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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.

9:04PM

The new kid hits Broadway and beats Nadal

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It was classic Broadway, if a few miles east at Flushing Meadows. The new kid shows up and, right there before our eyes, shows up the older guy, the champion. You can hear the words from the decades: “We’re going to make you a star.”

Except they don’t have to, because Lucas Pouille is now a star. He went from virtual anonymity to instant fame in the time of a single tennis match Sunday afternoon and evening, if a lengthy, dramatic match, stunning the great Rafael Nadal, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in the U.S. Open.

Yes, a tiebreak in a fifth set that by itself lasted one hour and 10 minutes. Yes, a tiebreak in which Nadal, trailing 6-3 to draw even in a competition few in the bellowing, howling crowd in 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium thought Nadal ever would lose.

Yes, a tiebreak when Nadal had a wide-open forehand at 6-6 in that tiebreak — and hit it into the net.

“It was a very tense moment,” said Pouille (pronounced Puh-yeeh, or thereabouts). He is a 22-year-old Frenchman from the suburbs of Dunkirque on the English Channel, a relative unknown facing one the game’s finest, the 30-year-old Nadal who has won 14 Slams, with at least one victory in each of the four.

“After this,” said Pouille of the Nadal miss, “I was very comfortable. I wanted to take my chances.”

After this, meaning the fourth-round triumph, Pouille becomes one of three Frenchmen in the quarter-finals, one of whom, Gael Monfils, is his next opponent.

Nadal, a lefty, had been bothered by a bad left wrist. He pulled out of the French Open, a tournament he has won nine times, in late May. Then he skipped Wimbledon. But in August, he teamed with fellow Spaniard Marc Lopez to win the doubles title at the Rio Olympics and in singles there reached the semifinals.

Here, in the Open, he hadn’t lost a set. And the only time they had met previously, Nadal defeated Pouille, 6-1, 6-2, in straight sets. “When I was younger,” said Pouille, “I used to watch all his matches at the Open, the one against (Novak) Djokovic. I knew I had to be aggressive.”

So he was, jumping off to that 6-1 win in the first set by moving to the corners. No one then suspected we were in for a match that would last over four hours and finish with Pouille, after a winning forehand, flopping on his back in glee and sticking out his tongue.

That was his method of celebrating, not of mocking anyone. The fans, who as always in tennis support the best-known, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, had shifted, not so much dropping Nadal as embracing Pouille.

What they were witnessing hour after hour was courageous, enthralling play, and they wanted to be part of it.

“The crowd,” said Pouille appreciably, “was just unbelievable. You just have to enjoy.”

There was no enjoyment for Nadal. He was the No. 4 seed, favored over No. 25 Pouille. At times Rafa produced some of the heroic, athletic shots we know and expect. But too often, there were mistakes.

“I think he played a good match,” said Nadal of Pouille. “He started so strong. I fight until the end with. There were things I could do better. Had the right attitude. I fighted right up to the last ball.

“But I need something else; I need something more that was not there today. I going to keep working to try to find. But, yes, was a very, very close match that anything could happen. Just congratulate the opponent that probably he played with better decision than me the last couple of points.”

These battles between a familiar and successful player and an outsider perhaps about to reach the next level inevitably leave us with mixed emotions, delighted that someone new takes the big step but also distressed at the failure of a player so long at the top. When Nadal walked out of the tunnel after the pre-match introduction, the approval was thunderous.

When he left the court, he smiled, if painfully, and waved.

“Was a big mistake,” he had said earlier about his forehand. “But you are six-all in the tiebreak. I played the right point. I put me in a position to have the winner, and I had the mistake. That's it.

“You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no? You have a mistake. The opponent played a good point in the match point, and that's it. The problem is arrive to six-all on the tiebreak of the fifth. I should be winning before.”

That is the lament of all losers, no matter how much they’ve won.

8:39PM

Hurricane Serena sweeps into the Open

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — Warning signs kept popping up on I-495 east of the Queens Midtown Tunnel. “Tropical storm on weekend. Heavy rain, high wind.”

But there was a billboard with more tantalizing advice: “Leaving City of Dreams.”

To link either or both with the tennis of eternal champion Serena Williams might be a reach, if not that big of one. She’s been sweeping through this 2016 U.S. Open with the force of a hurricane. On Saturday, she spent only one hour on the court, defeating Johanna Larsson of Sweden, 6-2, 6-1.

But of course. This is women’s tennis. The top few, Serena, Angelique Kerber, maybe Agnieszka Radwanska or Flavia Pennetta, make it interesting when they are matched up. Otherwise, the rest are barely competitive.

In the early rounds, and the Open is in the third, there ought to be Serena warnings. Even with a sore shoulder, she simply overpowers the opponents. And the record book.

The victory over Larsson was Williams' 307th in a Grand Slam event, one more than the previous women’s record held by Martina Navratilova and the same as Roger Federer, who holds the men’s record — and since he’s not here, and since Serena will get more before the Open is done and Federer is missing because of a bad knee, she’ll have the most of anyone, female or male.

“That was pretty cool for me,” said Williams. “Obviously I want to keep that number going higher and see what can happen.”

Anything and everything. City of Dreams, indeed. A year ago, with the pressure of earning the legitimate Grand Slam — all four majors in a calendar year — overwhelming her physical capability, Williams was stunned in the Open semifinals by Roberta Vinci.

She seemed deflated as much as defeated, making it to the finals of the next two Slam events, the Australian and French Open, but losing to Kerber in Australia and Garbine Muguruza in France.

Small wonder then she was particularly elated by the triumph over Kerber in the Wimbledon final, her 22nd Slam, ending questions about a decline in her confidence if not in her talent.

Serena, along with older sister Venus, is a lady of great pride. When someone asks if he’s the best women’s athlete on the planet, Williams wonders if gender should be a part of the question, that simply “best athlete” would be proper.

And Saturday, post-match, the issue arose once more, hardly a surprise but after you get past Serena’s thundering serves and quick points, what else is there?

Sixty-minute woman. The first set against Larsson lasted 36 minutes, the second 24. To paraphrase the old Peggy Lee song, is that all there was? Not a chance.

There’s the Williams interview, on this day more fascinating than the Williams match. She can be soft and hesitating in her answers, but the viewpoints are unmistakably clear.

“I definitely think there is a difference between the way male and female athletes are treated,” she said. “I also believe as a woman we have still a lot to do and a lot to be going forward. I think tennis has made huge improvements. We just have to keep it going for all other female sports as well.”

Serena herself is intent on keeping it going. She will be 35 the end of this month and, other than a minor injury or two, appears both and willing and able. Kerber and Radwanska are challenging for the No. 1 ranking Williams has held for 309 weeks, which is exactly what Serena needs, a reason to continue the quest.

“There is a huge pay difference in terms of male and female athletes,” she reminded, “in a lot of sports, tennis as well.”

She and Venus both are millionaires. Serena’s motivation is not from dollars. There will be a finish line, but it is not in the immediate future.

“I am not ready to throw in the towel yet or just to have enough,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with my mentality. Just never wanting to quit and still being able to compete at a high level.

“I am still having fun out there. I’m still able to compete with the best. I think that’s what matters most to me.”

Hurricane Serena shows no sign of weakening.

 

4:55PM

Rain on the new Open roof — and noise underneath

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — People seem to be fascinated by what’s over their heads. Didn’t the Drifters have a hit song in the 1960s, “Up on the Roof"? And every time there’s a new stadium that’s under cover, such as the Astrodome, bless its history, or an old stadium that’s under new cover, such as Wimbledon Centre Court, we’re enthralled.

When the Astrodome opened in 1965 with an exhibition game between the Astros (neé the Colt .45s) and the Yankees, there was a home run by Mickey Mantle and complaints that no one could see the ball through the then-translucent roof. Still, so enamored were we by the structure that it was proclaimed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Such naiveté.

Now there are domed stadia, ballparks and arenas, some of the coverings permanent, some retractable, from Seattle (Safeco Field, retractable) to New Orleans (the Superdome, permanent). And still we can’t get enough, especially the officials who have a new toy.

Centre Court at Wimbledon needed a roof practically since Victoria was queen of England. The 2000 men’s final, won by Pete Sampras, was halted so many times by rain it lasted seven hours. Naturally, when at last the $120 million retractable covering was ready, for the 2009 tournament, the weather was beautiful until early in the second week a few drops dripped. Elation. Close the roof. Thank you, Mother Nature.

So it was here at Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open tennis championships. Five years running, 2010-14, the men’s final had to be delayed or postponed by everything from hurricanes to drizzles. Call in the architects. The new roof over the main court, at 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, was finished a few weeks ago. U.S. Tennis Association officials even had media previews of the closing and opening.

Hey, if you can’t interview Roger Federer, that’s the next best thing.

All day Monday and Tuesday, like people watching for an invading force, Open execs searched the skies for even a cloud. Nothing. Finally, Wednesday, it turned. A bit of rain Wednesday evening. A great deal of joy for the USTA, if not for Rafael Nadal and Andreas Seppi, who competed in the first indoor match ever for the Open. If not the last.

Thursday was wet, and play was chased from the outdoor courts for a long while. But not from Ashe, where the stars performed. Andy Murray, the No. 2 seed, beat Marcel Granollers in straight sets. Then Venus Williams won over Julia Georges. It was different, but it was tennis.

No roars from jets ascending from LaGuardia but a constant din, like 5,000 crickets chirping or neighbors talking gossip across the back fence. As at all roofed stadiums, whatever the sport, the noise was unavoidable, although not particularly irritating.

“I don’t think it was too different to the other night when I played,” said Murray, referring to Tuesday, when he played the late match with the roof open at the Open. “But when the rain came, it was certainly loud.”

Murray the Brit (he’s Scottish not English) not surprisingly was selected on that night in June 2009 to be part of first full match under the Wimbledon roof. There were gasps and then cheers when the mechanism was deployed.

Murray was not totally overjoyed by what he heard at Arthur Ashe Stadium, or more specifically what he didn’t hear. It’s as if the tennis is being played in a hangar.

“You can’t hear anything, really,” said Murray. “I mean you could hear the line calls but not so much when the opponents — you know, when he was hitting the ball or you were hitting the ball.

“We’re not used to it. That’s what make it so challenging. Because we use our ears when we play. It’s not just the eyes. It helps us pick up the speed of the ball, the spin that’s on the ball, how hard someone’s hitting it.”

Venus Williams, in her 18th U.S. Open, was unperturbed by what others considered by the noise or anything else.

“You know,” she said about the pre-roofed Ashe Stadium, “there was a lot of noise last year. Over time you start to forget about the noise. So I think as a player, the higher the stakes the less you year. I do enjoy the quiet.”

To which one must add, “Shhhh.”