Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Outer Courts DAY THREE WRAP: It's Hot in Here

Today was a special kind of awful at the US Open. If you were one of the (many by looking at the crowds) people who skipped Day Three of the draw, consider yourself lucky. Thanks in large part to the Open's insistence on a three-day kickoff for the Men's First Round, we were treated to a day where the biggest male name on the Order of Play was Stan Wawrinka, and he went on after 10 pm. In short, there was very little to see and even less to get excited about. But don't fret, what there was to see, we saw.  The highlights:

The Sadness of Cramping

It was hard not to feel sorry for those male players asked to start today, as they not only were given a draw that gives them less rest time than their fellow competitors, they also were handed the hottest day of the Tournament to hit the court. It showed early, as three of the players forced to play in the most intense heat had to withdraw with heat-related problems. Marcos Baghdatis was headed for a large defeat (and was dealing with a leg injury), but the withdrawals of Ivan Dodig and Steve Johnson were especially unfortunate. Dodig was in an intense fifth set with Feliciano Lopez, tied at one game apiece and playing well. Yet the heat took its toll and he was forced to retire, making his strong effort up to that point for naught. Even worse, American Steve Johnson was up two sets to one in a match that he was controlling, when his body began to lock up and cramp so badly that he struggled to stand. Similar to Lebron James in the NBA Finals (but with much less public scorn on Twitter), Johnson was unable to move for stretches of time, losing points and games in delay penalties (which were resoundingly booed by an American crowd not having the attitude being shown by the chair umpire). Johnson's desire to of last to a changeover and a longer medical break was not helpful and he left the worst way imaginable...with the lead, in a match he could have won. Johnson had a perfect draw and like Americans Donald Young and Jack Sock, an opportunity existed to make some noise. But the result was still the same, another disappointing loss for the Red, White and Blue in the summer heat.

Sloane Stephens Wilts and Then Takes the Heat

On paper the Sloane Stephens loss to Johanna Larson on Arthur Ashe Stadium was bad enough. Up a set and 3-0, Stephens seemed to be cruising and an exciting third round match with Jelena Jankovic looked on the horizon. But then the heat and pressure began to hit Sloane, and she quickly fell apart. She sprayed shots all over the court, her serve slowed to a crawl and Larson took control of the match, winning 12 of the final 14 games. It was a disappointing loss for Stephens, who not only played poorly but complained afterwards about no longer having "fun" on the court. However as bad as the loss was, the treatment she took from tennis pundits and fans afterwards may have been even worse. Howard Bryant of was the harshest, but not alone in his views:

Strong statements from a national writer, especially for a young woman that has up to this point, had a solid record in Grand Slams (and there is much to unpack there in his very broad statements...possibly for another day). But the sentiment behind his comments may not be totally off. Sloane spoke not of wanting to get to an elite level but instead,"I'm not too worried about ranking or winning a tournament or anything like that, just focusing on myself and mostly just enjoying myself out there."

While those words might be understandable for a young woman Sloane's age, it would be hard to comprehend them coming out of the mouths of McEnroe, Agassi, Graf or Serena. Sloane is supposed to be the next great female American hope...but whether she has the drive to make it happen?  After today that may be an open question.

Sharapova is Loud and Rocky, but Survives

I know for the average tennis fan, grunting has become an accepted part of the women's game (but make no mistake, it is ridiculous, as we will address at some point down the line), but there is no one that grunts quite like Maria Sharapova grunts. It had been since last year at Indian Wells that I had experienced a Sharapova grunt show live, and in person the sound is almost overwhelming. It is easy to lose track of the shots, the points and generally the whole purpose of your life, while falling into the rhythmic sounds of a woman that seems to be giving birth to a baby walrus every two to three seconds. For the vast majority of the second set, Sharapova and her opponent Alexandra Dulgheru played even, if not exciting, tennis that slowly hypnotized me into a daydreaming slumber, in large part due to Sharapova's sounds. How a woman that beautiful can make such noises is beyond me, but I digress.

As for the actual match, Maria was on the ropes for most of the first half, as Dulgheru, competing in her first major since the 2013 Australian Open, made no mistakes in playing her "brick wall" game. Sharapova could find no rhythm outside of her vocal sounds and after dropping the first set, had to fight off two key break points early in the second to stay in the match. But Sharapova steadied her game, got the key break in the second and then rolled, winning the final set in a walk. It was a long match (nearly 2 1/2 hours) for Sharapova, who is looking at a tough draw upcoming with Sabine Lisicki and Caroline Wozniacki upcoming. However she survived, and will live to grunt another day.

Match of the Day: Andrea Pekovic over Monica Puig

As is often the case in the early rounds, the Outer Courts have provided most of the drama here at the US Open and today was no exception. The Pekovic/Puig match on Court 11 was so strong that ESPN switched its coverage there for the final set, showcasing the slugfest to a national audience. While the match was solid throughout, it finished with one of the more exciting tiebreakers in first round history. Pekovic got up early 3-0 and Puig followed by running off five straight points to take a 5-3 lead. But Pekovic stabilized, took the last four points and won the streaky tiebreak 7-5. Monica Puig was distraught afterwards and said it would be awhile before she could get over this one, a showing that may be the best match on the women's side so far.

Surprise of the Day: Alexander Kudryavstev

It is unlikely going into the day that you probably thought much about Alexander Kudryavstev. In fact, I can say with no reservation that in my entire life up until late this afternoon, I had never thought once about the Russian ranked #145 in the world. And why would I have?  He has been a professional since 2003, but has only played in one Grand Slam in his career, has never been ranked in the Top 100 and has only found his way into an ATP event main draw this year once.  However today he got his name on the lips of many (ok was on Court 4), who saw him take out his fellow Russian Evgeny Donskoy in five sets. Now he faces another fellow Russian in the second round, Teymuraz Gabashvili, a player he has beaten before in a match that would be a great test for the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee kids. I didn't know Alexander before and I probably won't know him after, but today Alexander has taken the mantle of the best Kudryavstev I have ever known.

Disappointment of the Day: Agnieszka Radwanska

The only upset of a top ten seed in the tournament so far came today as Radwanska went down rather easily at the hands of Shuai Peng in straight sets. Peng was nearly seeded in this Tournament and the draw was tough early for Radwanska, but still this result is a disappointment. It is now the fourth year in a row that Radwanska has not played to her seed in the US Open and one has to wonder if she will ever find her groove in New York.

That is a wrap on the slowest day of the US Open fortnight. We now have half of the women through to the third round and one male into the second round (raise your hand if you had Slovenian Blaz Kavcic for that honor). Tomorrow is a little better with Djokovic, Serena and Murray on Ashe Stadium. But in general the tournament really won't get kicked up a notch until Friday. So sit back, relax and take tomorrow as one more day of rest. We will kick into gear soon after.