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

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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?”

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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.