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.


Oh, mama, Serena makes U.S. Open quarters

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — She’s still going. Serena Williams made the declaration about herself. As if there were any doubts, and maybe when she was crushed in a match at Stanford five weeks ago, winning only one game in two sets, there had to be more than a few.

But that was then, and there were mitigating factors, besides the apparent one of trying to return to big-time sport only months after giving birth. And this is now, the U.S. Open, America’s historic tennis championship.

Serena has reached the quarterfinals for a 10th consecutive appearance.

Williams, who will be 37 this month, defeated another comeback lady, 33-year-old Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, 6-0, 4-6, 6-3, Sunday, at Arthur Ashe Stadium and announced, “It’s been 20 years since I won the Open. I literally grew up on this court. I played here when I was 15, 16. And now I’m still going.”

She missed the date of the championship by 12 months — she won her first of six Open titles in 1999 — and she also mis-used the word literally. But those are trifles compared to what she has accomplished.

It’s become a standard part of the Serena references, having a baby a year ago, missing weeks of competition and practice. We know what she’s been through. Or do we?

“I think society puts it out there that you’ll just kind of snap back,” Williams said of her recovery and return following a C-section delivery and subsequent blood problems.

“That’s a myth. I feel like it’s important for women to know it doesn’t happen like that in an Instagram world. In the real world, it takes a while for your body to come back. Especially after a C-section. And not only that, like mentally and physically dealing emotionally for a child. I thought it would just automatically come together.”

It was together in the first set. That took only 18 minutes. Then Kanepi broke Williams' serve to begin the second set. And so we had a test.

Kanepi was going to retire at the end of 2016 because of her own various medical problems. But like Serena, Kanepi felt attached to the game. And in this Open, in her first match, she knocked out the top-ranked woman, Simona Halep.

On July 31, Williams was defeated by Johanna Konta, 6-1, 6-0, in the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic at San Jose State. It was difficult to believe. But People magazine reported that the man who shot to death Serena’s sister Yetunde in 2006 had been paroled from prison, then arrested. That might be the reason Williams said, “I have so many things on my mind, I don’t have time to be shocked.”

What she’s thinking about now is adding a 24th Grand Slam championship to tie the record held by Margaret Court.

The victory over Kanepi, two days after the domination of sister Venus in a third-round match, indicate that Serena has returned to being among the best in the game, and never mind her ranking of 26th.

“I don’t think I want to win more,” Williams said of her current play. “I don’t think my desire to win could have been more five years ago … It has remained at an incredibly high level.”

That certainly is what makes a champion, a yearning to be the best, to finish in front. You read the tales of John Elway or Joe Montana, who even in supposedly friendly games, cards, backyard sports, played every point to win. So does Serena.

“I’ve still remained at that incredibly high level to compete and to win,” said Serena.

As understood by the scream she let fly when a backhand gave her the win over Kanepi.

“I don’t know, it’s just a Serena Williams scream,” she said of the outburst. “I don’t try to do it. It just comes out, and it’s just emotions. You’re out there. This is my job. This is what I do. This is how I earn a living. I’m going to do it the best I can.”

The victory, two days after the domination of sister Venus in a third-round match, indicate that Serena has returned to being among the best in the game, and never mind her ranking of 26th.

Which very well could be the best by any woman ever.


Federer hits around the net — and hits the jackpot

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — He gave them what they wanted, and a little more. Roger Federer was on stage — well, on court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, not that there’s much difference — and on his game, fighting off service breaks, moving gracefully and effectively, and then pulling off a shot that bordered on disbelief.

A shot that had his opponent, Nick Kyrgios, who is famous for the spectacular — and the self-destructive — literally gaping and then gesticulating. A shot that Federer agreed was one of his more unique ones in a unique career.

It didn’t mean much in the flow of the match Saturday, coming in the third set, which Federer would win as he won the first two. But the shot — Federer dashing in for a low bouncer and then hitting the ball around the net, not over — was highlight video stuff, as in “Hey, Mabel, you got to see this.”

Federer dominated Kyrgios, 6-4, 6-1, 7-5, and so moves into the fourth round of the U.S. Open, a tournament he has won five times. True, Kyrgios had chances early on, but he couldn’t take advantage, hardly a surprise, and then Federer played like Federer, in control.

Roger will be 38 in a week, but age no longer seems important. That Casey Stengel line when he got fired as a manager because he was too old, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again,” is inconsequential. Friday night, Serena Williams, almost 37, beat sister Venus, who is 38.

Tennis, as golf, is a sport of recognition. Fans cheer for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And for Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. And when Federer pulls off a shot as he did, it’s a bonus.

“It was unbelievable,” said Kyrgios. Then with a smile he chirped, “I’m probably going to place it on Instagram.”

Kyrgios is the 23-year-old Australian with a big serve and erratic style. Only Thursday, the chair umpire in Kyrgios’ match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert was so disturbed by what he thought was a lack of effort by Kyrgios he climbed down from his chair to give Nick some advice — thereby going against the sport’s protocol.

The Aussie, who often says he would rather be in the NBA than the ATP (the men’s pro tennis tour), was on his best behavior Saturday and, for the first few games, on top of Federer. But it’s a matter of history: the longer the competition continues, the greater the odds that the better player will win.

Even without a stunning shot.

“He played really well today,” Kyrgios said of Federer, who he beat three years ago, his only win now in four matches between the two. “I didn’t play my best tennis, but I couldn’t have done much I thought.”

Except marvel at that shot around the net.

“I was trying to tell him the shot wasn’t that good,” joked Kyrgios. “No, it was almost unreal. It almost got to a point where I wanted him to start making shots like that, and I finally got it.”

Federer is the No. 2 seed behind Nadal. As everyone knows, Roger has won 20 Grand Slams, far more than anyone else, but none have been this year. He is a constant among the big three of men’s tennis, with Nadal and the revitalized Novak Djokovic.

His strengths are a timely serve and wonderful consistency. Still, the conversation was about comparing the few shots, like the one Saturday, that are special.

“I explained (to ESPN) on court you don’t get the opportunity to hit around the net post very often because you can’t train for them,” he said. “On practice courts, the net is farther out. You will be running into a fence, and you will hit it into the net.

“But I have hit a few throughout my career, and they are always fun. You realize you have the option. I can just shove it down the line. That’s what happened today.”

So rare, so remarkable.

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