2011 at the US Open, she drew some criticism for imitating a bout of press conference leg cramps suffered by Rafa Nadal in one of her own conferences.
As for Peng, interviewed a few hours afterward, she couldn’t remember whether she was the one who made the final decision that she should retire from the match, and she also had no memory of Wozniacki coming over to console her.
AND A BLOWOUT: From a disturbing anticlimax to a routine one—in the second women’s semi, a sharp and ruthless Serena Williams dispatched Ekaterina Makarova 6-1, 6-3. The entire first set was only twice as long as the halting of play during the Wozniacki-Peng match.
JUST WONDERING: Is the uber-athletic Gael Monfils the biggest underachiever in the ATP? … And is Monfils the biggest “chick magnet” in tennis since Marat Safin? … For big matches, why isn’t there a trainer courtside?
WORDS WE THOUGHT WE’D NEVER HEAR: “Roger’s rattled,” as sounded by Pat McEnroe.
FAN APPEAL: Who has attracted more fans to tennis stadiums—Jimmy Connors or Federer?
“Even shots he doesn’t touch can go to the highlight reel”—Pat McEnroe, on Gael Monfils, who gyrated athletically just to avoid a Federer shot.
“Just sit down and shut up.”—John McEnroe, to courtside reporter Rennae Stubbs.
“Almost as fast as Serena‘s “—Jim Courier, on John McEnroe‘s well-over-110mph serve.
“I’m fine, I’m just sneaky.”—Gael Monfils, to an umpire earlier this year, when he seemed to be injured, but was just tanking.
“Separated by seven days of life on the planet, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, for much of last night’s quarterfinal, resided in their own world.”—Kevin Mitchell, The Guardian.
“The tennis pit bulls sank their teeth into each other on a warm and windless night.”—Bill Dwyre, LA Times.
GO FIGURE: He only began coaching Marin Cilic recently, but Goran Ivanisevic first hit with young Marin when he was just 14. “That was huge, to play with my idol,” Cilic says today.
CHARACTER ANALYSIS OF THE DAY: Marin Cilic said that fun-loving Goran Ivanisevic “is everything but boring.”
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN [about Serena's campaign to tie Chrissie and Martina at 18 Slams]
MAKES THE FLEXIBLE NOVAK DJOKOVIC OR KIM CLIJSTERS SEEM STIFF: Gael Monfils.
SHADY LADY STILL IN THE SHADE: Upon reading her first Slam semi, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova told a charmed press room that she’d rather stay “in the shadow” than court fame and publicity. After getting thumped by Serena in the semis, Ekat said that she thought she would remain in the shadows, which is “perfectly okay” with her.
AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN AGAIN: The Bryans have won 99 titles. It’s doubtful that any other team will achieve that (let alone reach 100), and it’s doubtful that anyone will match Jimmy Connors‘ record of winning the US Open on three different surfaces or Martina Navratilova‘s total number of 358 singles and doubles titles. BTW: Wimbledon was played with yellow balls for the first time in 1986. So when 1985 runner-up Kevin Curren lost in the first round, he became the only player ever to lose successive Wimbledon rounds with different colored balls.
SERENA’S LEFT-HANDED COMPLIMENT: When IT asked Serena how good she would have been if she had been a lefty, she replied, “Gosh, I always ask my dad, ‘Why wasn’t I a lefty?’ Even when I was younger I wanted to be lefty. I could have been really good … Lefties are so cool. I love lefties. Maybe it’s just a hangup I have.”
EIGHTEEN IS JUST A NUMBER: Serena and Federer are both seeking the 18th Slam singles titles of their career. So we asked Serena what the number 18 meant to her. She replied, “It means legal to do some things. It also means legendary. Legal and legendary.”
THE SMILE THAT DOOMED MURRAY? After Darren Cahill said, “I thought I saw a hint of a smile” while observing the almost always dour Andy Murray, Chris Fowler quipped, “Yeah, that could be his undoing.”
By Bill Simons and John Huston
The 23,000 most boisterous yuppies in sports were ecstatic. They were in full voice, their drinks were cold, their passions hot.
And why not?
Tonight, in the most electric, sizzling arena a gentleman’s game has ever concocted, the greatest player in history, Roger (“Do allow us to worship you”) Federer, and a charismatic athlete/showman like no other, France’s Gael Monfils, were glorious gladiators, locked in delicious combat.
Gael slid, he sprawled, he leaped. He slapped laser forehands and gestured to the throng that adored him. Meanwhile Roger was (sort of) Roger—slicing backhands, charging the net, unleashing backhand overheads, punching returns. and blasting forehands.
But this wasn’t quite the Roger we know, we expect, we love, we embrace.
This was not the Zen man who is calm under every circumstance, the man you would want by your side as your ship goes down. The warrior you’d want in your foxhole.
Too often, Roger was bothered by unkind gusts. Too often, his forehand flew. Too often, he was hapless as Monfils’ forehands whizzed by, an unwelcome blur. And too often, Roger’s volleys found the net or the alley, as he dropped the first two sets.
This could not be.
For this was to be Roger’s Open, a sweet swan song. The old man, 33, was destined to win one more—this one.
Rafa, his dreaded foe, was a no-show. His early foes were (dare we say) chums. En route to tonight’s quarterfinal battle, he’d only lost one set. His other two rivals—Serb Djokovic and Scot Murray—were camped far away on the other side of the draw. Now all the Mighty Fed had to do was again beat Mr. Underachiever, Gael Monfils, who he had owned.
So why was this night different from virtually all other nights at Ashe, where Roger had amassed an astounding 25-1 record?
Well, let us speculate, that Roger likes order. He likes to know what he’s facing, whether it be a power server or backboard scrambler. And Monfils is hard to figure out, hard to peg, and, on this incredible night, hard to beat.
He’s nonchalantly brilliant one moment, and he all but tanks another, hitting right to the bottom of the net. His loopy two-handed backhand is more a serviceable than a memorable stroke. What is memorable is his imposing forehand, his rifle serve, and an NBA-like (or is it NFL-like?) athleticism, which he flashes freely. Rope-a-dope ease combines with a lean, mean force that dazzles.
Playing fast, ignoring an injured ankle, spurred by the stunning buzz in Ashe, the Frenchman yelled “Allez!” as he sprinted to the better side of a 6-4, 6-3 scoreline. Big forehand, big charisma, big lead—he imposed and commanded.
Roger was doomed.
But then again, Roger has an assortment of tennis skills, and despite all his beauty and serenity, one of them is the ability to be a nasty street fighter: to scratch and scrape. His five US Open titles weren’t handed to him on a platter. He never gives up.
Still, Monfils was zoning big time. There were points in the first two sets where Federer seemed flat-footed, at a loss about what to do—genuinely rattled by Monfils’ carefree quirks and unpredictable attacks.
Then again, Roger has successfully fought back from two sets down eight times at the Slams. As the crowd squealed, he remained calm, and—allow us to say—”Rogered” on. Keeping his level high and his play aggressive, he was perhaps waiting for the mercurial Monfils to return to earth.
And down to earth Monfils fell, one characteristically goofy lapse at a time, whether it be a request for a can of Coke during a fourth-set changeover, a failure to convert two match points on Federer’s serve later in the fourth, or a decision to hit a ‘tweener shot in the decisive fifth set.
Federer took the match points with just the right mix of intelligence of fearlessness. “It’s not something you ever get used to,” he said afterward. “The margins are so, so slim at that point that it’s not really in your control anymore. He needs one net cord or something so silly. When guys wish you good luck before the match, that’s when you hope it’s gonna kick in [laughter] … Today I definitely got lucky. But I felt like I was forcing the issue, so maybe there was some merit from that standpoint.”
And to be fair, by the time Monfils hit a curious ‘tweener, the match had been decided by Roger’s ruthless tenacity. At the end of his 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory, he was the Roger New York knows and expects—in command.
At 28, ranked No. 24 in the world, Monfils had—as he’d predicted a few days earlier—played a match he could tell his grandchildren about. At 33, with 17 Slam titles to his name, Roger wants to win another one.
As for those 23,000 zany yuppies, they played a role, too. “I felt they definitely wanted the match to go on,” a smiling Federer said afterward. “Didn’t matter who [Monfils] was playing, I believe. Still, I felt very much a warm support for me— wanting me to go out, you know, fighting and believing that I could turn this thing around. That’s the feeling the crowd gave me.
When the crowd gives you that…it grows your belief that you can hit better shots, you can dig out more tough balls, you can serve better. …That just helps solidify your belief. I must say tonight was actually quite emotional for me. I thought the crowd was incredible. They definitely got me through the match out there. I really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait for the next match to come around.
There is nobody like New Yorkers, and this stadium here is phenomenal. Once they clamp down and get into it, it is truly special. I have played some amazing matches here, but maybe not enough over the years. I’m happy I got through one tonight. Regardless if I won or lost it, it was special.”
But not as special as a dreamy Swiss athlete who is so incredible that time and again he makes the most miraculous of tennis turnarounds seem not ho-hum, but almost ordinary.
MARIN FOR THE WIN: For years, the Marin Cilic story has been a so-close-and-yet-so-far affair. The tall, quiet Croat has been at the brink of next-step Slam wins against the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, only to lose hold of the outcome. Today, less than a year after being forced out of the game due to an ITF suspension (eventually reduced) for “incautious use of glucose,” Cilic scored one of the biggest and most decisive wins of his career, a straight-set defeat of Tomas Berdych that brings him his second-ever Slam semi appearance.
Asked if he’s changed his approach to tennis, having known what it’s like to have the sport “taken away” from him, Cilic agreed: “It’s worth more now.” After Cilic’s win, IT’s Lucia Hoffman caught up with his coach, 2001 Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic:
What did you tell Marin beforehand?
He had to play aggressive, as he did at Wimbledon, because against these big guys, especially against Berdych, if you give him anything he will just kill you. You can go home.
Goran, Marin seems stronger mentally this year. Is that what you have been working on with him?
Yes, the last couple of months—let’s say, since the French Open—he started to believe in his game. Because it is not what I tell him. He has to believe it himself. He did it in the French, he did it at Wimbledon, he did it now, and that’s why he is in the semifinals at the US Open.
Marin has played the top players very close, but beating Berdych this way here today is big, right?
Yes, sometimes you have to step up, to be or not to be. In the quarterfinals, semis, finals, there’s not a big difference between these guys in [terms of] hitting balls, but winning is a huge gap. So, step by step, this is great for him. I am so proud of him.
Marin was away from the game [due to a four- month drug suspension], and he came back stronger since. Do you think being away made him see what he needed to work on?
He was away for nothing, you know. It’s justice now. It was not easy in the beginning of the year, but slowly, we worked on a few things, and he’s doing great.
I have to say that Berdych didn’t play unbelievably the first two sets. It was very soft from him, a pretty easy first two sets. After that, there was more pressure—[Marin] had to win the third set, he had to play really well when he needed to. He played a great tiebreaker. He really stepped up, especially on the last points, with big serves.
OMG: Federer hasn’t won the US Open since 2008, the longest current drought on his Slam resume.
THE REAL THING? During a fourth-set changeover in his match against Federer, Gael Monfils drank a can of Coke.
QUOTEBOOK—SPECIAL PAIN EDITION:
“He didn’t endure the pain of surgery to finish in the quarters.”—John McEnroe, on Andy Murray.
“The day after the tournament is over, the pains kick in.”—Flavia Pennetta
TO THE LEFT, TO THE LEFT: Going into her match against lefty Ekaterina Makarova, Serena said, “I always ask my dad, ‘Why wasn’t I a lefty?’ Even when I was younger, I wanted to be lefty. I could have been really good … Lefties are so cool. I love lefties. Maybe it’s just a hangup I have.”
SERENA THE WALLFLOWER? Serena‘s next opponent, Ekaterina Makarova, has said she likes to be “in the shadow” when it comes to public attention, and the woman in the leopard-print dress surprisingly relates. “I understand Makarova, especially when I was coming back,” said Serena. “It was like I was definitely more low profile. I called myself a dangerous floater. It’s fun almost, because no one expects anything from you, and you have no pressure, and you can just play so well.” Serena went on to describe herself as an “extremely shy individual.”
ARE ACES CONTAGIOUS? Dark horse US Open semifinalist Shuai Peng trained with Serena‘s coach Patrick Mouratoglou earlier this year.
GO FIGURE: Serena has been No. 1 for 67 straight weeks, but the US Open semis is her first Slam semi appearance this year … The foremost couple among active players—Maria Sharapova and Grigor Dimitrov—went one-for-eight in Slam singles appearances this year.
SPEAKING OF CATTY: Early in the Open, Maria Sharapova was asked about changing one rule in tennis and she used her answer to make a veiled jab at Ana Ivanovic, who’d recently taken a MTO against her. Now Grigor Dimitrov‘s friend from earlier times Dmitry Tursonov has gotten into the action. “She [Sharapova] would charge players for medical timeouts?” he asked Tennis World. “Well, then I would like to charge players for screaming on court.”
WATCH OUT, EUGENIE: Not quite, but it’s a start. Long sidelined by a wrist injury, Laura Robson is back on the court. Well, a mini-tennis court—hitting a sponge ball.
STRESS-FREE IN NEW YORK—UNTIL NOW: A while before Federer‘s quarterfinal match against Gael Monfils, Pat McEnroe said, “For Roger, the stress level just doesn’t exist.”
MARATHON KEI: Once plagued by injury-based retirements from matches, Kei Nishikori has played and won two straight five-set matches, both of which lasted over four hours. In fact, Nishikori has a career record of 10-1 in five-set matches
DESIGNER DERBY: The men’s semifinal battle between Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori will give Uniqlo some strong publicity. The two players are the Japanese clothing line’s most high-profile brand ambassadors.