The pain of tennis: Nadal out, Del Potro in once more

  NEW YORK—There’s no backup quarterback, no pitcher to come in from bullpen. There’s no disabled list, no injured reserve list. In tennis you keep going, from court to court, country to country, wearing down, wearing out.

  A few months ago it was elbow trouble for Novak Djokovic. And now again, it’s knee pain for Rafael Nadal, who Friday, two sets into the U.S. Open, semifinal had to withdraw—in tennis you “retire—which was both sad and because he was facing Juan Martin del Potro, who had to fight his way back from  numerous wrist surgeries, ironic.

  Yes. Del Potro, whose career was derailed for months, indeed years, after he won the 2009 U.S. Open, is finally back in the final because Nadal, the defending champ, once more has been derailed by an injury.

   Don’t try to tell these guys tennis isn’t a tough sport.

   Del Potro, from Argentina, with a blue-clad cheering section—“Del-po, Del-po,” they chant at change-overs—was ahead, 7-6 (3), 6-2, when the top-seeded, top-ranked Nadal was unable to continue.

  “I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal. “You can imagine very difficult for me to say good-bye before the match finish.”

No less difficult for the 23,000-plus fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the majority of whom were backing Rafa—excluding, of course, the Del-po guys who pay their way from Argentina, Del Potro’s homeland.

  “But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way. Having too much pain.”

 Nadal, from Majorca, a part of Spain, can be forgiven for his awkward English, even at age 32. Until a few years he needed a translator.”

   “This was not a tennis match at the end, no?” said Nadal. “It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court. I hate to retire. But stay one more set out there playing like this is too much for me.”

  Del Potro, 29, offered condolences. “I saw him suffering a lot during the second set. I was just trying to do my game.”

 A game that after a third operation on his left wrist and one on his right—he uses both on a two-handed backhand— Del Potro was prepared to leave.

  “The worst moment,” Del Potro said reviewing a down period, “was in 2015. I was close to quitting this sport because I couldn’t find a way to fix my wrist problems. I (had) been suffering a lot. “I got depressed for a couple of months also. I didn’t feel better with myself to do this again.”

  His friends, among them the travelers from Tandil, Argentina, persuaded him to stay the course. He did. But only after the fourth wrist surgery.

 “I said I am not available to keep going to surgery again, put my body at risk because you never know what will happen after surgeries. I got lucky, because it did well. And now it’s working again. My wrist is OK. Not 100 percent, but I can play tennis in this condition.”

  And, obviously, play well. He beat Nadal in the semifinal of the 201`6 Olympics, lost to Nadal in a semifinal of the 2017 U.S. Open, lost to Nadal in a semifinal of the French Open, beat Roger Federer in the final at Indian Wells in March and now beat Nadal again. 

  Yes, Rafa was injured. But for months Del Potro had been injured.

Nadal’s game is rough-and tumble. He crashes from sideline to sideline and then not so much strokes a ball as batters. That style has gained him17 majors, second to Federer’s 20, but it also has created havoc with his knees. shoulders and wrists.

  “I know what I have,” Nadal insisted.  “Similar thing than always Just about to do treatment. It is not an injury that tells you three weeks off.  It is tendinitis, an injury that in one week you feel better.”

  It’s also an injury that ended his try for the championship, an injury that kept alive Juan Del Potro’s try, or does that make it seem like Del Potro wouldn’t have gone on it Nadal didn’t stop going?

  “I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam in here, which it my favorite tournament,” said Del Potro.”I’ve been fighting with (against) many problems to get to this moment.”

  Problems that are a part of big-time tennis


Triumphant Serena, fearless off court and on

   NEW YORK—Serena Williams is a lady without fear, unafraid off the court to take an unpopular stand—supporting Colin Kaepernick in his controversial commercial—unafraid on the court to change the style of tennis that has been so effective through the years.

  Did you read what Serena said about Kaepernick, whose defiance is celebrated by Nike, admittedly also one of her sponsors?

  “He’s done a lot for the African-American community, and it’s cost him a lot,” she said. “I think everyone has a choice to do what they choose to do.”

  What Serena chose to do Thursday night was less momentous socially but quite significant athletically.

   A baseline player—“I usually only come to the net to shake hands,” Williams quipped—she moved up shot after shot, and in their U.S. Open semifinal thwarted the slice and drop-shot game of Anastasija Sevastova to win, 6-3, 6-0.

  After losing serve in the first game and then dropping the second, to go down, 2-0, Williams won 12 of the other 13 games in a tidy 1 hour 6 minutes under the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, closed before play began because of forecast of rain.

  The rain never materialized. Neither, after those first two games, did the supposed threat from the 28-year-old Sevastova, a Latvian who was in her first Grand Slam semi.

  A year ago the 36-year-old Williams was recovering from complications in the birth of her daughter, Olympia. Now she’s in the U.S. Open final for a ninth time with the opportunity for a seventh victory—and a record tying 24th Slam win.

  “It’s been an incredible year,” said Williams, who will be 37 in a couple weeks. “A year ago I was fighting for my life in the hospital. No matter what happens in any match I feel like I’ve already won. To come this far . . .I’m just beginning guys.”

  It’s confidence tempered by possibility that perhaps makes Williams willing to take chances.

   Sure she has the money and backing of Nike, but stepping forward for Kaepernick, the onetime 49er quarterback who has been ostracized for kneeling down during the national anthem, is unnecessary and among many tennis buffs, an elite gathering, unpopular.

   “Whether people protest it, which is a peaceful protest actually, or not, that is the choice of being American,” said Serena. “It doesn’t make them less American. And I think that’s also something that’s really interesting, is the fact that we all make up this world, because we have different views and different views on different things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be loving toward each other.”

   The sellout crowd of 23,000-plus certainly was in love with Serena. She’s been competing in the Open for almost 20 years. In tennis familiarity brings respect. She’s old guard but not too old to go unappreciated—even having been out of the game for 14 months, until March.

  She did get to the final at Wimbledon in July, if against a draw from which all the top 10 seeds were gone the first week. Angelique Kerber beat Serena in that final. Then Williams was smacked around in a couple of tournaments. Now she’s doing the smacking.

  “I’ve been practicing coming to the net,” said Williams. “I Lost matches against players like that.”
  She means players who have slicing backhands or cutsy little shots that land softly in the forecourt and are unreachable.

  “I’ve come to the net before,” she said, “I know how. I’ve volleyed when I play doubles. I just need to do it more.”

  Sevastova, who beat last year’s Open winner, Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals, said of Serena’s movement, “I think she should come to the net for sure. I don’t know if I was surprised. But again she was serving well.”

  Which she does most of the time.

  At the end Williams seemed to be holding back tears.

  “Yeah,” she agreed, “I was a little emotional because last year at this time I was fighting for my life.”

    The fearless lady also won that one.


Rafa and Thiem: 4 hours and 49 minutes in the Twilight Zone

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — The Yankees game against the A’s had ended about 45 minutes earlier. And that was in Oakland.

In New York, three time zones — and one twilight zone — to the east, they were still playing tennis.

Well, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem were still playing tennis. You’ve heard of breakfast at Wimbledon. This was insomnia at Flushing Meadows.

Nadal, 32, the world's No. 1, would win, defeating Thiem, who is a solid No. 9, in a bizarre five-set quarterfinal, 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6 (5), on Tuesday evening. Actually, on Wednesday morning, since the final point was at 2:03 a.m.

Nadal was resilient. So, too, were the fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium who stayed until the end.

You know the line from that Kander and Ebb song, popularized by the great Frank Sinatra, about waking up in the city that never sleeps. How about holding America’s tennis championship, the U.S. Open, in the wee small hours — to quote another song by Sinatra?

Officials and ESPN, which to its credit stayed with the match the full 4 hours and 49 minutes, love these late matches, as much for the attention as anything. Let’s see what’s on the tube. Oh, yeah, another John Wayne rerun. And, what’s this, a Rafael Nadal forehand?

Weary and sweaty — it was in the high 70s when the match started and headed back to the 90s Wednesday afternoon — Nadal, in a sleeveless shirt, stretched his arms at 90-degree angles in triumph. If some saw a religious connotation, that’s their choice.

Nadal’s choice is to play quicker. Then again, he was the one who staggered through the first set, which he “bageled,” to use the pros' term, a big zero, 6-0 for Thiem.

“After the first set,” Nadal said, “the match became normal.”

Not that there’s anything in sports happening after midnight to which the word “normal” can be applied.

When Nadal was told that besides his 17 Grand Slams, second to the 20 of Roger Federer — who didn’t win his late-night match Monday — the after-dark match would be another sort of record. His response was what one might expect at that hour, a smile.

“What is important about this match is the level of tennis,” he said, “the drama. When the things happen like this, the atmosphere and the crowd become more special. People get involved.

“Yeah, it has been great match, great atmosphere. Happy to be part of it. Not because it’s 3 in the morning (when he did his interview), I am happy about the ending.”

Thiem, a 25-year-old Austrian (yes, as in The Sound of Music and skiing), was not that unhappy. He went against one of the best and only lost in a fifth-set tiebreak.

“My earliest memory of Rafa,” said Thiem, “was when he beat Roger (Federer) in the French semis in 2005, I was 11 back then. Didn’t really think that I would also play him one day, but it’s very nice.”

Nadal’s win was not unappreciated by the tennis people. The Open is a one-of-a-kind event, with the late matches, the party atmosphere, the huge crowds that some days surpass 70,000.

The Open is New York in the extreme. Still, the top names — Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — are necessary for TV ratings and headlines.

The Yankees, the most important team in this town, are trying to get to the postseason. The New York football Giants and the rest of the NFL teams are about to start the season. There’s only so much space in the papers — the Post had a full story on Nadal-Thiem Wednesday morning — so second-raters get squeezed out.

Nadal, on the A-list, fortunately, squeezed in.

“I played a lot of long and tough matches in my career,” said Nadal. “This is one more. I like this feeling, but at the same time you feel tired. I lost at Wimbledon in a match like this. Today was for me.

“It’s just that someone has to lose. That’s part of the game. But personal satisfaction, when you give everything and you play with the right attitude, is the same ... Tennis is not forever, but you know the chances to play these kind of matches every time are less and less.”

He had the chance and did something with it.


Federer makes excuses after making too many mistakes

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — There had to be a morning after. It arrived hot and clear Tuesday — but without clarity about what happened a few hours before, the upset of tennis upsets.

Another match was starting right there at Ashe Stadium, one in which another surprise would take place, U.S. Open women’s defending champ Sloane Stevens losing to Anastasia Sevastova of Latvia.

So quick the turnaround. So lasting the results. We had awakened in the city that doesn’t sleep wondering — and for his legions of fans, many who follow him if not to the ends of the earth at least to locales such as Melbourne, Indian Wells, Stuttgart, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows — worrying.

What the heck happened as Monday night, Labor Day, crossed into Tuesday? How could Roger Federer, acknowledged as the greatest male player in history, winner of 20 Grand Slam championships, not only get beat but truly get embarrassed in his fourth-round match against a journeyman named John Millman?

When the match came to a merciful close at 12:51 a.m. Eastern Time, after some three and a half hours of poor serves and unforced errors on a steam bath of an evening, there was Federer looking gaunt and whipped, and his disbelieving fans looking miserable.

Millman, No. 55 in the rankings (Federer is second) won, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6. 7-6, Roger made 10 double faults. Roger made 77 unforced errors. Roger made what could be interpreted as an excuse, saying, “I thought it was very hot tonight. I guess I couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all. For some reason, I just struggled in the conditions.”

Even if they were the same for both players. “He practices in the humidity in Perth,” Federer said of Millman, an Australian.

Federer was 37 in August. He insists it was the weather that had an effect, not the age. He began the year by winning the Australian Open in January. That was a long time ago.

At Wimbledon he lost to Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals, here to Millman a round before the quarters.

Roger Federer is not finished. He may, however, be finished as the Roger Federer we once knew. As he sank in his chair courtside after the final point, he looked ancient.

Great athletes decline, some faster than others, some slower. Tom Brady, still a starting NFL quarterback, is 41; Willie Mays, in his 40s, seemed to lose it overnight, unable to get fly balls and striking out. Federer was sharp enough in the third-rounder against Nick Kyrgios. And yet…

“The roof is on,” said Federer about the stadium that has a retractable middle, which can be closed when it rains but permanent sides. “I think it makes it totally different. Plus conditions were playing slower this year on top of it.

“You had soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything, Plus the balls are in there too. You try to play. I’ve trained in tougher conditions. I’ve played in the daytime. Some days, it’s just not the day where the body can cope.”

Novak Djokovic, who was going to meet Federer in the quarters if the predictions stood up — they didn’t — did play in the afternoon Monday. He’s younger than Federer, if that means anything. Federer would tell you that it doesn’t.

Federer, as losers often do, was talking what could have been, what might have been, If only that return hadn’t gone long. You know the routine, never wanting to bring up the slightest chance for self-doubt.

"I wish I could have led two sets to love, and then maybe the match would be different and I would find a way,” said Federer. "It was just tough. I thought John played a great match in difficult conditions. I'm happy I'm getting a rest now. Then I come back for the Laver Cup and hopefully finish the year strong."

Which he might do. Or might not. The longer one plays, the more his skills and quickness diminish.

The next major, the Australian Open, isn’t for another four-plus months. Time is not on his side but on the other side of the net.


Djokovic, from comedian to champion

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — He used to be more comedian than champion. Novak Djokovic could imitate the physical idiosyncrasies of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for laughs. Then he began to beat them, and the laughter turned into accolades.

His style gets on the nerves of some. A New Yorker article said his detractors call him “Djoko-bitch.” His father ran a pizzeria in a Serbian mountain community that was home to a ski resort in winter and a tennis and basketball complex after the snow melted.

He was labeled “The Third Man,” the assumption that he was behind Federer and Nadal and ahead of recovering Andy Murray, when the sport’s big four are mentioned. He can be arrogant, but he also acts self-effacing.

On a very warm Labor Day, Monday, Djokovic disposed of the less-accomplished Joao Sousa of Portugal, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, in a fourth-round match to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and then moved to the microphone for his thoughts and words — the latter in virtually flawless English, one of five languages in which he is able to converse.

This is a comeback year of sorts for Djokovic, 31, who missed weeks of competition before undergoing surgery on his right elbow in February. His win at Wimbledon in June not only indicated he had returned to brilliance but also was his 13th Grand Slam.

Federer has 20, of course, and Nadal, who is the same age as Djokovic, has 17. Djokovic, who has a winning record against both of them, was pressed to consider his place in history, since there wasn’t much to talk about regarding the Sousa match other than the 90-degree heat.

Marriage, two children and the natural progression of growing older have turned Djokovic from the flippant mime of a decade past into a more reflective and responsible individual. Also, unmentioned, he is a more successful one. The confidence comes through.

“Once you win more than a match against your top rival,” he said, probably meaning Nadal but not excluding Federer, “you have maybe a little bit of a mental advantage. It just depends, again, on how you feel playing against them, which kind of surface, what time of year and so forth.

“I feel my rivalry with Nadal especially is quite amazing as well. We played the most matches against each other than any other two tennis players ever in the game.”

Fifty two, with Djokovic holding a 27-25 edge.

And yet Djokovic alluded to a documentary, Strokes of Genius, built around Nadal’s epic win over Federer in the Wimbledon final of 2008.

“I watched a couple days ago,” he said. “That was really cool. I was glued to the TV, watching Rafa and Roger, really celebrating the greatness that they really are. I feel like these guys have been role models on court and off.”

Asked what stood out for him about the film, Djokovic said he wasn’t watching the actual match 10 years ago.

“But through the documentary,” he explained, “I could actually understand how good that match was, with interruptions of the rain and everything; Nadal losing a couple of finals in a row and then getting back ands fighting hard and showing a champion's sprit; Roger going back from two sets down, saving match points.”   

So rare, until their retirement, their dotage, to hear great athletes discuss other great athletes with awe and respect. So few don’t want to allow the other man, the other team, to get a psychological advantage.

The mental edge is as important in tennis, a sport in which self-belief counts as much — maybe more — than a forehand or backhand.            

Consider Sousa, 45th in the rankings, facing Djokovic, the No. 6 seed with all those major titles. “It was very special for me,” said Sousa, “to play out there against a great player like Novak is. We were suffering in the heat. But no excuse. I think he was the better player today.”

The better player and the more introspective.

“I felt a huge relief when I won Wimbledon this year,” said Djokovic, “because of the period of the last couple of years before that, what I’ve been through with the injury, inspiring myself to get back on the track and try to win majors and be one of the best players in the world.”

A very accessible goal.