Monday, September 14, 2015

My U.S. Open top 10

Here, in ascending order, are my top 10 U.S. Open happenings:

10. Whiley joins exclusive club: Jordanne Whiley became a member of the women's wheelchair tennis elite, winning the U.S. Open women's wheelchair singles title. Whiley, who is from Great Britain, defeated three-time major winner Yui Kamiji with a lopsided score of 6-4, 0-6, 6-1.

9. Oh, Petra: Petra Kvitova, seeded 5th, pretty much romped through the draw, mowing down opponents and displaying her sly sense of humor. But the New York humidity, when it was at its worst, had its usual effect on her, rendering her helpless in her quarterfinal match against Flavia Pennetta. It didn't help that she was recovering from mononucleosis. The good news is that she finally made it to the quarterfinals. But The Rock is still no match for the steamy air in Flushing Meadows, or for the fragility of her own immune system.

8. Mother Nature def. U.S. Open: It rained, sometimes a lot, and it rained at some of the most crucial times in the tournament. It's possible that the rain had an effect on the outcome of both the women's semifinals and the men's final. And while environmental conditions are part of the sport, that doesn't mean that some control can't sometimes be exercised, especially for the sake of the fans. It will be, beginning next year, when Arthur Ashe Stadium gets a roof.

7. Angie & Vika's Excellent Adventure: Two outstanding hard court players put on one of the greatest shows--perhaps the greatest show--of the tournament in the third round. Victoria Azarenka defeated Angelique Kerber 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, and you just didn't want it to end. Both women possess so much fight, and the tension was unrelenting. A commentator remarked afterwards that almost every thrilling match she's seen lately featured Kerber, which is a spot-on observation. However, the still-coming-back Azarenka would "pull a Kerber" at this U.S. Open, going on to play another high-quality match against 2nd seed Simona Halep. That would be the end of Azarenka's run, but it was a promising run indeed.

6. She's a rocker, she takes after me: It isn't often that an all-female sports contest becomes one of the most talked-about topics of the week, but the promotion surrounding the quarterfinal match between Venus and Serena Williams was just that. Everywhere I went, in my relatively small community, someone mentioned the upcoming match, even if that someone knew nothing about tennis. The match was excellent, and showed us, once again, that Venus Williams is still a force with which to be reckoned. The older Williams would lose, putting an end to the 24/7 dialogue about what it would feel like to deny one's sister the Grand Slam (an Italian took on that task).

5. The Not (Quite) Ready for Prime Time Player: Simona Halep talks a lot about being relaxed and not letting the pressure get to her, but it's obvious that it does. The number 2 seed didn't breeze through the draw the way Kvitova did, but she put her mighty talent on display through five rounds, and was, of course, expected to be the finalist from her half of the draw. But when she played Flavia Pennetta in the semifinals, she was all but blown off of the court. The Italian sensed vulnerability early on, played a very clean (23/16) match, and beat Halep 6-1, 6-3. The Romanian star was flat throughout the contest, and Pennetta wasn't about to let her in. The problem is that we've seen this before from Halep; as the stakes become greater, Halep loses her way.

4. Forget SABR: What we really got last week was Sneak Attack By Italy. Conveniently shaped like a boot, Italy will kick your ass. They've done it in Fed Cup, and they've done it in countless tournaments where they were supposed to be the "challengers." Now they've done it in a way that will go down in tennis history, taking out the first and second seeds--in the semifinals, no less--and assuring that an Italian woman would win the U.S. Open for the first time in history.

3. The Grand Slam that almost was: Serena Williams was only two matches away from winning the Grand Slam, one of the very few accomplishments missing from her amazing resume (and missing from almost every great player's resume). But if anyone could pull it off, Serena could, and that would also be a 33-year-old Serena. The common wisdom, based on history, is that if no one can pull off an upset against Williams in the first week of a major, forget it. At the business end, she goes into full flow and dominates, often hitting her signature ace on match point.

What Williams hadn't counted on was that Sneak Attack By Italy. Roberta Vinci, unseeded for the first time since 2010, sneaked through the draw, got a walkover in the round of 16, then defeated the on-fire Kiki Mladenovic in the quarterfinals. Suddenly, she was facing the world number 1 at a historic moment in Williams' career. And what did she go and do? She defeated Williams in three sets, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. I saw it, but I couldn't quite believe it. When Vinci served for the match at 5-4, I just assumed she would be broken and go home with nice memories. Even when she reached 40-0, I thought there was a good chance we would soon see 5-5 on the scoreboard.

But Vinci, who played Williams fearlessly throughout the match, had no intention of being broken. And as if to say "How do you like me now?," she threw in a sweet half-volley for match point. Cheeky. And so Italian. It was done. The great Serena Williams, whom we all assumed would win her 22nd major and thrill in the rare, unearthly light of Grand Slam glory, was defeated. It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's tennis (certainly the biggest one since Marion Bartoli beat Justine Henin in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals), and it stunned fans across the world.

2. Her mother named her "Martina": And not for nothing. Creating a brand new career in doubles only, just like her namesake, Martina Hingis swept the U.S. Open doubles competition, winning the women's title with partner Sania Mirza, and the mixed title with partner Leander Paes. And she did the same thing at Wimbledon several weeks ago. The partnership of Hingis and the Forehand of Fire is one of the great combinations to come about in recent women's doubles history, and this latest victory gives Mirza two major titles in women's doubles.

The U.S. Open title is Hingis's fifth major doubles title of 2015: She and Paes also won the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Martina Hingis has now won a total of 20 major titles--five singles, eleven women's doubles and four mixed doubles.

1. Forza!: Unlike most others, I have long thought that Flavia Pennetta had it in her to win the U.S. Open. She excels on hard courts, loves to play in New York, and has nicely exorcised most of her player demons. After taking out both Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, the Queen of Fed Cup was expected to play Serena Williams in the final, and--while Pennetta has performed well against Williams in New York in the past--she had little chance to do anything but take pleasure in holding the runner-up trophy.

But then countrywoman, Fed Cup teammate and close friend Roberta Vinci threw the entire draw into turmoil, and in the end, there were only two Italians standing, and each of them had spent considerable time as the number 1 doubles player in the world. It was the first time two Italian women had faced each other in a major final, and the first time that two women over 30 had played in a major final in the Open Era. Pennetta was visibly nervous and overly cautious in the first set, while Vinci--even after enduring an extremely emotional 24 hours--was on her game. That set went to a tiebreak, and it was then that Pennetta turned on the aggression. She won the tiebreak and then stayed in aggressive gear for most of the second set, showing off her precision-point groundstrokes, and defeating Vinci 7-6, 6-2.

Pennetta is the first Italian woman to win the U.S. Open, and she is the player who has performed at the most majors (49) before finally winning one. The popular Italian also took fans and the media by surprise when she retired from the sport during the trophy ceremony. Pennetta will play in at least two more tournaments this year, and then she will leave the world of professional tennis. (I'll have a lot more to say about that at another time.)

The tennis world was expecting history to be made at this U.S. Open, and it was. It just wasn't the history people assumed would be written. Two Fighting Italians stole the show with their friendship, and with their beautiful volleying, lobbing and stylish, clever games, And one of them--the Fighting Italian--wound up holding the trophy. The outpouring of warm and loving messages from her peers-- which Pennetta said surprised her--is a testament to the on- and off-court delight that is Flavia Pennetta.

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