By Art Spander
NEW YORK — It was everything it was supposed to be, the U.S. Open men’s final between the game’s two best players, shots that were chased down with sprinter’s speed, balls that were rammed inside lines, skill almost beyond description, willpower practically beyond belief.
At the end, after 3 hours and 21 minutes of momentum swings and missed chances, and of constant cheering by a capacity crowd whose favoritism seemed to swing with the fortunes of play, there was Rafael Nadal face down on the hard court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, weeping tears of joy.
He had beaten his rival, the man ranked No. 1, the only man ranked above him, Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, on a Monday evening that capped a comeback, elevated him to the top of tennis and elevated tennis with such artistic play.
“I didn’t think something like this could happen,” said Nadal, who missed this tournament and numerous others during a six-month recovery from a knee injury.
“I didn’t think about competing the way I have this year. For a few things, this season is probably the most emotional one in my career. I felt I did everything right to have my chance here.”
He has won 10 tournaments, including two majors, the French and this U.S Open.
It was the second Open title for the 27-year-old Nadal, who missed the tournament last year with a knee injury, and his 13th Grand Slam triumph overall, third on the all-time list behind Roger Federer’s 17 and Pete Sampras’ 14.
“He’s definitely one of the best tennis players ever,” said Djokovic of Nadal. Djokovic, with six Slams himself neatly fits into the same category.
“I mean,” added Djokovic, “looking at this achievement and his age, at this moment. He still has a lot of years to play, so that’s all I can say.”
When commentator Mary Carillo shoved the public address microphone in front of Djokovic at match’s end and asked, “What’s it like to be playing a guy like Rafa?” all Djokovic could say was, “Thanks for bringing that up.”
What it was like was constant pressure and repeated response. In the sixth game of the second set, the set that the top-seeded Djokovic won, there was a 54-shot rally — 54 balls smacked and pounded and finessed without a miss — until Djokovic got the point.
It was breathtaking. It was amazing.
Yet after this exhibition of talent and willpower, there was Djokovic musing about chances squandered — he had a 40-0 lead on Nadal’s serve in the third set, but Nadal won — and opportunities blown.
“But it’s my fault you know,” said Djokovic.
Three times he has faced Nadal in the Open final. Only one of those times has he won. Overall in the most extensive head-to-head meeting in tennis history, Nadal has beaten Djokovic 22 out of 37 matches.
“I made some unforced errors in the crucial moments with forehands and dropped the serve twice when I should not have,” said Djokovic, referring to what proved to be the pivotal third set.
“The next thing you know, all of a sudden, it’s two sets to one for him. Then he started playing much better. I obviously could not recover after that loss.”
Nadal, from Mallorca, Spain, was a clay-court specialist — he’s won the French, on that surface, eight times — who disliked hard courts, partially because it was tough on his knees, partially because the speed of the bounces took him out of his comfort zone.
But like any great athlete who wanted to improve, Nadal learned the nuances of the game on hard courts, as well as that on the grass at Wimbledon, hitting harder serves, playing ground strokes more to mid-court. Now he’s unstoppable, going through the hard-court schedule, Montreal, Cincinnati and the Open, without a loss.
“People think something changed,” said Nadal. “I changed nothing. I am playing with passion. Confidence (is the) only change.”
Djokovic said he wasn’t playing to the level he wanted the whole match because of Nadal.
“Credit my opponent,” said Djokovic. “He was making me run. You know I had my ups and downs, but this is all sport. There is a lot of tension, a lot of expectations, and it’s normal to have ups and downs.”
There is nothing normal about the way Nadal or Djokovic go after a tennis ball. They are magicians on demand, finding the most exact angle in the corners or just over the net.
“When you’re against Rafa you just feel this is the last drop of energy that you need to win the point,” said Djokovic. “Sometimes I was winning those points, sometimes him.
“It’s what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit. That’s the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, in the end.”
The match they played Monday night indeed was beautiful, but surely more so to Rafael Nadal, again the U.S. Open champion.
Entries in U.S. Open (118)
By Art Spander
By Art Spander
NEW YORK — They battled nerves, wind and the oh-so-brilliant lady across the net. They went from day into night, from advantage to disadvantage. They produced one of the longest and most tense U.S. Open women’s tennis championship matches ever.
In the end, as expected — and for the enthralled, hollering capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as hoped — it was Serena Williams, surviving both herself and the irrepressible Victoria Azarenka, winning 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1.
This was one of the best, if not once of the classics. This was a 2-hour 45-minute struggle both against a south wind that swirled viciously around the 24,000-seat bowl and great shots from the opponent.
Williams, No. 1 in the rankings and the seedings, seemed more flummoxed by the weather than Azarenka, who is one notch down in both categories, as tennis skirts flapped and serves took flight.
But at last, the veteran, the American, Serena, who will be 32 in two weeks, took the American title for a second straight year and a fifth time overall, and joyfully bounced about the court in triumph.
Serena seemed well on her way to the championship, her 17th Grand Slam, with a 4-1 lead and up two breaks in the second set. But suddenly her big serves started coming back at her on terrific returns by Azarenka, who was dashing from corner to corner and ripping balls in every unreturnable direction.
“Yeah, I think I got a little uptight, which probably wasn't the best thing at that moment,” confided Williams.
She also pointed out that her problems were caused in part by Azarenka.
“Vika is such a great fighter,” Williams said, using the nickname by which everyone calls the 24-year-old from Belarus.
“That’s why she was able to win multiple Grand Slams,” she added, in a bit of exaggeration, Azarenka having taken the Australian Open twice — including this January but no other majors.
For Serena, it was her second Slam of 2013, after a win in the French Open. Two days earlier, John McEnroe, commenting for television, called Williams the greatest women’s player ever, and surely this match did nothing to change his viewpoint. Or anyone else’s.
Indeed, although she had not lost a set until the final, the reality is that the farther one advances in a tournament the tougher it becomes. And especially in women’s tennis, beyond the top half-dozen players, there aren’t many who are in the class of Serena or Vika.
“Well, there's one word,” said Azarenka afterward. “She's a champion, and she knows how to repeat that. She knows what it takes to get there. I know that feeling, too. And when two people who want that feeling so bad meet, it's like a clash. That's what happens out there, those battles.
“And in the important moments is who is more brave, who is more consistent, or who takes more risk. And with somebody like Serena, you got to take risk. You can never play safe, because she will do that. She did that today really well.”
Just the edge. Serena had it, then Serena lost it, or more accurately Azarenka, who beat Williams a month ago at Cincinnati in three sets, wrenched it away. But not for long.
“I started to try to — I wasn't playing very smart tennis then,” Serena said of the second set, “so I just had to relax and not do that again. This was never over until match point.”
Technically, yes, although once she regained control by breaking serve in the fourth game of the third set, the result was inevitable.
“Vika, you played unbelievable,” said Serena, who at times can be self-centered. “It was an honor to play against you.”
The disappointment welled up in Azarenka when the chance for an upset, very real at the start of the third set, disappeared.
“It is a tough loss,” said Azarenka, doing her best to hold back her emotions, “but to be in final against best player, I showed heart.”
Then, in front of the microphone that carried her words over the public address system. Azarenka began to cry, trying to hide her tears behind an available towel.
“I think it was raising, you know, from the first point the tension, the battle, the determination, it was raising really, you know, kind of like boiling the water or something.
“She (Serena) really made it happen. In that particular moment she was tougher today. She was more consistent, and, you know, she deserved to win. I wish I could do something better today. You know, I felt like I had opportunities in the first set, as well. But, I mean, it's okay. It goes that way. I did everything I could."
Serena did everything she needed, as usually has been the case the past year. Since a first-round loss in the 2012 French Open. Williams is 98-5 with 14 tournament wins. This year, she is 67-4.
“I felt almost disappointed with my year, to be honest,” explained Williams when asked if she needed the win to a validate her domination.
“I felt like, yeah, I won the French Open, but I wasn't happy with my performances in the other two slams, and, you know, not even making it to the quarterfinals of one. So I definitely feel a lot better with at least a second Grand Slam under my belt this year."
Especially the way the wind blew and Azarenka played.
By Art Spander
NEW YORK — Four hours and nine minutes — of agony and beauty, of courage and dexterity, of power and grace, of ballet with a racquet and a ball, of chances blown and greatness displayed, of a U.S. Open match that was matchless.
Saturday, when America’s game brought out the pompoms and the tailgaters, when someone tweeted that the television viewership for college football was much greater than it was for tennis, and that’s understandable. We love our alma maters. We love our violent sport.
But Saturday was also for a presentation of athletic skill in a game not always appreciated in the United States until put on display as it was when, for 4 hours and 9 minutes, Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka served and volleyed against each other until they were near exhaustion.
Djokovic, No. 1 in the men’s rankings, No. 1 in the seedings, ended up the winner, but barely, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. For a fourth straight year, he’s in the final. For a third year of the last four, he’s in the final after being down two sets to one in the semifinal.
“These matches are what we live for,” said Djokovic.
What sport lives for. Drama, tension, comebacks, survival.
A game, the third in the fifth set that lasted 21 minutes, that included Wawrinka holding off five break points to win, that had the capacity crowd of 24,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium screaming, that had the brilliant, lithe Djokovic even more determined.
"I was thinking, I guess everyone was thinking, that whoever wins this game is going to win the match," Djokovic said. "I thought to myself, I guess I have to fight against those odds."
He fought. He persevered, as No. 1 should over No. 9, which is where the 28-year-old Wawrinka of Switzerland is ranked. Maybe because Wawrinka incurred a strained groin tumbling in the fourth set on a cement court that seemed too slippery. Maybe because at age 26, and having won the Open and five other Grand Slam tournaments, Djokovic, of Serbia, is a better player, if marginally.
Wawrinka, who in his years had never been as far in any of the four majors as this spot in the semis, is a battler.
“I gave everything I had,” he said to the crowd, words affirming actions. “I was fighting to the end. It was an amazing experience.”
It was an experience so appreciated that the fans gave Wawrinka, in a shirt as red as his nation’s flag, a deafening round of applause and cheers, drowning out his remarks.
Djokovic, who won the Australian Open and lost Wimbledon, will be in his third Slam final of the year, although to his viewpoint somewhat apologetically.
“It’s obvious Stan played more aggressive, better tennis overall,” said the man known as Nole, accent on the e.
“I was just trying to hang in there. It was not an easy match for both of us. We had to run. I kept trying to find my rhythm. Give credit to him. I was fortunate to play my best tennis when I had to.”
Which in any sport is what champions do.
“He’s not No. 1 for nothing,” said Wawrinka, who also lost to Djokovic in five sets at the Australian Open in January.
“Unfortunately today,” said Wawrinka, “I was a little bit struggling physically. I think that is completely different match than the match we play in the Australian Open. In the Australian Open I had to play my best game to stay with him. Today, I had the feeling when I was still healthy I had the match in control. I was playing better than him, doing much more things than him.”
Djokovic said as much. Yet, the best ones, the winners, in whatever sport, manage to make it through when things go wrong and then produce the big shot or the big hit or the big basket when needed. Nobody plays well all the time. It’s how you finish when you’re not playing well.
The last two years plus, Djokovic has been finishing admirably and successfully, and each step makes the subsequent steps easier, although Djokovic did say he was nervous simply because of the situation, a semifinal in a Grand Slam against an opponent who had just knocked out the defending champion
“Maybe I have a physical edge over him,” Djokovic suggested, “and this kind of match, on a big stage, that experience is going to give me confidence.
“I was frustrated with my own mistakes. I had break-point chances and couldn’t take advantage (he converted only 4 of 19). But I managed to stay tough and play well when I needed to, and that definitely encourages me for the final.”
That, no surprise, will be against Rafael Nadal, who beat Richard Gasquet in the other semi, which followed.
When someone wondered if Djokovic would scout that match, he laughed. “I’m going to grab some popcorn,” he responded, “and watch it on TV.”
After 4 hours and 9 minutes, he was allowed.
By Art Spander
NEW YORK — The tournament isn’t over yet for Serena Williams, or certainly, the woman she’ll again face in the finals of the U.S. Open. The way everyone’s talking, it might as well be.
Not that Serena is going to win, because even favorites — and certainly she’s the favorite — lose every now and then.
But Serena’s real competition is not the player across the net but the history of the game.
The lady Williams is to play in the Sunday final, the one nicknamed Vika, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, declared without reservation that Serena is the “greatest of all time.”
Strong words, which could be interpreted as a setup, but Vika isn’t one to be disingenuous.
Besides, the idea is shared by one of tennis’ greats, John McEnroe, who Friday, after Serena routed Li Na, 6-0, 6-3, in one semifinal, said, “I know she doesn’t have the amount of wins of Chris (Evert) or Martina (Navratilova) or Steffi (Graf), but I already think she’s the greatest.”
So far for Williams, this Open has been less about success than about verification. The question in any of her six matches hasn’t been whether Serena would win but how easily she would win. Again on a warm, breezy afternoon in Queens, we learned.
The afternoon began with Azarenka, the 24-year-old from Belarus, who’s got a wonderful forehand and a no-less impressive sense of humor. Seeded No. 2 — behind Williams, naturally — Azarenka defeated Flavia Pennetta of Italy, 6-4, 6-2.
That gave her time first to watch Williams, 31, extend her streak of consecutive game wins to 24, as Serena won the first seven games of the match, and contemplate what might be done to reverse last year’s final. In 2012, Vika, then the top seed, lost to Williams in three sets.
Serena has pitched shutouts in five of the 12 sets she played this Open, meaning 6-0 wins in those sets, and not only hasn’t lost a set but has lost only 16 points. The record for a full tournament for fewest points allowed is 19 by Navratilova in 1983.
The question is how to get the 31-year-old Williams out of the comfort zone she now occupies, and Azarenka had a ready answer. “You’ve got to fight,” she began. “You’ve got to run. You’ve got to grind, and you’ve got to bite with your teeth for whatever opportunity you have.”
That’s a figure of speech, of course, Azarenka not planning to emulate Mike Tyson with her bicuspids.
Azarenka has beaten Williams two out of the last three times they met, including a couple of weeks back in Cincinnati, but overall Serena has won 12 of 15 matches between the two. And with Williams overall 66-4 this year, it would be redundant to point out she’s on a roll.
Li Na is now 1-9 against Williams after Friday, and she appeared shellshocked for quite a while, finally regaining a bit of respectability.
“In the end, finally,” Li said, “I can play tennis.”
Not as well as Serena, who with the French Open among her eight tournament titles this year, has won 16 Grand Slams, including four U.S. Opens.
The 24,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium was maybe only two-thirds full on a languid Friday. Those in the stands had come to see, and to support, Williams, the only American still playing for the tennis championship of America.
“It’s great to hear, ‘Go Serena, Go Serena,’” said Williams in a post-match TV interview also carried on the public address system. That brought a few chants of “Go Serena.”
“It’s really a pleasure to be here. Older voices, young voices.”
Williams, after the first-set blitz, in 30 minutes, surprisingly was down 2 games to 1 and, with Li serving, 40-0 in the fourth game. But Serena rallied, broke serve and regained what little control that had been lost.
“It was tough at the end,” said Williams. “Li Na is such a great player. I got a little nervous, but I was able to close it out.”
Then after a break, she and older sister Venus played doubles.
Azarenka simply went out for dinner.
“It’s important to have self-belief and confidence in what you do and just be aware of what’s going on, what’s coming at you,” Azarenka explained about her strategy for Williams.
What’s coming at Vika will be some of Serena’s 115-mph serves.
“It’s always a new story,” said Azarenka, alluding to last year’s loss to Serena in the final. “I don’t think it’s even going to be close to the same as it was last year.”
When you’re about to face the player you’ve labeled the greatest of all time, that’s an interesting observation.
By Art Spander
NEW YORK — Timing is everything, isn’t it? We pose the question to Simon Barnes, the excellent sports columnist from the Times of London who crossed the Atlantic solely to bring to his readers the progress of Andy Murray as he tried for a second straight U.S. Open tennis championship.
Murray, the Scot, not only took the Open a year ago but this summer became the first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon, a feat that earned front-page headlines in every publication from John O’Groats (as far north as one can go and still be on the British mainland) to Land’s End (as far south).
Barnes arrived in New York just in time for Murray on Thursday to play in the quarterfinals, which against the other guy from Switzerland — Stanislas Wawrinka, not Roger Federer, who was long gone — figured to be a Murray victory.
It was not, however. Wawrinka, with great ground strokes and big serves, upset Murray, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. He also upset Barnes, whose sole purpose was to write about his countryman.
“It never fails,” said Barnes. “I’ve never seen him win a match, except at Wimbledon.” Those are not to be dismissed, certainly, and Barnes did have the exhilaration of describing Murray’s historic triumph in July.
Still, now and then, Barnes would like his paper to be rewarded for sending him to the four corners of the globe. Twice he went all the way from London to Australia, a journey of nearly 24 hours, to watch and cover Murray, who inconveniently lost the two matches Barnes attended.
But as bad as Barnes feels, Murray, 26, must feel worse. Murray was a semifinalist in 2011 and, of course, a champion in 2012, winning a Slam for the first time. He was ranked and seeded third and had won his previous 11 matches here at Flushing Meadows.
“I would have liked to have played a little bit better,” said Murray, “but, you know, I had a good run the last couple of years. It’s a shame I had to play a bad match today.”
And that Wawrinka, 28 and making it to the semifinals of a Grand Slam event for the first time in his career, had to play an excellent one.
“I thought he played great,” affirmed Murray. “He hit big shots. He passed extremely well. He hit a lot of lines on big points. He served well. That was it. He played a great match.”
A match that elevated Wawrinka into the semifinals.
“To beat him in three sets,” Wawrinka said in an understatement, “is quite good for me.”
Because in pressure situations, Wawrinka has been known to come apart like a cheap watch — not one made in Switzerland, however.
“Normally,” Wawrinka conceded, “I can be a little nervous and I can lose a few games because of that, but today I was just focused on my game. It was windy, was not easy conditions, but my plan was to push him to be aggressive, because I know Andy can be a little bit too defensive. I like it when he’s far back from the baseline, and today I did it well.”
Murray made no excuses, but he reached the summit of the mountain with victory at Wimbledon, where no British male had won singles since 1936. Surely everything else is Peoria. Even Flushing Meadows, where last year he knocked off Novak Djokovic in the final.
It’s hard for an American, a Spaniard, a Swiss to comprehend what winning Wimbledon means to a Brit, and to Britain, even if he’s a Scot, not an Englishman. Lawn tennis developed in Britain, where the Wimbledon tournament is as much a part of the nation as Buckingham Palace.
Over there it’s known simply as “The Championships.”
That would make Murray The Champion.
“It’s not about focus,” he said, responding to a question about competition after Wimbledon. “You know when you work so hard for something for a lot of years, it’s going to take some time to really fire yourself up and get yourself training 110 percent.
“I think it’s kind of natural after what happened at Wimbledon.”
Murray, one of the game’s big four for several years, was properly philosophical, and had the right to be, when asked about the last 12 months as he broke through with two major titles.
“I mean,” he said, “it’s been challenging both ways for different reasons. Physically, I played some extremely tough matches in that period. Mentally, it was very challenging for me to play — Wimbledon, the last few games at Wimbledon may not seem like much to you guys, but to me it was extremely challenging.
“I’ve played my best tennis in the Slams the past two, three years. I mean, I lose today in straight sets. I would have liked to have gone further. But I can’t complain. If someone told me before the U.S. Open last year I would have been here as defending champion, having won Wimbledon and Olympic gold, I could have taken that 100 percent.”
So could Simon Barnes, if he had not chased Andy Murray across the sea for the story.