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1:21PM

A question for Serena, but no questions for Kerber

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It seemed wrong, a final in women’s tennis without Serena Williams, but at the same time it seemed right. Sport is nothing but change, heroes and heroines raising a trophy or a hand in triumph and then being pushed aside, maybe in a matter of weeks or months — the Warriors' reign was halted all too quickly — or, in Serena’s case, a matter of years.

Now there is a new women’s tennis champion, someone who not that long ago the critics said didn’t have the game or the nerve to get to the top. Angelique Kerber is not only the U.S. Open winner but No. 1 in the rankings.

Kerber left no questions Saturday in the Open final, beating Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, someone who like Kerber few outside the little, provincial world of tennis knew well, if at all, until recently.

Yet their questions of another, Serena, whose defeat in the semifinals by Pliskova on Thursday, and tumble from the top of the rankings on Saturday morning, became front-page news in the New York Times, 24 hours later.

The day the women’s final, for a second straight year, would played without her.

“Serena Williams Will Be 35.” said the headline over a story by tennis correspondent Chris Clarey. “But Will She Be No. 1 Again?”

Yes, Williams is American and held her position for 186 consecutive weeks, and we tend to dwell on what was as much as what is. Still, women’s tennis is in flux, although Kerber suddenly appears to be the top-of-the-heap player who may hold her ranking for a while.

Kerber has done what Serena used to do, what Venus Williams used to do, what Steffi Graf and Chris Evert used to do: she stepped up and dominated. She beat Serena in the Australian Open final, lost to Serena in the Wimbledon final and now beats Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. Three finals and two titles in a calendar year. That’s something we would have expected from Serena, or from Kerber’s mentor and fellow German, Steffi Graf, who persuaded Kerber to be more aggressive.

As perhaps too many women on tour, Kerber played too carefully, keeping the ball in play but rarely forcing the issue. But after she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the third round of last year’s Open, she visited Graf — the last player, male or female, to take the Grand Slam, all four majors in a year, 1988 — in Las Vegas, where Graf lives with her husband, Andre Agassi, and family.

“Kerber used to play too defensively,” Evert told the ESPN television audience, “and she had that pitty-pat serve.”

At age 28, Kerber conquered her faults and her demons. And with experience she then conquered the hard-serving Pliskova, who at 24 finally had her breakthrough.

Pliskova, who never had been beyond the third round of any major, first won the Cincinnati tournament a month ago, beating Kerber in the final, 6-3, 6-1, and then going all the way to this final — if not to the championship.

Kerber said she had dreamed of being No. 1 since she was a child in Bremen. Sometimes even in a sport where the young come up so quickly, and the veterans slip away no less quickly, success is a process that takes a long while.

"It means a lot to me,” said Kerber, still on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court as tears trickled down her face immediately after the match. “I mean, all the dreams came true this year, and I'm just trying to enjoy every moment on court and also off court."

She’ll enjoy it. Serena Williams may enjoy it less so. Will she be No. 1 again? It will be fascinating to find out.

8:19PM

Serena denies she was beaten because she was ‘beat up’

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — She looked weary, bewildered, and even, yes, old, because some two weeks from her 35th birthday, as a tennis player Serena Williams is old, 12 years older than Karolina Pliskova, who on a Thursday night of disbelief — and perhaps transition — stunned tennis and Williams.

A 6-foot-1 Czech with a serve no less impressive — and at times more effective — than Williams', Pliskova overcame her own history of Grand Slam failures, Serena’s reputation and a howling crowd with a 6-2, 7-6 (5) win in a U.S. Open semifinal.

For a second straight year, Williams falls one match short of the Open final — in 2015 she was upset by Roberta Vinci — and also for the first time in months falls out of the No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis, which now goes to Germany's Angelique Kerber, who faces Pliskova in Saturday's final.

Maybe it was because Serena played a three-setter in the quarterfinals Wednesday against Simona Halep and was unable to recover physically.   

Maybe it was because Serena’s game is not what it used to be.

Maybe it’s because Pliskova has learned to conquer the nerves that rattled her until this summer.

Maybe it’s because Serena has a sore leg.

However, she rejected any thought that playing two matches in two days had any effect on her game.

“I definitely was not beat up after my quarterfinal match,” she insisted. “I wasn’t tired from (Wednesday’s) match. I’m a professional player, been playing for over 20 years.

“If I can’t turn around after 24 hours and play again, then I shouldn’t be on tour. So I definitely wasn’t tired from (Wednesday’s) match at all. But yeah, I’ve been having some serious knee problems. Fatigue had nothing to do with it.”

Williams, who rides on her thundering serves, was broken twice in the first set and once in the second. Pliskova, who until this Open had never been past the third round of any major in 17 previous attempts, won the battle of serves, and thus the match.

“Yes,” said Williams. “I thought she served well today, and that definitely was a big thing for her.” 

As over the years it’s been a very big thing for Serena, who in the tiebreak had two double faults. That’s what others do, not Williams. Until this semi.

Pliskova had beaten Venus Williams, Serena’s older sister, in the fourth round of this Open, and so becomes only the fourth player, along with Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, to score a victory over both Williamses in the same Slam tournament.

"I don't believe it," said Pliskova moments after the match finished at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

She wasn’t the only one, but anything in tennis, in sports, is believable. Who would have thought Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray would be gone before the semis? Who would have thought the San Francisco Giants would fall apart as they have done?

"I knew I had the chance to beat anyone if I played my game,” said Pliskova.

Which basically is preventing the opponent from returning a serve. It was evident why Pliskova leads the Tour in service aces.

Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had suggested that the knee injury was the difference. It’s tough to blame defeat on ailments. Long ago Venus Williams, when asked after losing a match if she had been hurt, said, “If you play you’re not hurt. If you’re hurt don’t play.”

Serena, pressed about the knee, said, “I’m not downplaying anything. Karolina played great today. I think had she played any less, I would have had a chance.

“So I think I wasn’t 100 percent, but I also think she played well. She deserved to win today.”

As with almost every full-time tennis player, Williams has had her share of injuries. It’s a fact in a sport where the competitors are traveling around the world and rarely taking days off.

There’s a never-ending circle. You have to be in a tournament for a chance to earn points that will get you into a tournament. And bodies fray.

Nadal pulled out of the French Open and missed Wimbledon because he was injured. Roger Federer’s knee would not allow him to play in this Open. Time catches up, especially as the years mount.

Williams lost to Kerber in the Australian Open final in January and beat her in the Wimbledon final in July. Who knows whether Serena can keep going on year after year? What we do know is she’s not going on in the 2016 U.S. Open.

7:11PM

An official’s call and a rain delay unhinge Andy Murray

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — He was adamant in defeat, trying to handle the questions better than he did Kei Nishikori’s maddening drop shots, a man whose summer of success, a Wimbledon championship, an Olympics championship, unwound in a single afternoon on America’s biggest tennis stage.

Andy Murray was playing elegantly, happily. He had won 26 of 27 matches since mid-June, was in control of his game, the forehands, the backhands, the serves, and no less significantly because of an intensity that can lead to frustration, in control of himself.

Sure, Novak Djokovic might be there at the end of this U.S. Open, Sunday’s final, but Roger Federer hadn’t entered because of an injury and Rafa Nadal was upset in the fourth round. What an opportunity for the 29-year-old Murray, the No. 2 seed, to win the Open a second time, to win a fourth major.

But like that, the whole world seemed to go against him, from the closing of the new roof over 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium when rain began to fall, to a loud bong on the public address system that had the umpire calling a let, to a moth or butterfly fluttering around before the fifth set to getting broken at the start of the fifth set.

So Nishikori, the No. 6 seed, beaten in the Open final two years ago by Marin Cilic, eliminated Murray, 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 and goes to the semis. Murray, who got so angry at one juncture he slammed his racquet to the court, goes to Glasgow and a Davis Cup match. 

“I was in good position,” said Murray, “up a set and a break and had chances at the beginning of the fourth set as well. I could have won the match for sure.”

But he didn’t, and as we’ve seen so often, no matter what the sport, when the person or the team lets the extraneous stuff — the weather, the noise, the officials’ calls — get to them, get them rattled, they’re in trouble. As was Murray.

After the loudspeaker system acted up in the fourth set — Open officials explained the noise was a computer problem — the chair umpire, Marija Cicak, called a let and halted play. Murray protested.

“Stopped the point,” said Murray, “and I was curious why that was. (Tournament referee) Wayne McKewen told me it happened four times during the match. I only heard it once before, which was on set point in the second set.”

After the discussion in the fourth set, Murray lost seven straight games.

“Yeah,” said Murray, “I lost my serve a couple of times from positions when I was up in the game. I got broken once from 40-love, once from 40-15, and at the end of the match I think I was up 30-15 in the game as well. That was the difference.

“It was obviously different serving under the roof. I started off the match serving pretty well. It (closing the roof) slows the conditions down so it becomes easier to return. You know, he started returning a bit better. I didn’t serve so well, obviously ... Under the roof, he was able to dictate more of the points. He was playing a bit closer to the baseline than me and taking the ball up a little more.”

And using drop shots, which is the tennis equivalent of a baseball bunt, a ball that doesn’t go very far but doesn’t have to when the opponent, whether a third baseman or a tennis player, is all the way back, unable to return the shot.

“Yeah, a couple of them,” said Murray about being hurt by the drop shots. “I didn’t lose all the points. I won a number of them.”

Nishikori had lost seven of eight previous matches against Murray over the last five years, and when he got stormed in the first set, taking only one game, the pattern seemed certain to continue. Then came the rain, the roof and the Murray reaction — along with the Nishikori resilience.

With some 20 minutes to get the roof closed, Nishikori went to the locker room and got advice from his coaches, one of them Michael Chang, the Californian who at age 17 won the 1989 French Open.

“We talked about a lot of things,” said Nishikori, the only Japanese player to get to the finals of a Grand Slam event. “It was definitely my mistake I lost the first set. I was feeling a bit rushed. After the rain delay I changed something.”

He certainly changed the direction of the Open, ousting Murray.

“I have not let anyone down,” Murray insisted about his performance. “I tried my best. I didn’t let anyone down. Certainly not myself.”

He just let himself get distracted by a let call and a rain delay. Not very smart.

6:50PM

Monfils knocks out the man who knocked out Nadal

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It never fails, does it? The person or team that scores the upset, that knocks Duke out of the tournament, knocks Rafael Nadal out of the U.S. Open, never wins the championship. Usually never wins another round.

Which, naturally, was the situation with Lucas Pouille.

On Sunday, Pouille was the new star of tennis, rather than the new hero, because defeating the popular Nadal, as Pouille did, doesn’t necessarily make one a hero.

Villainhood is a greater possibility among the fans and the TV audience hoping to see Nadal.

In Tuesday’s quarterfinal, however, they watched Pouille against Gael Monfils in a match that was one-sided and brief, the 10th-seeded Monfils defeating Pouille, a fellow Frenchman, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in just over two hours at Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

Yes, two French in one of the four quarters. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who met No. 1 Novak Djokovic, is another …ooh la la. Sacre bleu! The French can cook and design — and play tennis, unlike Americans. No U.S. male made it out of the fourth round.

The mavens say that in Steve Johnson, winner in Cincinnati two and a half weeks ago; Jack Sock, who was beaten in the Open by Tsonga; and teenagers Francis Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, the future of U.S, men’s tennis is excellent. We’ll see.

What we see now is that France has depth and, for sure, a semifinalist. Long ago, men’s tennis was as French as the Eiffel Tower. Rene LaCoste (known as the Crocodile, the little reptile he put on the shirts he designed), Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra and Henri Cochet won Davis Cups and a total of 18 major singles titles in the 1920s and early 1930s.

They were called the Four Musketeers. In fact, the trophy awarded to the winner of the French Open each year is La Coupe des Mousquetaires — or the Cup of the Musketeers. 

Monfils, 30, is a lone musketeer, a showman who chases balls all over the court and, when he is able, hits them between his legs. He’s been as far as the semis previously in the French. Now he’s done it in the U.S. Open.   

“I drop my racquet," agreed Monfils, “and I do slide. You will say I entertain people, no matter what … Or I do a trick shot and still kill it. You will say I’m a showman. Today I didn’t have the chance to do it, but Lucas hit two tweeners (between the legs). I don’t think you will tell him he tried to entertain.”

Pouille, 22, the No. 24 seed, basically tried to stay in the match. He had played three five-setters, including that match against Nadal, and one four-setter.

“I was a bit tired,” said Pouille after his first Grand Slam quarter. “Yeah, it would have been better if I played a bit less time on court. I did my best today. Gael was playing very good. He’s physically fit. He’s moving so well.”

Monfils attributes that to conditioning and lineage. “I’m very blessed genetically, you know,” said Monfils of his agility and suppleness. “But I am even stronger than before.”

Although it’s no less a business, a way to earn a fine living, tennis to Monfils is also a game. So it was no surprise when, asked if he were having fun, Monfils quickly responded, “Always.”

That, he insisted, is the reason to play.

“No matter what, looks maybe a bit more serious, like everyone mention. But I play tennis because I have fun, because I love the sport. I’m happy where I am now.

“I think I missed a good chance two years ago against Roger (Federer). Now I have a second opportunity to get to my first Slam final.”

Pouille, who had dropped a previous match to Monfils, was not particularly distraught. Monday’s upset lingers in his mind.

“It’s the best win of my career,” he confirmed.

“Now I have a lot of confidence. Even if I lose today, I will leave New York with a lot of confidence for the rest of the year and the next season. Now I know I can be in a quarterfinal again, and maybe more.”

New York. If you can make it here …

8:50PM

Venus and Serena: This could be the last time

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — You waited through the afternoon, watched the sisters who have become such a large and magnificent part of tennis, of American sport, Venus and Serena Williams, back to back, on the same grand court in the same Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open. 

And the words of that Rolling Stones song kept repeating in the mind: This could be the last time.

This could be the last time in one of the four major championships that their play and the draw — and scheduling by shrewd tournament officials — combine for a box-office attraction like we had Monday.

Venus is reaching that stage, age 36, where her game is not what it used to be. She was beaten in her fourth-round match, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 (3) by Karolina Pliskova, the Czech who finally escaped her nerves and the third round of a Slam. Venus won’t retire — “I love what I do,” she said — but neither will she regain what she once had.

Serena still is the best of the women, ranked No. 1, and with her tidy victory over Yaroslava Shvedova, 6-2, 6-3, has won more Grand Slam matches 308, than anyone in history, male or female. 

But the days when Serena and Venus are on the same court in a Slam, either facing each other, as they have 27 times, or playing consecutive matches — on, say, Centre Court at Wimbledon or Arthur Ashe at the Open — regrettably are finished.

So it was probably expected after Venus' defeat that she would be asked if she would walk up, above the interview room, to Ashe court to watch Serena, whose match was underway. “I haven’t thought about that,” said Venus. “I still have other stuff to do. Maybe she will win quickly, and then I won’t have to think about it.”

Serena did win quickly, and someone wondered if she had followed Venus’ match. “I was really trying to warm up,” said Serena. “I really get nervous when I watch. So I didn’t get to see much. I knew that she lost when it was over, but I didn’t really watch what was going on.”

What was going on was the writing of yet another chapter of sports inevitability, a potential young star — Pliskova is 24 — taking the stage while the older, familiar player is moved out of the spotlight. Venus still can compete, but not like before.

The crowd at 23,000-seat Ashe probably was cheering for itself as much as it was for Venus. We’re all trying to hang on to the present, which all too soon becomes the past. Only days ago it seems Venus was the teenager on her way up. Now she’s the veteran. This was her 18th U.S. Open.

Venus showed her courage, down triple-match point in the 11th game of the third set and breaking Pliskova to get even at 6-6. Then Venus showed her vulnerability, making mistakes in the tiebreaker that she wouldn’t have made a decade ago.

“I think (in) the breaker I went for a little bit more,” she said of her tactics, “but I didn’t put the ball in enough. You know I went for some aggressive shots, didn’t necessarily put them in.

“She played a great game. I was going to try and stay in there, continue to get points.”

That’s the way opponents used to talk after they lost to a younger Venus.

“I did what I could when I could,” was Venus’ assessment. “That’s the match.” Once upon a time, Venus did what she wanted.

Which basically is what Serena has been doing the last few years, winning Wimbledon in July, a 22nd Slam triumph to tie Steffi Graf for second on the all-time list. There have been stumbles — "hiccups" is the tennis term — such as last year’s U.S. Open, when Serena was upset by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals. For the most part, she’s stomped along.

“I feel like I’m going out there and doing what I need to do,” said Serena, now in the quarterfinals. “I’m not overplaying. I’m not underplaying. I’m just trying to play my way into this tournament.”

She’s done that. On Monday, she followed older sister Venus onto the big court at the big time in the big city to complete a double-bill that we may have very well seen for the last time.