US OPEN: MONDAY, MONDAY—CAN’T BEAT THAT DAY

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!


US OPEN: LEGAL AND LEGENDARY—SERENA GRABS HOLD OF THE ELUSIVE NUMBER 18

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.

Everybody lost.

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.


US Open: Top 12 Wildest Moments of Williams Sisters Lore

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.


US Open: The Day Tennis Changed—Nishikori Downs Djokovic, Cilic Stuns Federer

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.


US Open: Of Cramps and Champs, Woz and Williams, Wonders and Blunders

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?

QUOTEBOOK:

“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.”

HEADLINE:

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.”


US Open: The Mighty Fed’s Heroic Comeback—”Tonight Was Emotional for Me”

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.


US Open: Marin for the Win—and Serena the Wallflower?

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.


US Open: Building Up to a Fairy Tale—The Bryans are One Victory Away from 100 Titles

In conversations with Inside Tennis, USA Today, and the media, men’s doubles finalists Bob and Mike Bryan reflect on their storied career, luck, Federer and the possibility of winning their 100th tournament title here in New York at the US Open:

We live in a number-based society. What does the 100 milestone means to you?

It’s a number that you never thought you would ever achieve. It’s just a cool number to say. It rolls off the tongue. It would be nice to retire on that clean number. We might end our campaign out here, you never know [laughs].

… The 100 is going to come. There is no urgency. To do it here would be awesome, and a dream come true. If you do it anywhere, you do it in New York, your home Slam. But that number is going to come, no matter if it’s this week or next week. We just want to win the US Open, that’s the biggest thing. We haven’t won a Slam this year, so there’s that burn. You saw it out there tonight, we were just clawing and throwing everything we have at them.

And we want to play better. If we can get over the hump on Sunday, it’d be pretty amazing for us.

There’s that [lucky] penny [within wrist tape that Mike is unwrapping].

Yeah. How do you know that?

I know everything about you—you sleep on your left side.

I found this one in a car earlier this week and it’s my lucky one. It’s 2012. I found it on heads.

So, it’s like the tennis gods said, “Okay, we’ll give you a lot: make you twins—one lefty, one righty—and you’ll be raised and trained by tennis fanatics. But on the other hand, whenever you get close to a big milestone, we’re going put the brakes on you. It’s going to take you a while to achieve certain things.” It took you forever just to get on the Davis Cup team, and to tie the record of most doubles wins by the Woodies [Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge]—

There are always hurdles and milestones that you’re trying to reach. I remember we were stuck on that number of nine titles for a long time, trying to get the Gulliksons’ record of ten [titles for twins]. We got stuck on that for six months. We wanted that one so bad. We didn’t think we would ever get it. Finally got it in Barcelona. I remember we wrote Tim Gullikson’s name on our shoes. That was a big one. We didn’t win our first title for two years on tour. Finally got it in Memphis. There’s always things to check off the list. Playing that first Davis Cup was big, winning our first Grand Slam. One hundred titles—well, we were stuck on 98 for a couple of months there. We won our first title as 36-year-olds in Cincinnati.

Last year you came in here going for the Grand Slam.

We came in with an avalanche of success. We clinched No. 1 after Cincinnati, which is ridiculous. That’s never been done. We had 14,750 points, the next team had 4,000. Every big tournament, we were winning, which was just nuts. Maybe it had something to do with getting the gold medal and the confidence that brought, and the happiness that we had. This year we knew that we wouldn’t back that one up. But we’re having a consistent season, we’re No. 1. That’s really the goal from the start of the season. We look at the race all of the time, and we’re still at the top. But we’ve always had a successful season that comes with a Slam, so we want to get that here.

Are you back to earth more than you anticipated?

We’ve won four [now five] matches here, and we’ve won big titles. Winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back was important to us, a huge milestone.

If we are going to look at our year, we’d give it a B+, or a B. Winning four Masters series and six titles is good. It’s kind of been like Serena’s year, she’s been great outside the Slams.

What’s the one tournament you won where you really lucked out and you’re glad it’s on your resume? Or one that you should have won and didn’t?

Last year, we won 11 titles, but in four or five of them, we were down match points. Out here it can be just one point—there’s so much luck that’s involved. It’s crazy.

When you’re in those kinds of dicey situations, do you think there’s anything in particular that separates you guys from the others?

We play the percentages very well. On those really tight positions, we make our opponents play—like Bob makes first serves, that’s percentage doubles. I fill in the middle. You’ve got to make them hit their best shots.

Everyone says you have to make your own luck and take advantage of it when you get it. Talk about that.

You make luck by working hard and feeling like you deserve it in those big moments. When you put the work in, you have a peace of mind, and you can focus. When you feel like you haven’t done the hard yards, you feel undeserving, and that’s when you really need luck. But you make your own luck.

Do you remember a time in the last decade when you hadn’t won a Slam by this point in the year?

Yeah, in 2005 we hadn’t won a Slam. And in 2008, we didn’t win one until here.

Part of being such a great doubles team for so long is facing many good foes. What have you learned from some of the other teams you’ve faced?

You try to learn from those who came before you, like the Jensen brothers [Luke and Murphy]. Tennis is not just about the wins and losses. It’s also about entertainment. You want to show fans a good time. They were the masters of that, almost to a fault. Sometimes they let it interfere with their tennis.

As little kids watching those guys, we just had a blast. We even had a temporary Jensens tattoo in our arm. We watched a ton of them. The Woodies what they did without having power, the way they dissected teams was incredible. The Woodies really started using strategies in tennis. They kind of revolutionized doubles. Now you see a ton of different formations, “I” formation, plus a lot of other wild strategies going on. Over the years we became more professional, learnt how to keep our level high, without getting out of control, so now we don’t have the big highs and lows like we used to.

For many fans, you are the only doubles team they know.

Yes, we like to stand for doubles. We like to strategize our opponents and promote [the game] the best we can. A lot of fans say, “You are our favorite team.” And I go, “Who is your second favorite team?” A lot of times we are carrying the flag for doubles, but lots of fans love doubles, they play it. As you know, it’s very different from singles. Singles will take 99 percent of the [TV air] time, but you need doubles to complement singles. When we are done playing, maybe we will still be ambassadors for doubles, be commissioners for doubles [to make sure] it stays alive. 

Federer’s out there playing now. What can doubles players learn from the greatest singles players on the tour?

I love watching Roger. He never presses, he’s always relaxed, he never gets too high or too low. He’s loose before matches, he’s loose after matches, he’s always steady and calm. When you’re around him, it rubs off on you, and you feel like you’re more zen. He’s just a classy dude. He always stops and has a conversation, he never blows you off. A few guys blow me off daily. He never does.

Any names?

Legends of the game [laughs].

Left-handed legends of the game?

Yes.

Moving right along, does a tournament have a sort of intuitive sense, a momentum or feel of its own? At some point do you feel, “Hey, we’re on a roll, this is within our grasp”?

When you’re playing well, and your game is there, you don’t feel as nervous. I feel like that’s the case in this Slam. Whether we win or lose, I feel like everything is going well on the practice court, and I’m sleeping better at night. You have to make it happen, though. It feels like it’s building up to be a fairytale—our 100th title, and at the US Open—but last year was the same way. You have to make it happen, you have to go put there and beat a good team. They’re not just going to get spooked, and the gods aren’t going to wave a magic wand. You gotta go get it and keep playing aggressive.

How well do you think you’re playing at this point in the tournament?

I think we’re playing well. This last match was a definite true test. We’re playing good enough tennis to win a Slam, and yeah, we can kick it up a gear. I feel like things are clicking on the practice court and in the match. Tonight … there was a lot of adversity, and we were calm and rose to the occasion and that’s a good sign. We didn’t snipe at each other or say s— to each other, which was nice.

You were down break points at some key stages [in the quarterfinals]. At crunch time, when it’s all on the line, how do you deal with it internally? Do you try to stay calm at all costs, or do you rev it up?

You have to project a positive energy. Sometimes you’re just faking it until you make it, hoping to god that you’ll win a point.

It starts with your face. You have to have that air of confidence in the big moments.

You’ve said that you might want to be doubles commissioners one day. What’s the first thing that you would do?

When we’re done, doubles could fall by the wayside. Doubles guys get about 10% of the singles money at tournaments. If there’s not someone looking out for it, that number is going to get smaller and smaller. Someone has to make a stand and be sure that guys keep making a living, because if you’re top 30 in the world at anything you should be able to make a good living, and that’s not really the case in doubles. If you’re the top 30 lawyer in the world, you have a yacht. We have to make sure these guys can sustain a life out here.

Once again there are no more American men left in the singles. Do you feel any pressure as the only Americans left in the field?

No, luckily we don’t get all the negative press that comes with the spotlight. It’s good for us. We don’t feel the pressure of being the last Americans standing. It’s happened a bunch of times in Slams in the last ten years.

If you could change anything in your games—

I would like to add 20 pounds of muscle in my legs. I would like to have Fernando Gonzales’ forehand.

You first came up when Andre Agassi was an incredible leader of American men’s tennis. Then, for years, Andy Roddick was an inspirational leader. We all love John Isner, but he is different, such a laid back guy. He says he’s really focusing on his own play, his own career. Would you like to see him or Sam Querrey step up with a greater sense of urgency, and sort of say, “Come on guys we got to do it for America”?

John is such a laid back guy. He leads through his actions. Sam’s the same way. They are common guys. [They have] a different mentality than Courier and Sampras. Everyone is different.

You guys have had great, incredible careers in the juniors, college, pros. You’ve traveled the world. Whats the best part of being the Bryan brothers?

Just being with each other, I guess. It’s kinda built in. We like to do the same things. We like to wake up here every day with a purpose. But in a way, you never relax the mind, you are always thinking about the next match, the next technique to do better and improve. It will be nice, one day, to maybe relax.

So you feel a kind of responsibility [to each other]? 

Yes, we are kind of pushing each other. We are on the same page—obviously, we don’t want to switch partners. We want the best.


US Open: Shady Lady—Meet the Appealing, Enigmatic Russian Ekaterina Makarova

By Bill Simons

She’s oh so obscure, and oh so low-key.

Ekaterina (“You can call me Kate”) Makarova is perhaps the best tennis player you’ve never heard of.

The 26-year-old seems to have it all—well, except a Slam title.

She’s an “ova,” which we define as a tall, imposing Russian woman with a tendency to rather mercilessly beat the beeswax out of unsuspecting tennis wannabes.

She emerged from the fast-flowing Moscow tennis pipeline, which produces highly-refined, premium tennis whizzes the same way that Saudi Arabia produces crude oil. Naturally, she’s got an A-level pony-tail, and is tall (5′ 11″), though not too tall.

Her tennis resume is good, if not yet outstanding. After all, she’s No. 18 in the universe. Before the US Open, she’d reached the quarters of a Slam four times. But this afternoon, by efficiently dismissing a two-time Slam champ—the ailing Belarusian Victoria Azarenka—Makarova reached her first-ever Slam semi.

Okay, she doesn’t have much of a grunt, or a high-profile guy to coach her. (But Makarova is one of the few WTA players with a long-term female coach, Eugenia Maniokova.)

Makarova is different. Unlike some blonde Russians – from Anna Kournikova to Maria Sharapova—she prefers to be out of the limelight, and, as she says, “in the shade.”

With her distinctive nose and endearing beauty, she resembles the most media-shy beauty of our hype-heavy era: Stefanie Graf. Now Makarova hopes to become the first woman lefty to win the Open since Graf’s ace rival, Monica Seles, did it in 1992.

Makarova’s favorite player as a teen wasn’t typical. Instead of worshiping Venus, Serena, Maria, Kim Clijsters, or Justine Henin, she favored the rather forgotten 2004 French Open champ Anastasia Myskina, who has coached her. Plus, Makarova’s name touches off some heated press room debates. Does she have the best dance-related name—think “Macarena”—since the famous long-ago Butch Walts? (who hails from Modesto, California, not Vienna, Austria.)

There is no debating that Makarova has a gentle, sweet-as-a-macaroon personality. But she’s strong, too, and is now on a not-very-gentle roll. In July, she reached the Wimbledon quarters, and on Labor Day, she dismissed this year’s “It Girl,” Eugenie Bouchard, in straight sets.

Over the last two days, the player who some call “Ekat” has beaten Serena and Venus Williams in doubles (with her partner, Elena Vesnina) and two-time Aussie Open winner Azarenka. Those are wins over players who’ve collectively won 26 singles Slam titles, thank you very much.

Next up for Ekat is a catfight with the coolest cat in the game—Ms. Serena. But don’t worry, you hordes of Makarova fans: not only did the Russian just beat Serena in doubles, she defeated her in straight sets at the 2012 Australian Open.

Who knows what will happen? But one thing is clear. Again and again, Makarova has savored her anonymity. “I’m trying to stay in the shade a little bit, to be in my world,” she told IT after her win today.

But if the enigmatic, appealing Russian beauty wins one or two more matches in the Big Apple, that comforting canopy of anonymity that has shielded her from the hype machine will lift, and inevitably, Ekat will emerge from “the shade” into the light—the extremely bright and invasive spotlight.

QUESTION OF THE OPEN: Why so many upsets in the women’s draw? Serena is the only one of the top eight seeds to reach the quarterfinals.

JUST WONDERING: How incredible is it that Federer is making yet another amazing run at age 33?

WHAT, ME WORRY? Swede Mats Wilander was relieved when he was no longer No. 1—less hassle. Similarly, after he failed to defend his first US Open title, young Pete Sampras famously said, “I’m glad to have the monkey off my back.” In contrast, Federer relishes, with a quiet glee, the attention that comes with being perhaps the most famous athlete in the world. And clearly the lack of stress contributes to his health, longevity, and continued excellence.

A ONE-HIT WONDER, REVIVED: Not only did the Arthur Ashe Stadium DJ bust out “Macarena” upon Ekaterina Makarova‘s quarterfinal win, during the late stages of the Wawrinka-Nishikori match on Ashe Stadium, Stan’s fans used that tune and began calling out, “Hey, Stan Wawrinka!”

A GOOD YEAR FOR LEFTIES: Rafa Nadal almost always delivers on the men’s side, but 2014 has been a good year for lefties on the women’s tour. Three of eight quarterfinalists at this year’s Wimbledon—Petra Kvitova, Lucie Safarova, and Ekaterina Makarova—were lefties, and Kvitova went on to hoist the Venus Rosewater Dish. Now Makarova has reached the semis in New York.


US Open: The Happy Birthday Heard ‘Round the World—and Michael Chang on the Asian Tennis Explosion

VIKA THE PAINT-PEELING SONGBIRD: Serving much bigger than her height would seem to allow, and displaying great shotmaking variety, lightning foot speed, and cool tomboy composure, qualifier Aleksandra Krunic was the talk of Arthur Ashe Stadium last night. 

That is, until Vika Azarenka decided to use the on-court interview after her hard-fought 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Krunic to wish “best friend” Gael Monfils a happy birthday. Vika’s pitch-impaired rendition of “Happy Birthday” instantly set off a storm of reactions online. Was it an attempt to ingratiate herself with the crowd that turned out awkward and grating? Was it a prank? Or was it simply goofy and endearing? On Vine, a brief loop of Vika yowling (while Krunic picked at her nails with a Mona Lisa smile on her face) was nearing 50,000 loops. “#embarrassyourbestfriend” was trending on Twitter.

What was Monfils’ reaction? “He texted me that he loves me very much,” Vika good-naturedly said afterward, stressing that they are friends, not romantically involved. “I just wanted to wish him happy birthday. I wanted to make it special. He was really touched. So I think that was kind of cool.”

LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP: Vika announced on court that Gael Monfils is her “best friend.” After her fourth-round win yesterday, Serena Williams was asked if her friendship with newly-single and fierce Caroline Wozniacki has grown stronger in recent months. “We have always been friends, but it’s definitely grown a lot,” said Serena, who has beaten Wozniacki twice this summer. “You know, we love each other, but at the same time we want to win. It’s an interesting friendship and unique. I think it will last way past tennis, which is great.”

DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY: “I just feel happy, I feel good, so I make a good game,” said Gael Monfils, after dispatching Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets to reach the quarters.

IF IT AIN’T BROKE, DON’T FIX IT: Gael Monfils, who is now without a coach, said maybe he’ll remain that way.

COMEBACK MANIA: Last week, 25-year-old Nicole Vaidisova signaled she may attempt a return to the tour by placing her name on the entry list of a $75,000 pro circuit event in New Mexico. Now, ten years after her 2004 retirement, 38-year-old Jennifer Capriati is hinting on Twitter that she’d like to make a comeback.

CICI STUMBLES, BUT OTHERS STEP FORWARD: The Cinderella story of  15-year-old CiCi Bellis at this year’s Open came to a close in singles when the girls’ top seed was upset by 17-year-old Natalia Vikhlyantseva, who hit a 114mph serve and averaged 104mph on first serve. Ironically, in both the women’s and girls’ draws, Bellis lost three-set matches (both times winning the middle set) in the second round. Fellow Northern Californian Michaela Gordon, a girls’ semifinalist at Wimbledon, also lost. But Taylor Harry Fritz, Francis Tiafoe, and Jared Donaldson moved on to the third round on the boys’ side, and Katerina Stewart and Raveeena Kingsley advanced in the girls’ tournament.

ARE YOU READY TO BE A MAN? As they interviewed rising American junior Jared Donaldson, the Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo and Jon Wertheim came up with some curious queries. “You’re from Rhode Island,” came one question. “Not exactly a tennis hotbed. Plus, your Dad is a golfer. How’d you get here?” Carillo wondered, “Do you get the bends going from the pros to the juniors?” and “We see you out there grinding it out in three-out-of-five sets. Are you ready to be a man?”

HEADLINES:

• GENIE OUT OF WISHES

• FEDERER IS THE GREATEST…AT STANDING AROUND AND SIGNING STUFF

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Serena Williams served four double faults in a row when she and sister Venus lost in doubles at Wimbledon. Today, she double-faulted the last two points away in her and Venus’s loss to Elena Vesnina and potential singles opponent Ekaterina Makarova.

THE SECRET SEMIFINALIST: In the first women’s quarterfinal, China’s Shuai Peng dismissed highly-touted Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-1. Peng’s stats in the tournament so far are scarily impressive. Her serve hasn’t been broken since the first set of her second-round win over No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

GO FIGURE: Shuai Peng‘s winner count (110) almost doubles her unforced error count (60) going into the semifinals … It’s been nine Slams since Venus and Serena won a doubles title at a major (Wimbledon in ’12).

CHANG ON THE ASIAN TENNIS EXPLOSION—”I FEEL PROUD”: Last night, Japan’s Kei Nishikori reached the second Slam quarterfinal of his career with a five-set come-from-behind win over the Canadian ace master Milos Raonic. Nishikori’s coach Michael Chang was watching from the stands. With an under-the-radar Shuai Peng blitzing her way to the women’s semis and Nishikori overcoming the tall Raonic, the time seems right to excerpt some relevant passages from an interview IT’s Bill Simons did with Chang earlier this year, on the 25th anniversary of Chang’s heroic title run at Roland Garros:

Answering a question where your name came up during the Australian Open, Li Na kind of brushed aside your influence on Asian tennis, saying “Oh, he’s American.” You were born in Hoboken, then spent time in Minneapolis and California. Could you talk about where you started and where things are today? They’re building a $50 million stadium in Li Na’s hometown.

I think she’s right in a respect, but she maybe doesn’t quite understand that as an American you come from so many different cultures and heritages. If I was living in America and I had no interest in going to or playing in China, it would make more sense. Under the circumstances, coming from an Asian background, a Chinese background, there were always interests to promote the sport in Asia, especially China. At that time there were hardly any tournaments there. There was no Beijing Open. I really think that those tournaments started because I was [excelling]. There were other tournaments that popped up on that schedule. The Japan Open was already going on, but you had tournaments in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and in Indonesia, and a lot of those tournaments popped up because, “Hey, there’s an Asian doing well.” I’ve certainly played my share of exhibition matches over there. My doing well helped to put tennis on the map, but it isn’t necessarily comparable to what Li Na has done. I’m not one to say how much influence she has, but it’s been huge in China. But I feel like she had a stepping stone from when I was doing well.

It’s great for the sport. It’s huge now that China not only has tournaments, but that big tournaments are played there. The tour championships have been played there, and there’s a men’s Masters and a women’s Tier I event there.

I feel proud. I’m American, but I’m Chinese, too. I feel proud that the Chinese women are doing well and that tennis is taking off in China. I’ve hit with quite a few people over there, and one interesting thing is that all of the politicians over in China are excellent tennis players.

Years ago at the US Open, I asked what your favorite story in the Bible was, and you said David and Goliath. What’s your take on that—is it just the small guy beating the big guy, or is there more to it?

I think a lot of it has to do not only with the small guy beating the big guy, but also from a spiritual aspect, and depending on and having faith in god.

Throughout my life and my tennis career, I’ve always been the smaller guy, and to be honest with you, a lot of times, the bigger guy does win. But what’s given me a great deal of strength is knowing god’s with me, and because he’s with me, anything can happen. No longer is it about guys or strength or talent or ability. We all work hard and try to get the most out of the gifts that we have, and certainly on the tennis court that’s true. But you know as well as I do that it’s not always the bigger guy who wins, it’s not always the most talented guy who wins, and it’s not always the biggest servers or the best shotmakers. Tennis doesn’t always work out that way. If that were the case, you would see all of these big guys dominating tennis and being in the top 10, rather than guys like Rafa or Ferrer or even Federer. Federer’s not a huge guy, but he’s certainly incredibly talented.

For me, the story gave me a sense of knowing that I can step out on the court against the best players in the world, no matter who they are and what they’ve accomplished, and feel like I’ve got a great chance to win. A lot of that is having faith and belief that with god anything is possible.


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