Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Six-foot-Six ≠ 6

We used to be able to take some things for granted when it came to Roger Federer. But this U.S. Open had one final dramatic event left to imprint on the tennis world's collective memory... and it starred Juan Martin del Potro.

In the past, when the all-time slam champ grabbed the opening set against a nervous slam final novice and was but two points away from taking a two-set lead, as was the case against the Argentine del Potro on Monday, the proceedings were all but over. Even if he flinched for a moment, Federer would right himself quickly and go on to make an example of an opponent who'd made the mistake of challenging his dominance. Then Rafael Nadal came along, and everything changed. His aura damaged, Federer had to rebuild his image.

As 2009 has gone along, after a rough start that saw him unable to top Nadal in the Australian Open final in Melbourne, Federer has managed to do just that. Going into this U.S. Open final, he was looking to tie Bill Tilden's record with a sixth straight crown in New York and set himself up to head Down Under next January with a shot at a "RogerSlam" and a fourth straight slam title. For a bit, it looked as if he might just pull off the feat, but his opponent would have nothing of it.

Of course, not every opponent is as physically imposing as the 6-foot-6 del Potro. Nor do that have as pulverizing a forehand as del Potro, or the intelligence to pull back at times on a powerful serve to keep Federer off balance as he did on Monday. Once del Potro got his game going, Federer simply could not hold off his forward motion toward the title for five full sets. Last summer, del Potro ruled the North American hard courts but flamed out at the Open. A year later, having left his teenage years behind and grown into his large frame, removing all traces of the physical awkwardness most players his size always seem to be hindered by on the court, he entered this tournament with the knowledge that he had the ability to beat anyone in the draw. In the semifinals, he smashed Nadal, allowing just six games in three sets. Next up was Federer.

Federer got off to a strong start, taking the opening set 6-2 and having break points for a 4-1 2nd set lead on del Potro's serve. The Argentine held, but when Federer served at 5-4, 30/love he seemed well on his way to a sixth straight defeat of a sixth different man in the U.S. Open final. But after questioning a replay decision (after a late del Potro challenge) that awarded del Potro a point, and seeming to not be able to get the moment out of his head (after arguing with the umpire during a changeover), Federer began a long, subtle descent toward defeat. He lost the 2nd set tie-break, but grabbed the lead again by taking the 3rd set at 6-4 after overcoming a break up, 4-3 del Potro lead.

In the 4th, del Potro again led with a break at 4-3, but Federer couldn't overcome yet again. He pushed things to a tie-break, but the Argentine claimed another set-decider to send the final of the U.S. Open men's final to a fifth set for the first time since 1999. In the final set, after struggling with his first serve for the entire match, Federer simply couldn't find his way. With his serve flagging, his groundstrokes went off, as well. He never seemed to be able to get a handle on del Potro's powerful forehands, framing returns of serve and in-point shots often. Del Potro raced to a 5-2 lead. Federer managed to save two match points, but he could only hold back his opponent for so long on this day. A backhand shot that sailed long was immediately followed by del Potro crumpling to the ground in the back court, stretched out on his back in amazement at his accomplishment.

Del Potro won 3-6/7-6/4-6/7-6/6-2 in 4:06.

So, while 2009 didn't turn out to be Federer's "greatest" season, four slam finals, including a first at Roland Garros and a return to the throne at Wimbledon (even though he didn't have to defeat Nadal for either), not to mention the re-claiming of the #1 ranking, it certainly ranks amongst them. Not too shabby in a calendar year in which he became a husband and the father of twin girls, as well.

As for del Potro, he's hardly a "shocking" slam champion considering his Top 5 ranking and North American hard court exploits the last two years. No matter what he does the rest of his career, which could be much considering his young age (20) and still-improving game, it'll be difficult to top a 30-hour span in which he defeated both Nadal and Federer on the biggest court in the world to earn this U.S. Open title.

"I have two dreams in this sport, one is the U.S. Open," del Potro said after the match. "The other is to be like Roger. One is done."

2009's slam season began with the sight of Federer's tears after losing a fifth set in Melbourne to Nadal, and now ends with del Potro's watery eyes after his own five-set win over Federer. It's not exactly the fairytale bookends to the season that Federer likely envisioned, but they're surely memorable moments for everyone else.

...meanwhile, the Williams sisters managed to give their U.S. Open experience a good ending note, taking the doubles title by defeating #1-seeded Black/Huber 6-2/6-2. It's their tenth career slam crown as a duo and third in 2009, but their first U.S. Open title since 1999.

Still, though, in the "if it bleeds it leads" mentality of sports programming these days -- propagated largely by ESPN -- you KNOW what the story was yesterday (especially after Serena issued "apology #2" on her website).

Look, what Serena did was wrong, no matter whether she was justified in being angry or not. Unlike some, though, I'm not going to rehash all that. But, come now, was it really SO big a story that it's still the lead item in the sports news days later, as was the case on Monday? Is this REALLY all people are going to remember about this tournament? I found it funny that on ESPN's "Around the Horn" yesterday, one reporter noted that all the talk of Williams was overshadowing Kim Clijsters' accomplishment in winning the title -- but it was already some twenty minutes into the 30-minute show, meaning that the fact is that the women's final would have probably been overlooked entirely if not for the discussion of Serena. So, really, what's the REAL problem here?

If it bleeds, it leads.

People, get over it. So far, what's occurred is a predictable scenario not that far removed from the stupid firestorm that resulted from Justine Henin's retirement in the '06 Australian Open (when that paragon of judiciousness, Pam Shriver, said the moment would "tarnish her career forever" in yet another in the long line of Shriver's Greatest Hits/Most Embarrassing Moments that threatens to grow even longer every time she grabs a microphone). Were people really wondering whether Saturday night is going to change people's opinion of Williams from here on out? Really? Seriously? I kind of agree with what someone on ESPN noted yesterday about the situation -- that the overblown attention being showered on Serena's outburst is because so many people are taken aback by and not used to seeing a FEMALE athlete react angrily to a call on the court/on the playing field. Male athletes do and say far worse things than Williams did all the time. Will much be made of Federer's heated (for him) conversation yesterday with the chair umpire, during which Federer dropped the F-bomb and a few choice other ones? Of course not. Was the course of Western civilization altered by the moment? No. And it wasn't by the one with Serena, either. Once the final bookkeeping aspects of all this (any other fines or a minor suspension, if not sooner, it all should really be simply filed away for future reference.

I wish there was a way to accurately determine how many of the people who have continued to blather on about this weekend's events were actually watching them on Saturday night (or even bothered to watch the final on Sunday). Somehow, I predict the totals would be shockingly low. Or maybe not so "shocking."

...on another note, maybe it's time that whoever makes the decisions on these matters for the U.S. Open, should decide next year to have one person assigned to do the on-court interviews on Ashe Stadium rather then allow the networks carrying the matches to do so. Sue Barker handling such duties at Wimbledon has worked rather well the last few years. At this Open, though, two on-court interviewers were booed openly by the crowd, and another SHOULD have been. Pam Shriver was understandably the object of derision after her disrespectful slamming of Yanina Wickmayer's presence in the semifinals the other day. And yesterday, Patrick McEnroe, who'd already broached the subject with the Williams sisters in his on-court interview with them after they'd won the doubles title, was shouted down by the crowd when he decided to dive in one more time with still more questions. (Once the crowd expressed a collective opinion on the matter, Venus stepped in to say to McEnroe that it looked like everyone was ready "to move on.") Then, last night, after the men's final, Dick Enberg refused to hand del Potro the microphone so that he could say something in Spanish to his supporters... and then proceeded to run off the attributes of the new car the Argentine had just won, sounding like a game show host making sure the sponsor was satisfied that every detail was included in the description. After a second attempt by del Potro, Enberg did finally grudgingly give up the microphone, and del Potro's words brought the new champion to tears, providing the best moment of the entire ceremony. Thankfully, we didn't miss it... no thanks to Enberg, who's had some infamously bad moments in similar post-match doings in recents years at the Open, as well.

Here's a thought, maybe someone should see if the USTA Tennis Center's namesake, Billie Jean King, is free to do ten minutes of on-court work after the finals held on Ashe next year. If not her, then someone else. Because the current set-up needs some tweaking, to be sure.

...and, finally, after my "sick day" yesterday, the Daily Backspin for this Open will be extended one more price-cutting day, as the last slam "Decade's Best" edition will go up tomorrow.

(WC) Kim Clijsters/BEL def. #9 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN 7-5/6-3

#6 Juan Martin del Potro/ARG def. #1 Roger Federer/SUI 3-6/7-6/4-6/7-6/6-2

#4 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #1 Black/Huber (ZIM/USA) 6-2/6-2

#4 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) def. #3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH) 3-6/6-3/6-2

Gullickson/Parrott (USA/USA) def. #2 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) 6-2/6-4

#11 Heather Watson/GBR def. Yana Buchina/RUS 6-4/6-1

#3 Bernard Tomic/AUS def. Chase Buchanan/USA 6-1/6-3

Solovieva/Zanevska (RUS/UKR) def. #3 E.Bogdan/Lertcheewakarn (ROU/THA) 1-6/6-3/10-7

Fucsovics/Hsieh (HUN/TPE) def. Obry/Puget (FRA/FRA) 7-6/5-7/10-1

23...SERENA WILLIAMS (11/12)
19...VENUS WILLIAMS (7/12)
11...Virginia Ruano-Pascual (0/9)
9...Lisa Raymond (0/9)
8...Cara Black (0/8)
6...Rennae Stubbs (0/6)
5...Liezel Huber (0/5)

21...Martina Navratilova/Pam Shriver
14...Gigi Fernandez/Natasha Zvereva
8...Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez

10...Roger Federer, 2005-07
7...ROGER FEDERER, 2008-09
7...Jack Crawford, 1932-36

22...ROGER FEDERER, 2004-09
10...Ivan Lendl, 1985-88

2000 3rd Rd. - Juan Carlos Ferrero
2001 4th Rd. - Andre Agassi
2002 4th Rd. - Max Mirnyi
2003 4th Rd. - David Nalbandian
2009 Final - Juan Martin del Potro

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Serena Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Eva Hrdinova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR 7-6/4-6/7-6
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd.- Melanie Oudin/USA d. #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS 5-7/6-4/6-3
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd.- Melanie Oudin/USA d. #29 Maria Sharapova 3-6/6-4/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): SF- (WC) Kim Clijsters/BEL d. #2 Serena Williams/USA 6-4/7-5
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Kaia Kanepi/EST (1st Rd.-Chang/TPE)
FIRST WIN: (WC) Vania King/USA (def. Anastasiya Yakimova/BLR)
UPSET QUEENS: The Americans
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Anastasia Rodionova/AUS (3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Melanie Oudin/USA
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
CRASH & BURN: #4 Elena Dementieva/RUS (2nd Rd.-Oudin/USA
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #10 Flavia Pennetta/ITA (saved 6 MP in 4th Rd. vs. Zvonareva/RUS)
DOUBLES STAR: Carly Gullickson/USA

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

At least Juan Martin got the microphone from Enberg without having to exchange it for a sexual come-on, the way Kim did in 2005.

There really do need to be some changes made.

Tue Sep 15, 03:36:00 PM EDT  

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