Things We Learned over Labor Day Weekend at the US Open

1. The future is here

Whether it was Ana Konjuh’s decisive win over Aga Radwanska on Monday night, or Lucas Pouille’s 5-set victory over Rafael Nadal, it’s clear that the next generation of the ATP and WTA tours is ready to make their mark. Konjuh’s victory was remarkable for how steady and assured it was. Granted, with Radwanska’s relative lack of firepower, a power hitter will always have a chance. But, Konjuh’s assured, line-hitting strokes made it impossible for Aga to use her variety to get into the match. Next up is Karolina Pliskova, who will present an entirely different challenge to the Croatian 18-year old. But, if she shows the resolve she did on Monday, it’s not hard to imagine her getting through that one.

As for Pouille, what isn’t to like? He showed a lot of confidence in his bold play on Sunday. His consistently deep groundstrokes kept Rafa well behind the baseline, and he kept up his play even as the pressure mounted. Perhaps the shot that best encapsulates the match was Pouille’s line-skimming winner on match point — he used his deep shots to draw a weak response, and walked in and took it. Just like the match. That said, three five-setters is a lot, even for a 22 year old. He has a real chance against Gael Monfils, if he’s not too tired.

2. Rafa?

It’s hard to even make a sentence out of where Rafa is right now. He seems to be in a good place physically, which is surely a relief for him. On the other hand, his game has always been greater than the sum of its parts — sure, there are great shots, the topspin, the fast movement, and volleys, but what has made him a champion is the combination of all of these idiosyncratic parts with his simple refusal to lose matches. Some of his recent woes have to do with a slight loss in quality of the parts — he’s a little slower coming in and out of the corners, and his shots are not quite as deep as they used to be. But some of it is a loss of the cloak of invincibility — he’s looked nervous in the last couple of years, and, even though we saw his usual snarl and strut as he fought his way to a fifth set against Lucas Pouille on Sunday, he just didn’t have the same nerve that we are used to seeing.

I don’t think anyone knows what the answer is — part of Rafa’s ethos has always been that he would “suffer” more than others — outwork, outlast, and eventually outplay. But, is that enough against younger, faster competition? And if not, what does that do to his confidence? By contrast, Federer’s confidence has always seemed to come more from his belief in his innate talent — so even if slower, the talent isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the confidence. Rafa’s confidence, on the other hand, has seemed shakier in tough moments.

I would guess that Rafa’s camp, like the rest of us, is trying to figure out what is happening. Rafa’s contemporaries have been far more willing to tinker with their games (and diets) over the years, from Murray’s work with Mauresmo and Lendl, to Djokovic’s diet, to Federer’s racquet change — while Rafa has stuck to his tried and true formula.

It’s not just that Rafa hasn’t won a Slam since 2014, it’s that he hasn’t made it past a quarterfinal since winning the 2014 French Open. By contrast, Federer hasn’t won a Slam since 2012, but he has made the quarterfinals or better in every Slam he has played since the 2014 French Open, except one, and he has played in three finals, and he’s shown marked improvement since the dog days of 2013. Rafa seems to be treading water.

Rafa isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so he’s got time to figure it out. Some of it may be assessing where he is losing out in the match-ups, and trying to shore up some of the game, either with new point construction or perhaps changes in equipment, or even some manner of coaching consultant, or all of the above. But he’s got to be open minded enough to try.

3. Grigor?

Oh man, was that a beatdown last night. One has to wonder what Dani Vallverdu did to provide constant inspiration to Andy Murray whenever he faces one of Dani’s charges. Note to self, don’t leave Andy Murray’s coaching staff.

But, that’s only part of the story. Grigor Dimitrov has a lot of talent, and he is, by all appearances a hard worker. After all, he made it through the Roger Rasheed bootcamp. But, he is just not putting it together in matches. This year has been a significant improvement over last, so that’s the good news. But he desperately needs a tactician type coach to work with him on point construction and really targeting an opponent’s weaknesses. Would it have worked against Murray last night? Likely not, but he has to start somewhere. For someone who has modeled his game on the pretty of Roger Federer, he needs a dose of winning ugly from Brad Gilbert.

4. Venus!

Sure, she lost on Monday, but Venus has looked the best we’ve seen her in years. Even her loss to Karolina Pliskova was a well-played match, in general. Sure, there were too many errors, but that’s been a part of Venus’ game from the start. What was encouraging to see was the fight that Venus showed, particularly in saving 3 match points in the third set to push the match to a tiebreak. If anything, Venus is proof positive that there is always time to improve, and to make the best of the talent you have and the circumstances you face. Long may she play!

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