Impressions from Thursday at the US Open

By Skip Schwarzman

Thursday promises to be just lovely, with a high of 81º, in contrast to yesterday’s heat. On the other hand, the schedule for today is light on singles matches of heft. Before the Open began using three days to get through the first round, the first Wednesday’s order of play was always like this: heavy on doubles, that is to say really heavy, with a scattering of singles. Now, with the new schedule, Thursday is the new Wednesday.

At 8 AM the Brooklyn sky is totally clear of clouds, a beautiful blue. I get to see it from the roof deck of my cousin’s new flat, with a fabulous view of Lower Manhattan. Then comes the ride out to the tennis on the BQE. In this regard, nothing’s changed: you could almost walk there faster.

Vasek Pospisil/Jack Sock vs. Jarkko Nieminen/Henri Kontinen:

I set out to watch Michael Llodra versus Philip Kohlschreiber (more on that later), but Llodra retired after losing the first set, so by the time I arrived Court 5 was empty. Next door, on 6, was this doubles match, and I gave it some time.

Truth to tell it wasn’t particularly good doubles. The points were short, too often ending in an error, particularly from the perspective of the Double Finn Duo of Nieminen/Kontinen, since they lost the first set. Pospisil and Sock, recent surprise Wimbledon champs, were large and in charge, but the points weren’t terribly interesting.

What was interesting was the big crowd in attendance, which was firmly in the Sock camp. I’d seen proven masters of the doubles game on Wednesday, Paes and Stepanek, provide a much more entertaining match, but in front of a smaller crowd, so these folks didn’t show up because the tennis was great. How many spectators knew Pospisil and Sock had won Wimbledon? A good number, but not all. How many know Sock’s had a good summer US hard court campaign? Probably more than know about the Wimbledon trophy. It appears that home town boy (American, anyway) + recent notoriety = big crowds.

Televised tennis may irk us with its frequent focus on the celebrity quotient in deciding which matches to broadcast, but there’s some truth to what spectators really want to see. Or perhaps that’s more true in live tennis; maybe the star factor doesn’t translate as well to televised matches. The fact that Pospisil and Sock both give fans well-scrubbed faces to cheer for probably doesn’t hurt.

On the flip side, I know there are some who are left cold by Nieminen’s game, but the Finnish human Woodstock look-alike has often sported the best hair on the ATP tour. That, plus his still hanging tough at 33 years old, merited a look at his match.

Benoit Paire vs. Pablo Carreño Busta:

Two years ago I purposely went to watch Paire play Grigor Dmitrov, in a battle of of young shotmakers. After watching the two of them each attempt to play Tennis of The Gods, and not once step back from the challenge, I walked away after only a set, wondering how they could hit the ball so well yet not understand how to play the game. Both of them didn’t construct points so much as attempt to play fantabulous shots whenever possible; more often than not it wasn’t possible.

The most fundamental of tennis concepts, that of simply being the last guy to get the ball in play – in any point, in any manner – was completely foreign to both of them.

After that match in 2012, I’d walked over to see Llodra play, yes, you guessed it, Philipp Kohlschreiber. At the time it was a competition between players ranked in the 30s, and it was great. Hard fought, with each player making the shots they should make, occasionally pulling off shots they had no right to make, lots of good gets, a high percentage of first serves in play, and a willingness to try and elicit errors from each other, to draw out the errors, and not just force them into existence.

In other words, theirs was the exact opposite of the Paire/Dmitrov playbook. And all the more enjoyable for it.

Since then, Grigor Dmitrov seems to have left the Dark Side and signed on with the Force. His game has matured, exhibiting an attitude of Only Do/Not Try, and because of it his results have generally started to improve.

Paire, however, continues to take tea on a regular basis with Palpatine.

On each of the first two points in the first game, which Carreño served, Paire wailed on his first forehands, both of which stayed in Flushing thanks only to the fencing. By the time the first six points of the match were over, Paire had already hit two dropshots, both of them rather poor, both of them giving Carreño the opening to win the point. It didn’t get better from there.

Yes, he hit a bunch of outrageous shots. Fabulous stuff. In the aggregate, though, he sadly still believes (incorrectly … duh) that those shots are worth two points, or maybe three if it’s a really, really incredible shot and he gets to make the other guy look foolish. And if those shots didn’t go in, or win the point outright, on the following point he’d hit as if he could not possibly care less about the proceedings.

I’d be doing Paire a disservice if I failed to mention that he might have had something wrong with his left knee, or foot. It doesn’t legitimize his attitude, but it gives some context. His left knee had the always popular physio tape, in a lovely shade of cerise that matched his sneakers, which he called out the trainer to change at 1/4 down in the first set. And, as I’ve noticed with a lot of players, it looks like he’s flatfooted on his left side.

Which is the chicken and which the egg, the bad knee or the flat foot, I can’t say, but his gait had a hitch in it off the left side. It’s hard to imagine that that doesn’t contribute to knee or foot problems.

Don’t think for moment that he kept all his inner turmoil to himself. Au contraire. Besides general wailing, moaning and Gallic phuffing, he yelled and screamed at the ump, Jake Garner. Paire refused the reality that when close balls that are out, they’re out. “Hey, hey, hey, don’t you watch the ball? It’s not the first time!” (That’s a direct quote, ‘cause I thought it worth noting verbatim, from somewhere near the middle of the first set. Yeah, that deep into the match.)

Paire managed to take the third set. By then the match was rather juicy, but he didn’t have the stuffing to make more of the competition than that, and he lost the fourth in a pretty straightforward manner. His excellent win in the first round, where he beat Julien Benneteau, went to waste. Was it his foot, or knee? I don’t think so. Any injury was only a means to validate his attitude.

I’ve decided: Benoit Paire, the world’s best playing and oldest petulant junior.

Simone Bolelli vs. Tommy Robredo:

Friend Gene, at about 4/4 in the first: “Hmmph. Not much between them, eh?” This is a match of all-but-mirror-images. Very much the same game for both of them, with Bolelli being a bit bigger and stronger, his shots having just enough additional weight to give him a 4% leg up, on average. Lots of heavy groundstrokes from each of them, both with one-handed backhands, biggish serves (if not Isner-like, they notch virtually the same highest speed, but Bolelli has about nine mph higher average on firsts), and a willingness to volley (and volley well), if not greatly motivated to come in. Bolleli’s forehand is the bigger of the two.

That 4% higher average-weight-of-shot showed, as Bolelli takes the first two sets; but they’re close, 7/5 and 7/6. From what we saw, which was only the first set, it came down to his making more of any short balls Robredo gives up, as compared to Robredo’s ability (disinclination?) to take the additional risk inherent in trying to punish Bolelli for dropping shots mid-court.

Then again, Robredo wins in five. The Tortoise And The Hare plays out once again.

Bolelli is wearing the same kit he had when I saw him in the dubs on Wednesday: a shirt with an American flag stars & bars motif on the right sleeve, and a logo that’s a skull. Whose stuff is that? Why is an Italian wearing the American flag? How could this American not have heard about this clothing? Someone in his camp wore a t-shirt with the logo big as life.

Borna Coric vs. Victor Estrella Burgos:

Coric defeated Lukas Rosol in the first round, heady stuff for an 18-year-old. Those who look deeper than most into the junior world have made early sightings of him, working towards real results. Here he’s come through qualifying, thanks in part to Thiemo de Bakker’s retiring in their first round match, but he then beat 16 year old (!) Stefan Kozlov, and Wimbledon’s feel-good-story-guy Jimmy Wang. He earned his spot in the main draw.

This past July, at Umag, he posted wins over Roger-Vasselin and Zeballos before falling to Fognini in three sets. In Davis Cup he notched a win over Janowicz. Those are all results that merit paying attention to him.

Burgos, a resurgent pro from the Dominican Republic who’s now at 80 in the world, was just featured in a New York Times article. Consequently, the cheering sections are Croatia v Dominican Republic. It’s lively, but all friendly.

From this viewing, I can’t say there’s enough of Coric on display for me to have much of an opinion of his game. His CV shows that he’s clearly competent. Is he more than that? He’s got easy power, though not a ton of it, and a clean service motion that delivers solid heat with regularity. His backhand is of the David Ferrer, two-handed shovel variety (not a lot of follow-through with the racquet head, lots of off-hand push), but without Ferrer’s separation on the grip between his hands. And without Ferrer’s Gibraltar-like consistency.

On the plus side, his shot selection is entirely mature. He rarely makes silly errors (hey, it happens sometimes, we’re all human), and knows there are times to pull the trigger. He’s not unwilling to come in, and has a solid idea of what to do when he does volley.

Bottom line, from this viewing: he’s young. It’s too early to make strong projections. Keep watching. (P.S. He lost, in four sets.)

Nick Krygios vs. Andrea Seppi:

In an incredibly fortuitous contrast/compare court assignment, this match was right next to the Coric/Burgos match. This tourney’s Young Guy To See next to The Last Guy Who Was Young That We Had To See. They were on courts 5 and 6, respectively. As I mentioned yesterday, a good seat at these courts gives you the chance to watch a whole lot o’ tennis, as well as the practice courts if you set yourself up correctly.

I didn’t watch Krygios/Seppi really closely, but caught more than enough of it to see that Krygios physicality is far, far greater than Coric’s. Yes, the Aussie is two years older than the Croat, but Krygios is just a massive guy, and his game is built around that. (see: Andy Roddick on playing the new bunch of big guys: “You can’t teach 6’7”.”) Whether Coric will acquire enough other skills to offset a relative lack of avoirdupois, and hauteur, remains to be seen.

Krygios understands how to play Seppi. Basically, he body punches the Italian continually; heavy groundstokes left, right and center, eventually drawing either an error or an opening for the haymaker.

Seppi, aka The Italian Gilles Simon Lite, does his best but can’t hang, and can’t move the Aussie around frequently enough, or over enough long points, to get Krygios to start missing. Krygios moves on in three sets, which are close, but probably not as close as the score might suggest. He was pretty much the boss all throughout.

My apologies for not getting any time at women’s matches. I tried for Pennetta/Rogers, but didn’t get over to their court in time. Stosur had a longer match, but the timing wasn’t good for me. (And evidently not for her, either, as she lost in the 3rd set breaker.) Similarly, I wanted (but failed) to see Pavlyuchenkova/Gibbs, and Venderweghe/Navarro, as a result of getting involved in the men’s matches and some socializing.

But hey, that’s what a day at the Open is like, at least as I’ve always played it. You hope a match catches fire, and you invest time waiting for it ignite, or choose match ups intriguing enough to warrant getting a seat and pondering the nuances of contrasting styles and personalities, all the while knowing you’re always going to be missing something else.

I did see the last two games of Varvara Lepchenko’s getting the win over Mona Barthel, and while that didn’t tell me much about either of them, I’m always thrilled to see a fellow Pennsylvanian succeed (Allentown, PA, by way of Uzbekistan).

Here’s one question, however, and my simple version of the answer: Why are there so many funky service motions on the women’s tour, and shaky serves, and not on the men’s? My basic answer: coaches have found that it’s easier to teach a big return game, the parents of juniors want results from early on, serves take a long time to develop, and (low) societal expectations let us develop girls/women with fundamentally weak serves; there’s no physiological reason for women to have poor service motions. Discuss …

There was the better part of the three-hour return journey to Philly ahead of me. I could easily have stayed to watch Cici Bellis, to say nothing of the very end of a number of other matches. But I wimped out, and headed home at 7 o’clock. Good thing, too. There were three accidents on the Van Wyck, average speed 11.7 mph. I had lots of time to reflect on the day.

2 Responses

  1. q10
    q10 August 31, 2014 at 9:00 pm |

    nice article. Much agreed about Paire, he has some talent, but can not pull it together like Dimitrov has. Interesting point about women’s service …never thought about it too much, just assumed that possible height and strength increase in men’s game tailored to more of a serve focused game

  2. skip1515
    skip1515 September 1, 2014 at 12:02 pm |

    q10: No doubt you are right about the men being more serve-focused; as a group women don’t have the same strength/leverage/height as men, and today’s racquets, grips and swing technique have made it far easier to take big cuts at the ball and keep it in play, so it’s natural for them to be more focused on breaking serve as a fundamental strategy. I get that.

    That doesn’t explain why there are more women with shaky serves, or more service motions that are, errrr, unusual. Berdych and Granollers have tosses that are extra high, but generally the men’s service motions are more fluid (if not always as finely tuned as they could be for the most power and spin).

    For my part, I’m going to stick with blaming the coaching establishment, parental impatience for results in the juniors, and our (i.e., everybody’s) willingness to accept a low standard for women’s serves.

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