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Back In The Saddle: U.S. Open journal by @TennisSkip1515

Skip Schwarzman attended early-round play of the U.S. Open and took in a lot of matches from Week 1. Now that there is less tennis each day at the USTA National Tennis Center, soak in these longreads from a tennis connoisseur, fan and teacher who has forgotten more about tennis than Saqib or I know.

Skip is a terrific tennis analyst with a lovely, deft touch with words. He evokes the feelings and sensations of being at a match, enabling readers to easily imagine they’re sitting next to him courtside and taking in all the action.

Enjoy this longreads presentation by Skip as the U.S. Open winds down. Carry these memories with you to Indian Wells and the rest of the 2021 season. – Matt Zemek, Tennis With An Accent

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SKIP SCHWARZMAN’S 2021 U.S. OPEN JOURNAL

The crowds are back! As everyone’s being made aware this year’s US Open features real fans in the seats – as opposed to the video screens of off-site fans we were treated to last year – and players who’re less quarantined than they were in 2020, when they were all roomed, boarded and transported to and from their isolated hotel accommodations to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. (We’re used to it now, but that is one ponderous name for a sports facility.)

The widely reported debacle of the first day’s entry process, in which both vaccination cards were checked with photo id, and tickets were ticketed, was avoided in the early days of this U.S. Open (I attended on Tuesday, Aug. 31) due to better logistics. While I arrived early with my steady U.S. Open partner, Rollo, and found no lines at 9:45 a.m., it seems that continued to be the case throughout the rest of the day. Well played, USTA.

It was great to be back. There were fewer fans than in years past, though there is no mandate requiring reduced attendance. Yahoo reports that the USTA says they know ticket sales will be down – with 2021’s travel restrictions, foreign spectators (who are normally 15% of the crowd), are expected to be only 5% of an overall reduced total sales. However, revenue from sponsorships will be unchanged. It will be interesting to see the accounting once the Open is over. The USTA reaps the great majority of its annual income from the U.S. Open (the tourney generated $348M of revenue in 2017, or 82% of total revenue). There’s room for the USTA to see lower revenue and remain viable, certainly.

On to the tennis itself, with comments ranging from scorelines to technique, strategy, and clothing. These matches were played several days ago, but with less tennis at the end stages of the Open, there’s more time for all of us to process these matches, whether you saw them live or not (on TV or in person).

Karen Khachanov/Lloyd Harris

Harris is coming off a win over Nadal in the Washington, D.C., tournament of a few weeks ago, scored his first Masters 1000 win this year in Miami, and is at 46 in the rankings. Khachanov is currently ranked 28, with a career high of 8 and a backstory of having been highly touted.

  • I suppose this observation is partially fueled by my own age (old enough to remember the Challenge Round in Davis Cup, ‘nuff said), but it’s only upon seeing tour players in person that one remembers that most of them are just past college age.
  • There are no lines judges on this match, taking place on Court 6. It’s eerie. And there are only 3 ball chasers (better than “ball kids,” no?); one at each baseline and one working both sides of the net. In this view of Harris, getting ready to serve the back of the court, things looks almost, well, naked; no lines judges, no chairs, one ball chaser:
Photo by Skip Schwarzman
  • “Out!” calls for players’ shots are broadcast over the PA system automatically by the electronics that watch the lines. Rollo points out that each line has its own, distinctive voice, some male, some female. More eeriness. English is used for calling lines across both the ATP and WTA tours, will these recorded voices have French accents in Bercy this year?
  • Rollo continues with his incisive commentary by wondering what will happen to the ITF’s “farm league” for umpires if lines judges’ roles are eliminated? How will umpires be educated in match experience if robots (sic) call the lines? I say we have to believe the ITF has a forecast for the future of umpires, too. I wonder what it is?…
  • More on electronic line calling: The photo below shows the camera that takes in the baseline. There are no such ground-based cameras for the service lines, which I suppose are monitored by Hawkeye. For this camera, however, how width a swath does it view? The baseline has to be 2” wide, and can be as wide as 4”; if, for example, the camera “sees” 4” on both sides of a 4” line, is there no audible call if the ball is 6” out and unseen by the camera?
Photo by Skip Schwarzman
  • As to the match itself: Lloyd hits the ball fast, Khachanov hits it heavy. This is especially true on their serves. While their service stats were extremely similar, Harris’ is delivered with a crack, Khachanov’s with a thud. But in the games that we watched (we did not stay the entire match, more below) the South African’s placement was more telling. He was clearly targeting the Khachanov forehand to the outside of the deuce box, and often in rallies as well. The match was, to my mind, a clash between a power player (Khachanov) and a precision/position player (Harris). The South African’s game is not short on hard hitting, but his groundies were flatter, and while he often came up second in rallies from not having a bailout, hit-a-big-topspin-shot-to-maintain-the-point arrow in his quiver, he pierced Khachanov’s lack of movement and difficulty with low balls. As Arthur Ashe once said of John McEnroe, “A nick here and a cut there and pretty soon you’ve bled to death.” It’s not necessary to bring a big knife to a knife fight, but if you’re a precision combatant you you must be on your game consistently enough to land your smaller nicks and cuts and earn the win. If you’re a big knife, power player your goal is to keep the small knife guy off his front foot so he doesn’t get a chance to hurt you.

We left after Khachanov won the second and looked to be on a roll.

We were wrong. Harris won in 5, 6/4 1/6 4/6 6/3 6/2. Most of what we’d seen was play from the back of the court, less compelling than a greater contrast of styles would have been, and we went in search of a match that might catch fire. As spectators choosing what matches to stick with, we blew it. I’m sure it was exciting to watch the underdog take the fifth set, and it was definitely a big win for Harris. Good for him.

Kei Nishikori/Salvatore Caruso

We went to the Grandstand while this match was at the tail end of the third, apparently near the end, to get set up to watch Matteo Berretini play Jeremy Chardy. Caruso scrapped it out take the 3rd, however, and then Nishikori closed it out in the 4th. The only comment here is that Kei looked less than energetic, a lot less. It took him 2 hours and 41 minutes to put away his 113th ranked opponent. There was a palpable lack of electricity to this contest. I don’t expect The Knish to go very far at this year’s Open. We did not stay after Caruso took the third.

Nishikori, 6/1/ 6/1 5/7 6/3

Aslan Karatsev/Jaume Munar

Karatsev is the one-man proof that distance between top players on the Challenger circuit and the main tour is measured by some kind of mental/emotional metric. I have no idea what that metric is, but the Russian’s meteoric rise is proof that the balls hit on the Challenger tour are just as good, overall, as those hit on the big circuit, only hit less often, less consistently. The 27 year old burst onto the scene at this year’s Australian Open as the 114th ranked player, beating Schwartzman, Auger-Aliassime, and Dimitrov, becoming the first man in the Open era to reach a Big Four semifinal in his Grand Slam tournament debut. No flash in the pan, Karatsev has posted consistent results since Oz, including winning his first ATP title, defeating Djokovic at the Serbia Open, and winning the Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles with Elena Vesnina. He’s firmly ensconced in the top 30, currently ranked 23.

The 24 year old Spaniard, Munar, is ranked 65th, with his best results (by far) coming on clay.

  • Our reasons for going to this match were all about Karatsev, who did not disappoint. He looks strong as can be, displayed great explosiveness in his groundstrokes (and serve), real good wheels, and a willingness to move to the net based on assertiveness and not just opportunism. We see him serve & volley and realize it’s the first time we’ve seen it so far today. Munar, meanwhile, looked as you’d expect: mostly a split second late on his shots, clearly not very comfortable on hard courts, where his lifetime record is 8-20.
  • Munar is of the hit-recover-then-grunt cadre of tennis players. Jeez, it’s annoying, mostly because it’s so totally unrelated to actually hitting the ball. Completely manufactured. And this is no exaggeration: he’s fully finished with his forehand or backhand and then comes the grunt. Shouldn’t tennis be a bit embarrassed by this, and do something about it? If Hawkeye can give us the minutiae it does, surely the timing and decibels of a player’s grunts can be measured and constrained by the rules. It wouldn’t take long for that kind of monitoring to dissuade upcoming juniors to abandon the practice, and we’d be free from what’s no more than a silly, silly habit.
  • Much is made of how tennis needs to be more television-friendly. There’s a lot to be discussed about that, but as long as tennis is an individual sport that’s played outside it will never fit neatly into linear broadcast formats; after the third set the players go off court for a break and change of clothes thanks to 90° heat and 80% humidity. I’m not a fan of television (or streaming) showing us multiple courts at once, or bouncing back and forth between matches, but unless tennis bans mid-match breaks these lulls in matches’ progressions are unavoidable.
  • Munar is wearing the latest Adidas kit, including the kinda camo shorts. They would not be out of place in a backwoods gun club. That’s not a terrible thing, but I’m unconvinced that it’s a tennis fashion look for the ages.

We cannot continue without noting, and I’m not the first, that Karatsev owns the biggest calves in tennis.

Photo by Skip Schwarzman

Karatsev wins, 7/5 1/6 6/3 6/2

Matteo Berrettini/Jeremy Chardy

This was on the (new) Grandstand court, as I noted before. Rollo and I compared notes over all the great matches we’d each seen on the old Grandstand, long recognized as one of the truly great courts in the entire world for seeing  professional tennis. It was intimate, with great sight lines from every seat, and the sound of a ball’s being struck was music, pure and simple. Fans like us moaned and groaned over the old Grandstand’s being demolished. Change is inevitable, but not always for the better. It’s Rollo’s opinion that it’s disrespectful to call this new place The Grandstand. They owed the old court a new, different name for this new joint, and I have to agree.

Berrettini is 25 years old, the 6th seed and coming off being second to Djokovic in the entertaining Wimbledon final. Chardy is 34 and ranked 70, with a career high of 25 back in January of 2013. Clearly they’re at opposite ends of their careers, but Chardy has an aggressive, pretty classic game, well-suited to hard courts. We wanted to see if this matchup came good on its potential to be an interesting clash.

It did not disappoint.

Mostly.

The points were entertaining, the shotmaking consistent and often breathtaking. While they each had the same number of winners (37) and won close to the same number of points (102 for Chardy, and 118 for Berrettini, no surprise given the score), Chardy’s unforced error count of 39 was his undoing given that Berrettini had only 15. Even so, for the most part points were taken, not given. It’s important to recognize when players miss because they’re under pressure from a great shot that’s still well short of a winner. That was often the case. Both players came to net far more often than in any of the matches we’d seen so far, and the more frequent contests between the pass-er and pass-ee made for nuance the earlier matches had lacked.  It was an exciting match.

Except…Chardy had the first set in his hands and let it slip. He’d been tough on Berrettini’s serve, making quality returns off 133 mph missiles, and was up a mini-break in the tiebreak. He’d been holding serve, making a strong percentage of firsts. Then, leading in the breaker he double faulted. Then he netted a pretty regulation groundstroke. Then he lost the set.

And the same thing happened in the second set, more or less, as he had a break and then played a poor service game to give it back (after earlier defending from 15/40 down), and again had a lead in the ‘breaker only to lose it.

Not for the first time, and to his consternation probably not the last, I repeated to Rollo what I learned from Frank X. Brennan, Sr., coach of Billie Jean King: the players at the top aren’t there because of the shots they make, but because of the shots they don’t miss. Yeah, it’s a fine distinction, and it was heartbreaking to watch Chardy make the distinction manifest right in front of us. It’s not exaggerating to say he could have been up 2 sets to none against the 6th seed, should have been, but instead, after 110 minutes of generally excellent play, he was down two sets to none.

We walked out, believing correctly (compared to Khanchanov/Harris) that we’d seen the writing on the wall. Berrettini took the third in 38 minutes, with the final score 7/6 7/6 6/3.

One note: as I’d seen in person in Davis Cup a few years ago, Berrettini’s backhand slice is a thing of beauty. Truth to tell, Chardy’s ain’t bad either – he actually passed Berrrittini with it once – but the Italian’s regularly has a solidity, bite, and drive behind it that’s rare today. It’s a weapon, plain and simple, drawing errors as well as helping set up big forehands when the ball comes back short.

As we left we wondered what it must feel like to be a player who’s obviously just lost the momentum, perhaps a turning point in a match, and hear the crowd leaving to go watch something else.

Andreas Seppi/Marton Fucsovics

Seppi is 37 years old and ranked 89, Fucsovics is 29 and at number 41. Seppi has never seen a ball he couldn’t (wouldn’t?) return slower than it came to him (though he can crack a forehand when he wants to), and he’s been bamboozling opponents with his stylistic mix of impenetrability and offense for many years. Meanwhile, the Hungarian is probably the least Italian looking fellow in the draw; Niki Pilic, the Yugoslavian pro from the 70s whose battle with his national association sparked the men’s 1973 Wimbledon boycott, was well known for wearing his polo shirts all buttoned up, all the time and that’s how Fucsovics looks, even if he’s so loosey-goosey as to have his top button undone. He’s immensely fit, looking every inch the intense pounder of the ball.

We went to see them, looking for high drama as they were started the fifth set. There was little drama to be found. If Khanchanov/Harris was monochromatic, and Nishikori/Caruso listless, Seppi/Fucsovics’s 5th set was enervating. A black hole for excitement. Neither man seemed pumped to gain a leg up, nor maddingly deflated at any setback. They just carried on.

Until the tiebreaker. Neither of them came up with bold shotmaking, or a catastrophic collapse, but both of them just kept plugging away. Their resolve cast its own mesmerizing spell. Eventually Seppi had a match point. Then Fucsovics had one. Seppi had another. And another. I think he saved two more against him, too. Once they’d gotten to 6/6 in the breaker both men played the points with an abundance of caution. You’d think that would be boring, but it only heightened the crowd’s anxiety. Some match points were saved with winners, many with mistakes, both forced and unforced. Seppi had one lunge volley for the match that ticked the net and….Oooooo!…fell backwards.

Eventually the Italian took it and fell on his back with joy and exhaustion. He lived to fight another day. He’d made the shots he had to, and hadn’t missed any he couldn’t afford to. Fucsovic smashed his racquet – if it can be said this way it should be known he did it demurely behind the umpire’s chair – and then handed the stick to a guy outside the court. Immediately the same fellow behind me who’d earlier asked his buddies, “So who’s who in this match?” got ticked off that somebody else got the busted racquet: “He didn’t watch the match! He didn’t suffer like we did!”

Iga Swiatek/Jamie Loeb

Swiatek is, of course, the 2020 French Open champion from Poland, seeded 7th, while Loeb came through qualifying and is ranked 194. Our goal here was simple: see Swiatek in action. No upset was expected, and none materialized. Swiatek won 6/3 6/4 in 1 hr 14 minutes. A few comments on a match we only watched through the middle parts:

  • Swiatek is not as slight as I thought from having seen her on television. She’s not big by any means, but the power in her shots is less surprising when you see her in person.
  • It looks like she’s still figuring out hard courts. Yes, she won Junior Wimbledon, but both her grass and hard court records as a pro indicate she’s working to adapt her obvious skills to faster courts. She’s young, and from all accounts is methodical, so It’s likely she’ll succeed in this, but without considering her draw I doubt she’ll exceed her ranking at this year’s Open.
  • Loeb’s service stats matched up well with the Pole’s, but points won on 1st serve were for her 61% vs Swiatek’s 79%. That’s a big difference, and with Loeb getting 56% of her first serves in and Swiatek’s succeeding with 58%, it means the American didn’t do as good a job backing up quality serving. Why not take something off, hit the serve 5% less fast and average 98 mph on your first, and have more time for the +1 shot? Will a 5 mph drop in average mph really leave you that exposed?

It didn’t seem as routine as the score suggests. Swiatek won, but it was scratchy.

Jenson Brooksby/Mikael Ymer

Brooksby is the latest American wunderkind, 20 years old, ranked 99th, and possessed of an idiosyncratic game that beat, in order, Kevin Anderson, Frances Tiafoe, Auger-Alliasime, and John Millman, at the Washington, D.C., warmup to the Open, before falling to Janik Sinner in the final. He’s notched a bunch of wins on the Challenger level, going 23/3. On the main tour he has just twelve matches under his belt, winning 8 and losing 4. Ymer, 23, ranked 72 and yet to win a tournament, nonetheless just broke through in Winston-Salem, where he beat Travaglia, Ramos-Vinola, Purcell, Tiafoe, Alcaraz, and then lost to Ivashka in the final.

So this promised a lo:, two young players each riding a recent wave of success, each with more to gain with a first round win than just a bigger payday. Momentum is as momentum does. Getting to the second round for either of them would be a big confidence booster.

Overall this match looked more like advanced juniors or high level college tennis than the pros we’d watched earlier in the day. I know that comes across as harsh (especially considering who Brooksby had beaten earlier in the summer, and then [grace of editing this day’s later, his later successes in Flushing]), but it’s how both Rollo and I saw things during the match. At this point their rankings don’t lie; there’s a reason neither have gotten as high in the standings as any of the players we’d seen so far. They’re both highly touted, however, especially Brooksby, so frankly the standard of play was something of a letdown. There were 19 breaks of serve. Brooksby had a winner/UE count of 37/59, while Ymer’s was 33/63. It remains to be seen how both of them progress from their 2021 summer successes.

The real disappointment was Ymer’s breaking a racquet in the latter stages of the 3rd set. He was given a warning and then, as he (casually) walked to his bench to get another racquet, he got a point penalty for delay of game. It was warranted. His movement defined lollygagging. At that point he began arguing with the umpire, claiming he had no way to continue if he didn’t get another stick, and how could he be charged with delay of game for that? The ump didn’t back down, and neither did Ymer, who called for a supervisor. The supervisor came, cajoled, and eventually got Ymer back on court after (at least) his 15 minute tantrum. It was total bs.

Then Ymer made a point of toying with the ball every time the ball chaser gave it to him to serve, making sure he used all 25 seconds of the shot clock. More bs. He played as if he didn’t care, but in fact Brooksby was beginning to tire, or perhaps cramp, and Ymer managed to take the third set 7/5.

To his credit the American pulled himself together and won the fourth, and the match, 7/5 6/2 5/7 6/3. It wasn’t pretty in any way other than by virtue of Jenson’s ability to keep his head about him, which may well be his strongest asset. Much has been made of his tennis savvy. He certainly mixes up his shot selection in a way that’s refreshingly different from most ATP pros, and knows how to elicit errors in a manner reminiscent of Andy Murray. But we didn’t see him create any pace whatsoever on his backhand; was that a tactic? He rolls in his second serves in the mid 70s, and has a slice backhand and backhand drop shot that don’t promise to hold up well against top players. All of that is fixable. His competitive mentality is a lot harder to teach someone, he’s got something special in that department. Here’s hoping he gets to ply it along with technical improvements.

 

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