Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 31, 2017

Playing Precisely To Form At The U.S. Open

The final Grand Slam tournament of the year is well into its first week at the sprawling USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. From the season-opening Australian Open to the red clay of Roland Garros to tradition-steeped Wimbledon and finally on to America’s national championship out at the farthest reaches of Gotham’s number 7 subway line, each of the four tennis majors offers a grand stage for the sport’s elite to showcase their talent. But in the most literal sense the U.S. Open is the biggest Grand Slam tournament of them all. Its $50 million in prize money is from seven to more than ten million dollars greater than the purses at the other three Grand Slams, and Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest tennis-specific venue in the world. With a seating capacity of nearly 24,000, Ashe is more than fifty percent larger than its counterparts in Melbourne, Paris, and London. On Tuesday that greatest of tennis stages was the setting for three matches that mirrored the current career status of the headline player in each.

First on the court for the second day of the U.S. Open’s fortnight was women’s top seed Karolina Pliskova. The 25-year old from the Czech Republic ascended to the top of the WTA rankings a little over a month ago, capping a steady rise that began with her breakthrough season in 2014. That year she won twice and reached three other finals, climbing more than forty spots in the rankings to finish the year at 24th. By the end of 2015, a year in which she reached a tour-leading six tournament finals, she had moved to just outside the top ten. Last year she reached her first Grand Slam final, losing in three sets to Angelique Kerber on the same court where she now opened play against Magda Linette of Poland.

As befits a top seed, Pliskova dispatched Linette in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1. But the match, which took nearly an hour and twenty minutes, was much closer than that lopsided score would indicate. After breaking Linette’s first service game for a 2-0 lead in the first set, Pliskova was immediately broken in turn, winning only one point in the next game. And while the world number one steadily improved her advantage, three of the next four games went to deuce, as the unheralded challenger refused to go quietly.

Pliskova finally closed out the first set, then she again broke Linette early in the second, this time racing out to a 3-0 lead. But after Linette held for 3-1, the underdog took the first three points of the fifth game. With three break points in hand Linette appeared on the verge of climbing back into the set. Instead Pliskova fought her way back to deuce. From there each player went up a point three times, only to have the game go back to deuce on each of the first five advantage situations. After fending off a total of six break points in the game, Pliskova finally prevailed when Linette missed with a forehand. With that the fight finally went out of the challenger, and just seven minutes later the top seed ended the match with an ace.

The tough battle hidden behind the score was appropriate, for Pliskova faces a daunting task to retain her ranking. As the Open began eight women had a mathematical chance to leave Flushing Meadows as the world number one. The best odds belonged to Simona Halep, who could still claim the top spot despite losing to Maria Sharapova in the first round, if all seven other contenders are beaten no later than the third round. Pliskova on the other hand must reprise her finals appearance from last year to have a shot at staying atop the rankings.

Any ranking can be ephemeral, as last year’s women’s champion Kerber knows all too well. She followed Pliskova onto the stadium court where last year she held both the winner’s trophy and the number one spot. Since then her game has declined, steeply so this season. In 2017, she not only has yet to win a title, she is 0-9 against opponents ranked in the top twenty. The defending champion and former number one has fallen to sixth, and her descent continued Tuesday, when against 19-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan Kerber seemed overmatched. The teenager plays a power game that is the embodiment of modern tennis, smashing lightning-fast groundstrokes from behind the baseline while disdaining approaches to the net.

Kerber stayed with her through seven games, though it was clear that Osaka was dictating the play. Finally, serving at 3-4 to even the first set, the defending champion succumbed to the young challenger’s power. After serving out the first Osaka breezed through the second set, stroking twenty-two winners to just nine for Kerber. The now former champion managed to hold serve just once in the second set. Osaka’s impressive 6-3, 6-1 triumph will send Kerber tumbling out of the top ten for the first time since 2015. Where and when she regains the confidence needed to stop her freefall is an open question.

Yet free falls can be stopped, as Rafael Nadal has shown. Just two years ago, hampered by injuries and poor play, Nadal dropped out of the top five in the men’s rankings for the first time in a decade. By the end of 2016 he was barely in the top ten, and while he was just thirty, only a year older than rivals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, it was fair to wonder if thousands of clay court sets had taken their toll on the legs of a player who turned professional at the age of 15.
But the Spaniard was already doing the hard work of rebuilding his form. While he failed to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2016 for the first time in a dozen years, he did win the bronze medal in singles and the gold in doubles at the Rio Olympics. Then this year he won in Monte Carol and Madrid, reached the finals at the Australian Open and won the French for a record tenth time. Just before arriving in Queens Nadal reclaimed the number one spot in the rankings, nine years after he first stood atop the world of men’s tennis.

Nadal’s first set against 85th ranked Dusan Lajovic was a reflection of his struggle to return to the top. Playing deep behind the baseline to give himself more time, Lajovic broke Nadal in the third game. He continued his impressive play, thwarting efforts by the number one seed to return the favor until he was on the brink of winning the first set. Then, serving for the win at 5-4, Lajovic ran into Nadal at his best. Rafa ripped a backhand winner for the first point, and went on to break Lajovic at love. The set eventually went to a tiebreaker, with Nadal prevailing 8-6.

Having slogged his way through the first, the new world number one then played up to his ranking, as if finally able to revel in his achievement, in the next two sets, eventually moving into the second round with a 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2 victory.

There’s a lot of tennis to be played in front of the massive crowds that always fill the grounds at Flushing Meadows before the men’s and women’s champions are crowned the weekend after next. Angelique Kerber will have long since departed by that time, and there is no guarantee that Karolina Pliskova and Rafael Nadal will not have joined her. But at the beginning of this U.S. Open, on tennis’s biggest stage, all three wound up performing exactly as one would expect.

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