The Notebook: US Open 2016 (II)

The last of tennis’ Grand Slams ended last Sunday in Queens, NY after two first-time Champions were crowned during the weekend, and it was fitting that a season oversaturated of competition during the summer months was capped with the triumphs of two dogged, late-maturing sensations.

Both Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka devoted huge chunks of their career to ironing out playing styles that lacked some fundamentals to reach the summit, but since their breakthroughs they’ve wholly justified their place amongst the game’s rarefied heaven of big-time Champions, with the performances on the courts of Flushing Meadows solidifying a legacy few would have predicted not too long ago.

However, much more transpired in New York over the second part of the fortnight and it was worth compiling a few considerations on some of the other players that found themselves under the spotlight, whether by defying the odds or falling short of expectations.

I obviously encourage you to check out the first instalment that focused on the earliest action before diving into this final chapter, in which I started by highlighting a few ladies before moving to the men. Miss Kerber is the first on the spot while Mr. Wawrinka closes the book.

 

Angelique Kerber

Absolutely astonishing is how one would describe the year Angelique Kerber is having, fuelling one of the major storylines of the sports world in 2016.

The German, which had her breakout performance at the 2011 US Open by reaching the semi-finals as an unassuming 23-year-old, established her niche on the top 10 since then but always seemed to lack substance or power to take the next step into “Grand Slam contender” territory. Thus, for a player that hadn’t made it past the third round of a Major in 2015, outmanoeuvring Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January during a punishing third set battle was stunning and, in hindsight, the moment that unlocked the door to greatness.

Except for the underwhelming appearance at RG, where the weight of being a Grand Slam Champion was still sinking in, Kerber’s season has been close to impeccable, delivering at Wimbledon (Final) and the Olympics (silver) before putting the cherry on top at the US Open. She has amassed the most wins on Tour by a large margin (54 to Halep’s 40), attended seven finals, including her first three in Majors, and her tennis improved by leaps and bounds in every surface. When the World No 1 was secured late last week, she had already backed up the achievement with her performance and regularity, regardless of Serena Williams’ self-imposed (extra-) light schedule.

Angelique Kerber’s forehand has been fundamental for her improvement in 2016

In New York, the progresses in her game flourished in the latter rounds to perfectly summarize her improbable ascendance in front of a horde of casual tennis fans. First, she was able to patiently overcome a tricky player that denies any kind of rhythm during ball exchanges in last year’s finalist Roberta Vinci, stepping in the court aggressively to control the points while keeping the unforced errors in check. Then, she wrestled against a motivated Caroline Wozniacki that ventured much farther than usual, and dealt with continual moonballs with aplomb, displaying improved agility to whip accurate forehands inside out and down the line.

Lastly, facing in the final a player that had recently delayed her dream of becoming the world leader with a humbling loss, the German showed everything pundits had been raving about. Her improved fitness, essential to sustain the haymakers coming from the other end, the killer instinct to pounce when Plíšková’s serve flinched, and the mental strength to dial back in after losing her first set on the entire tournament. Her lefty swats on the run turned some points upside down delivering winners from unsuspected positions, and she picked her spots thoughtfully, with her forehand opening angles that explored the Czech’s debilities moving around the court and forced untimely net approaches.

At age 28, Angie Kerber is the oldest player to debut at the top of the WTA rankings by more than three years, but she has enough time to add more silverware to her résumé at a time when Serena Williams seems to be finally sliding downhill, established names are out (Viktoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova), and other challengers struggle to find the right balance (Garbiñe Muguruza, Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova). The future will bring new tests, none more significant than entering every match with a target on her back, but the German’s maturity resonates well with an ultimately fruitful period at the top of the game.

Karolína Plíšková

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The first thing that stands out when looking at Karolína Plíšková are those infinitely long legs. The second is her serve, and both are inherently correlated, as the Czech boasts one of the best deliveries in the WTA Tour, capable of banking aces with unmatched consistency. Couple that with a powerful forehand that can cause havoc from the baseline, and you’ve got a player with the tools to supplant any opponent on a good day.

Unfortunately for Plíšková, those days never seemed to arrive at a Slam, as the 24-year-old struggled to deliver in the biggest tournaments despite competing in more than a dozen finals since 2014. Until the 2016 US Open, the Czech had never reached the second week of a Grand Slam in 17 appearances, but at least she made it count when the opportunity finally arose, taking down both Williams’ sisters in the process, something only three other players had done before at a Major.

Escaping a thunderous fourth-round encounter against Venus, when she had to save match points, was probably the click she needed and Serena was left to palate the finest version of Plíšková’s game. For instance, on the semi-final match, the long-limbed Plíšková was absolutely impenetrable on her service games, winning more than 80% of the points on the first serve and surrendering just one break point to one of the most accomplished returners in the game. Additionally, the 24-year-old also rocketed several laser shots past Serena, especially in important points, and exhibited an ice cool presence with the sets on the line, with no discernible signs of distress on her play when it counted the most.

Perhaps tapping on her experiences on a couple of Fed Cup finals, Plíšková seemed to thrive with all eyes on her and produced the shock of the women’s draw to extend a run of 11 consecutive triumphs dating back to Cincinnati.

On those, she had defeated five top ten players, including Angelique Kerber, but the rematch against the German wouldn’t be as successful under different circumstances. Kerber neutralized Plíšková’s serve and lethal groundstrokes with solid defensive skills and superior stamina, and was able to puncture back using her own delivery, regularly angling the ball towards Plíšková’s backhand and taking advantage of feeble returns to assume control with her forehand. Nonetheless, the Czech was still able to snatch the second set before falling at the end of the decider, a brave performance at her maiden Grand Slam Final

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Even if the most successful fortnight of Plíšková’s career didn’t end with the trophy aloft on her hands, the lanky Czech left New York under an entirely different aura, having discarded the underachiever label, and with newfound objectives after sealing a new career-high ranking of No.6. She should be excited for what lies ahead, especially if she keeps improving her movement and finds a way to ensure bigger margins of error when dictating the play.

Serena Williams

Coming off a dispiriting loss early at the Olympic competition, Serena Williams arrived in NY under intense scrutiny over her mental and physical condition, but for the first four matches she was her usual self, looking unattainable, dispatching opponents with ease and cruising without conceding a single service game. However, at the quarter-finals, Simona Halep would force the American to long rallies and a taxing three-set battle,  which exposed a few cracks that Karolína Plíšková would accentuate 24h later.

Reportedly hobbled by a knee injury and supporting a shoulder in less than ideal conditions, the mighty Serena was beaten at her own game, unable for much of the match to deal with the Czech’s vertiginous serve and struggling to impose her ball-striking powers. The defeat in just two sets was finalized by a double fault on match point and Serena was left to re-enact the scene of last year, striding to the net to congratulate a foe that had just achieved her most memorable victory whereas the Arthur Ashe Stadium processed what had just happened.

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Soon to be 35 years old, the American lost her World No.1 after 186 consecutive weeks, a record-tying period that she’ll probably share for a long time with Steffi Graf, but it’s reasonable to expect she’ll regain the honour until the end of a season that hasn’t been up to her lofty standards.

Serena reached three Grand Slam finals and one SF in 2016, but only conquered one big trophy (Wimbledon) while looking more vulnerable than ever. Until Wimbledon 2015 her W-L record in Grand Slam semifinals and finals was 46-7 but is just 4-4 since, a sign that her rivals are finally catching up. It’s almost certain she’ll get that elusive 23rd Major sooner or later, but maybe somewhere next year (not yet at Australia, if healthy) she’ll start a big tournament without being the odds-on favourite. It’s about time for a change of the guard.

Ana Konjuh

On the tournament that crowned the oldest No.1 in women’s tennis history, another statistic caught my eye: only 8 teenagers were entered in the main draw in comparison with 20 players aged 30 or older. Slowly but steadily, the female tour is going through the same path experienced by the men, one where youngsters increasingly need more time to mature their game and emerge at the top.

Thus, in this era is naturally newsworthy that an 18-year-old woman breaks into the last eight of Slam, even if Ana Konjuh has been tipped as a future star for some time. A two-time Junior Grand Slam Champion, the Croatian’s progress was slowed down by injuries after she turned professional in 2014, shortly after celebrating her 16th birthday, but she always seemed primed for the type of breakout performance we got to witness in New York. World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwańska may have survived match points in the second round of Wimbledon last July, when an untimely step on a misplaced ball incapacitated Konjuh, but this time she was unquestionably bested by the teenager from Dubrovnik.

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

Throughout the match, spectators watched as winners rained on the Pole off both sides with Konjuh mingling eye-popping power with efficient shot selection and ample doses of spin, conjuring a heavy ball that her opponent just couldn’t handle and is bound to claim more victims in the future. Moreover, the Croat also showcased a booming serve that yields a fair amount of aces and is part of Konjuh’s arsenal despite her unremarkable frame.

A lopsided quarter-final defeat at the hands of Karolína Plíšková proved the Croatian prodigy still has a ways to go to fully deliver on the promise, but the potential is evident. Konjuh is now on the verge of the top 50, yet regularly competing in the latter stages of top events should be her hallmark in the near future.

Anastasija Sevastova

For me it’s one of the appeals of women’s tennis: the amount of unseeded players that Major after Major are able to break through the draws, reach the latter stages of the tournament and then proceed to keep toiling away after that. It’s a product of a WTA Tour that is, recognizably, more susceptible to upsets and Cinderella campaigns seldom seen in the men’s tour.

Just in 2016, we had already seen Shuai Zhang, who had never won a match in a Grand Slam, take down Halep and Madison Keys to grab a last eight spot in Melbourne, no less than three unheralded players (Kiki Bertens, Shelby Rogers and Tsvetana Pironkova) sweep away seed after seed at Roland Garros, and Elena Vesnina plod around Wimbledon to set up an encounter with Serena in the SF.

Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

At Flushing Meadows, the feel-good story had the face of a 26-year-old Latvian still fresh of a two year retirement due to several nagging injuries, who just one year ago passed incognito through the US Open qualifying while on a season-long comeback to the top 200.

While true that on her first tour of duty Sevastova had been a solid performer, ranking as high as 36 at age 21, winning a WTA title and reaching the second week of the Australian Open, there wasn’t a lot pointing to a possible breakthrough before the US Open, as her top performance of 2016 was in Bucharest, where she was battered (6-0, 6-0) by Simona Halep in the final.

However, with a lot of help from a discombobulated Garbiñe Muguruza, she notched her maiden top-five win in the second round, and later avoided the dreaded hangover by further shocking 13th-seed Johanna Konta. She deserved better luck than rolling her ankle early against Caroline Wozniacki, but by then her clean, smooth shots off both sides and resourcefulness to mix slices, drops and invasive strokes had gained admirers. Poised and talented, Sevastova is a name to keep under attention over the next months, joining rising star Jelena Ostapenko as a top-50 player hailing from the small Baltic nation.

 

Kei Nishikori

For the first season in his career, Kei Nishikori reached the second week of every Grand Slam in the calendar but he’ll end the year with a sour taste on his mouth. With Nadal and Federer yo-yoing on and off the Tour, and Djokovic suffering after slaying the Roland Garros’ dragon, the Japanese had a great opportunity to find his way into a second Major final but couldn’t capitalize. In Flushing Meadows, he once again proved worthy of those stages but his chances were nixed by the usual Achilles heel: a fragile body that rarely levers the rigors of consecutive battles against top players.

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn't able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn’t able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Case in point: in his quarter-final appointment he played well (especially after the weather conditions determined an indoor affair) and was able to penetrate into Andy Murray’s astonishing defence to wrangle a famous victory, yet couldn’t do the necessary follow up against Wawrinka. He still managed to go a set and a break up on the Swiss with authority, but couldn’t keep the foot on the pedal and would let the rival off the mat on the second set. A sudden fitness breakup followed before long, and it opened the door for Stan to turn the table completely and take the driver’s seat, edging through in four outings.

It’s been validated Nishikori’s game, an attractive variety of flat, wheezing strokes from both wings and off-pace shots depicting every trick in the book of tennis, is well-rounded and adequate for a potential multi-Slam winner, but he can’t continue to let opportunities like this slip through his fingers. And they’ll just keep skirting Nishikori if he can’t find a way to trade blows with his prevailing opponents for as long it takes.

Juan Martin Del Potro

Meanwhile, Juan Martin Del Potro may have also been betrayed by physical shortcomings but his defeat at the hands of Wawrinka stemmed mainly from other sources. The Argentinian looked mentally drained after an emotional summer on what it is still an incomplete comeback trail, and faced an opponent that held the keys to slow him down.

With the upset at Wimbledon still fresh in his memory, the Swiss defused Del Potro’s bread-and-butter weapon, the massive forehand, with his own exceptional shot, a strong backhand that pressed the rival towards the corner during crosscourt exchanges, limiting his opportunities to seize control and dictate from the baseline. Thus, Del Potro’s sub-par backhand had to absorb responsibilities and, in his current form, proved no match for Wawrinka’s fiery forehand, a much more consistent backup plan. If the Argentine hopes to add to his 2009 US Open title, he better improve the backhand so that it might carry some water over two weeks and seven best-of five encounters.

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Gaël Monfils

Just three months after missing his beloved Roland Garros with a virus, the greatest opportunity for Gaël Monfils to leave his mark at a Major presented itself in NY, and the Frenchman’s reaction was to throw it down the court, out of bounds, aimlessly, just like he would if he was down match points during a rout.

For just the second time, tennis’ ultimate showman was in the last four of a Grand Slam and judging by what stood on the other side, he simply had to do better. Yes, it was the World No. 1, the reigning Champion, one of the best hard-court players of all-time, and someone he hadn’t beat in 12 confronts on the professional ranks, but also an ailing, slightly out-of-sorts Novak Djokovic that was there to be conquered.

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

Yet, a few minutes into the volatile contest, Djokovic was 5-0 up and not even the guy that had yet to concede a set in the tournament had the mental fortitude to believe he could go head-to-head for hours and come out on top. His efficient, measured, business-like attitude went out of the stadium (through the roof?), and instead fans were treated with a deliberate attempt to rattle the opponent with insistent slices, heartless chips and lackadaisical play, the total opposite of what had endeared him to the audience in his previous matches.

The trick shots, the leaping blows, the unparalleled athleticism that fascinates viewers, would make a short return later on, but Monfils’ decision making and focus faltered down the stretch in spite of Djokovic’s evident struggles. The grimacing Serbian could barely serve on the fourth set with the shoulder pulsating, yet his foe sealed by himself a disappoint finish to a story that pledged so much. At age 30, Monfils’ time was there, and he squandered it.

Lucas Pouille

The final few days of the men’s Grand Slams are usually populated by the same faces, as the group that challenges for the top-honours is eminently hermetic. The same 10-12 names (and that may be stretching it) arrive at the latter rounds regularly, and true shocks are far and few between until the quarter-finals, when the competition gets stiffer. When they do happen we can normally pinpoint the reason the favourite got upset, ranging from health /conditioning reasons to an uncharacteristically bad day at the office where everything goes awry. What happened to Rafael Nadal at the US Open was different, as the 14-times Grand Slam Champion, who breezed through the first week, was simply outlasted by an opponent that was just slightly better… at a five-set marathon, no less.

Lucas Pouille had already impressed at Wimbledon by defeating Juan Martin Del Potro to reach the quarter-finals, but grinding a triumph over the Spanish legend was even more special as the two exchanged pleasantries over five scintillating sets.

Lucas Pouille's reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal provided some of the wackiest photos of the tournament

Lucas Pouille’s reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal was ….intense

Despite having already endured two long battles in the initial rounds, the 22-year-old blitzed Nadal in the first juncture with tremendous flat strokes from every possible angle, and kept his nerve through the ups and downs of the slugfest, negotiating the long rallies until he could go for massive winners or attack at the net. Even trailing a break in the decider, with everyone expecting a quick finish, Pouille hang on physically, didn’t waver and overcome a legendary competitor like the Spaniard to snatch victory in the tiebreak.

It was a stunning epilogue for one of the top matches of the 2016 US Open, and the signature triumph for a player that broke into the top 100 for the first time last year and boasts the firepower to settle in the top 10 very soon. Exhausted, Pouille was no match for Gaël Monfils two days later, having to resort to consecutive, ill-timed net approaches in order to speed up the points, but it didn’t matter that much. The hype won’t wane anytime soon.

Stanislas Wawrinka

Who would have predicted, back in January 2013, that the man that had just been defeated by Djokovic on a sparkling five-set thriller would be three quarters of the way towards a career Slam less than four years later?

A brawny player with a backhand to behold was the scouting report on the Swiss for the first few seasons on the Tour, but maddening inconsistency impeded his progress inside the second week of the best tournaments worldwide. However, that battle with Djokovic showed Wawrinka he had the means to swing with the best and he rose from Roger Federer’s Davis Cup partner to Grand Slam Final world-beater in three stunning acts.

At age 31, he’s growing more dangerous by the day and his big-match panache is reaching legendary levels, with 11 consecutive triumphs in finals and a perfect record in the decisive game of Majors.

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

Yet, at the US Open, the Swiss had to survive a scare on the first week, nearly falling at the hands of unheralded Dan Evans in the third round before he righted the ship. Later, Stanimal summoned his beast mode to conquer the challenges posed by Del Potro and Nishikori as his superior physical condition made the difference and helped set up a much waited rematch with the World No.1, Novak Djokovic.

In another duel from what has grown to become a highly entertaining rivalry, the Swiss stunningly dictated the terms of the contest for the near four hours of back and forth action. His heavy strokes controlled the rallies and took time away from Djokovic on both wings, forcing the hand of the Serbian several times. Having to toe the line between keeping the ball deep and opening angles, Djokovic was consistently burned with explosive winners down the line in return.

Moreover, the fluid one-handed backhand of the Swiss, one of the most lethal weapons on the Tour, opened seams in Djokovic’s usually impermeable defence and flustered the Serbian in so many occasions that the defending Champion couldn’t muster the alertness to take full advantage of the opportunities he still managed to produce.

Djokovic went an uncharacteristic 3-of-17 on break points in the final, and looked clunky on his serve after the first set, whilst his rival synched body and mind with each passing point, displaying a courageous form that could only stir from the deep belief on his own chances of making history. And so he did, pointing to his temple after another error by his opponent on match point.

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Wawrinka is now only the fifth man to gather two Slams after turning 30 and his burly figure shows no sign of decay as his late-career blooming continues to intensify on the events where players are asked to push the limits of their bodies. Indeed, Wawrinka boasts a single Masters 1000 title (Monte Carlo, 2014), but has reached the QF’s in 10 of the last 13 Majors, where the larger margins of error allowed on best-of-five matches suit him perfectly. Step by step during the fortnight, he calibrates his power shots, builds his physique and exercises the mental resilience necessary to zone in and thrive in the biggest stages at the right moment.

By equalling Andy Murray’s Grand Slam total, “Stan the Man” has now tinted an inescapable new reality. He’s not only a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but one of the top players of the XXI century and full member of the elite of men’s tennis, joining the Big Four. May we toast to tennis’ “Fab Five”.

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