In his match against James Blake, an overmatched player named Michael Russell won a point by hitting an excellent crosscourt backhand. At this, my friend Andrew Friedman leaned over and said, “Lucky. He doesn’t have that shot.” To “have” or “own” a shot in tennis means that you can hit it nine times out of ten, that you never miss it in practice, and so it is a dependable plank in your game’s hull. Many people can hit spectacular winners once in ten tries in practice, but in match play, one is forced to rely on the shots you actually have, unless the score is 40-0, which is the go-for-broke score. That’s when you’ll see many a great return by a player who doesn’t usually hit that well, and when you’ll hear many credulous analysts saying, “If only he could play that way all the time.” Well, he or she can’t, because they don’t really own that massive service return. You can hit shots at 40-0 or 0-40 that you can’t hit at 30-30.
I like the concept of “having” a shot a lot. It applies to real life, too, as a fine corrective to the idea that some totally different set of abilities or talents lies within our reach; it’s the antidote to overreaching and wishful thinking. So when you watch the matches this week, as the U.S. Open gets serious, remember that a couple of spectacular winners mean little–it’s about the body of work you produce over thousands of shots. Last week, as the draw was reduced from 128 to a comprehensible sixteen, most players weren’t good enough. Marat Safin, Andy Murray, Fernando Gonzalez, Richard Gasquet, all gone. The best match of the last week, unpredictably enough, was Serbia’s Novak Djokovic versus Radek Stepanek, who does the old hip-hop move the worm after each victory. The lovable Stepanek–let’s call him The Nerd–wriggled and danced and volleyed his way to a fifth-set tiebreaker with the newest hero of the men’s tennis tour. Once there, he folded his tent pretty quickly, almost as though he was too excited by the four hours of epic tennis that had come before. Djokovic, meanwhile, expectantly absorbed the crowd’s affection. It was a sad end to a heroic, anti-heroic effort by The Nerd. As for Djokovic and the other fifteen men and twelve women who remain, let’s break down their chances:
Notables: Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Venus Williams
The only word for this half is loaded. Henin is the world’s number one player, and will play the glamour quarterfinal of the tournament with Serena Williams. Serena started this year way down in the rankings, only to win Australia by destroying Maria Sharapova, who has yet to get back her confidence (she lost here in the third round) since that beatdown. But Henin took out Serena, who’s nursing a sore thumb, at Wimbledon, and this court isn’t that different. I see this match, probably to be played Tuesday night, as Henin’s.
In the other quarterfinal, Jankovic, who is a gifted retriever who wears opponents down in long matches, will face the express train that has been Venus Williams in this tournament. Venus won Wimbledon for the fourth time in July and seems resurgent and happy on court. When she’s on, it’s almost impossible to get a ball past her. I think she’ll beat Jankovic to set up a de facto final in the semifinal with Henin. Venus never takes kindly to players who have beaten her sister in a tournament, and I think she’s on her way to the final.
Women’s Bottom Half
Notables: Agnes Szavay, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anne Chakvetadze, Agnieszka Radwanska
The bottom half has been rendered anonymous to the casual fan by the losses of Sharapova and The Nerd’s ex-fiancé, Martina Hingis. Former champion Kuznetsova has a good chance to make another final, but I think the young Hungarian player Agnes Szavay will make the run to the semifinal. There she will meet the player to emerge from a quality quarter than includes the only Polish top player, Radwanska, who beat Sharapova in a match that built up some Polish-Russian bad blood. (Radwanska attempted to distract Sharapova by running around while Maria served. Maria’s menacingly delivered comment: “It’ll be interesting to see if she tries that the next time we play.”) She will face Shahar Peer next, who is Israel’s best tennis player and has a solid all-around game.
My prediction, however, is that yet another comely Russian, Anna Chakvetadze, who wins by consistently wrong-footing and fooling opponents with her groundstrokes, will come through all of these players and reach the final, where she’ll lose to Venus Williams.
Notables: Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, James Blake, Nikolay Davydenko, Tommy Haas
Roger Federer has become tennis’ philosopher king. In the third round, he taught North Carolina’s treelike rookie, John Isner, a lesson: playing matches is an exercise in finding ways to hit the shots you own while making your opponent hit the shots he doesn’t (in Isner’s case, the running forehand). Afterwards, he was asked how he prepared to face Isner’s perfectly located, lightning-struck serves, he said, with magisterial annoyance, “I warm up.” Asked to expand, he remarked, “You can’t get ready for a match like this. These guys are unique, you know. Every guy in the top 100 is a unique player… It’s all in the mind and all in the moment.” You can’t say it better than that. Peace be upon him.
Oh yeah, the matches. No one here can beat Federer, historically. Nikolay Davydenko, a wonderful, mobile ball-striker who’s embroiled in a worsening gambling scandal, has lost nine of nine career matches to Federer. The combined record of CBS-TV’s show ponies, Roddick and Blake, against the Fed is 1 win, 20 losses. Tommy Haas, he of the perfect genetics but the questionable nerves, doesn’t have the metaphorical stones to beat Federer. Uh, I think Roger is going to make the final–for the tenth consecutive Grand Slam. The best anyone else has ever done is four.
Notables: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stanislas Wawrinka, Carlos Moya
Moya, another female fan favorite, is having a late-career hot(t) year, pounding his heavy forehand and running around his questionable backhand at all opportunities. But Djokovic, the conqueror of The Nerd, hits everything well and rarely misses a shot he shouldn’t. He’s likable and funny off the court and very cocky and smug on it. Now his game seems to be coming around in time for the final week, as he blasted away the poor young longhair Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina last night. It’s hard not to see Djokovic making the semifinal.
There, everyone wants him to face Rafael Nadal, who he’s played five times this year already, with Rafa winning three. But Nadal is banged up – his grinding style of play seems to wear down his knees and ankles on the less forgiving hard court surface. Rafa is a force of nature, but perhaps for that reason he prefers natural surfaces such as grass and his beloved world of clay. I think there is a good chance that Stan Wawrinka, the Swiss number two, might do some of Federer’s work for him and eliminate Nadal in the quarterfinals. After that, Djokovic should have a clear path to the final.
Only four weeks ago, Djokovic, never short of self-belief, was able to beat Roddick, Nadal, and Federer on three consecutive days to win the Masters’ Series title in Montreal. He’s on his best surface, and most importantly, he came through the epic with Stepanek. That’s the kind of match that can light in a player the confidence that he is playing with destiny behind him. Federer, for his part, would love a chance to exact some revenge for the Montreal loss. He’ll go into that match looking to teach another of his tennis lessons. But it says here that Djokovic doesn’t need another lesson: he will emerge fully as a star player, and end Roger Federer’s three year reign in Flushing Meadows. What do you think?
More of my Dispatches.