Novak Djokovic - 2011 US Open - Day 15

Djokovic:  For the eventual champion, the first five rounds gave little sign of what would unfold during the final weekend, to which Djokovic advanced with efforts unremarkable by his standards this year.  In eight hours across the last two rounds of the tournament, though, the ATP #1 conquered the two players who had held the top spot before him by defeating both of them at their own game, much as Stosur had with Serena.  Roaring (literally) back from a two-set deficit against Federer, the Serb delivered first strikes from his serve and forehand in a fashion familiar to fans of the five-time champion.  The most impressive shot of the tournament, his nonchalant return winner off the Swiss first serve to save a match point stunned both his audience and his opponent, who would win only four more points.  Since Djokovic had lost to Nadal after an equally draining five-set victory over Federer here a year ago, some observers wondered whether he would stay physically and mentally fresh.  Aside from a lull late in the third set, the answer came emphatically as the world #1 outran the defending champion along the baseline, outlasted him in crucial rallies, and outmaneuvered him strategically.  Trailing by a break in both the first and second sets, Djokovic rebounded to establish the same two-set stranglehold that he had in the Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, despite the commanding scoreline, game after game settled into a deadlock of deuces, producing the war of attrition that Nadal normally wins.  Not so on this occasion, when Djokovic won a 17-minute, nine-deuce game to erase an early second-set deficit and then perhaps the most pivotal game of this fascinating final, immediately after his medical timeout in the fourth set.  At that stage, Rafa had held significant momentum and stood on the verge of accelerating towards the final set.  Snuffing out any hope of an epic comeback, Djokovic denied him escape from a five-deuce service game before scoring what proved the decisive break.  Less than half an hour later, the Serb sprawled euphorically across the court where he had lost two previous finals.  A Roland Garros title away from a career Slam of his own, Djokovic ends the 2011 Slam season head, shoulders, and 4,000 points above his nearest rivals, telegraphing a power shift in men’s tennis.

Nadal:  Reaching six major finals in each of the last two seasons, the Spaniard provided a worthy to sequel to Djokovic-Federer his crisp semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged two losses to the Scot at hard-court majors.  After a dismal US Open Series, Nadal surprised many observers by dropping just one set en route to the championship match at his least successful Slam.  His performance here confirmed his status as an all-surface threat and the favorite against any opponent but one, the player who has defeated him in six finals this year.  Two sets and three games into the final, Nadal looked headed straight for an ignominious straight-sets rout.  To his credit, he battled back from three third-set deficits to break Djokovic each time and turn the final into an encounter worthy of their rivalry.  Also to his credit, Rafa committed himself to flattening out his forehand and redirecting it down the line, the tactic that propelled him back into competition when all seemed lost.  Broken five times this year by the Serb when serving to stay in a set, he attempted to change that dynamic by choosing to serve first when he won the toss.  In the end, though, he could not compensate for the glaring contrast between Djokovic’s backhand and his own two-hander, which often bounced around the service line and offered his rival a choice of angles.  Nor did the imposing serve that won him the 2010 US Open resurface for more than a few fleeting moments.  Constantly under pressure in his service games and broken eleven times, Nadal needed all of his energy and willpower simply to survive for a fourth set, at which point he looked physically and psychologically spent.  Perhaps not destined to face Djokovic again until 2012, Rafa likely will spend the offseason searching for ways to unsettle this rival who has toppled him as decisively as he once toppled Federer.

Murray:  Another year of Slam disappointments having come to a close, one must wonder whether the world #4 progressed any closer to a maiden major.  After collapsing in the Australian Open final, Murray lost to Nadal in three consecutive semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, the last of which had witnessed his victory over the Spaniard in 2008.  To be sure, the Scot has lost at Slams only to the top two players in the world, who collectively have befuddled almost the entire ATP this year.  And the self-deprecating body language doesn’t strike us as an insuperable obstacle, considering the gnarly dispositions of champions and champion curmudgeons like McEnroe or Connors.  The scarcely competitive nature of those defeats (two sets won in four matches), though, bodes ill for his chances of overtaking them at the summit.  Against almost any opponent outside the top five, Murray’s bulletproof consistency from behind the baseline will reap rewards.  Against opponents who can combine consistency with superb shot-making, he has few options with which to win a best-of-five match unless he forces his forehand far out of its comfort zone.  Repeatedly over-hitting that stroke against Nadal, he will not win a major until—or rather, unless—he finds a way to transform it into a weapon that can match the forehands of those ranked above him.  Absent a point-ending shot, tactical versatility counts for little in the sport’s current era.

Federer:  Losing to the eventual champion at two of the last three majors, the Swiss master again showcased his vintage brilliance at a tournament where he once won five consecutive titles.  Revenge for two defeats this summer, his quarterfinal victory over Tsonga showcased the elegant, effortless tennis with which Federer has defused one-dimensional ball-bruisers over the years.  Through two sets against Djokovic, he dominated the Serb from all areas of the court as he struck his backhand with confidence and expertly finished points at the net.  A point away from a spectacular upset over the world #1, though, Federer appeared to allow one spectacular return to unnerve him.  Two forehand errors and a double fault later, the opportunity slipped through his grasp.  Recognizing that he still can battle on even terms with the very best in his sport, one also left this tournament thinking that the Federer of years past never would have let that Slam semifinal escape him.  His consecutive losses after holding two-set leads at majors suggest not only a more fragile focus but perhaps a diminished appetite for competition.  With no real records left to break or challenges left to conquer, the 30-year-old legend needs to find a new source of motivation as the game threatens to move past him.  Surely not content with semifinal after semifinal, this polished character nevertheless lacks the degree of anger, frustration, or injured pride that galvanized many aging champions before him.

Del Potro:  After his contentious four-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon, his competitive intensity seems to have peeled away gradually.  The gentle giant cruised through two comfortable rounds and then fell prey to the first noteworthy opponent whom he encountered in a match less close than the score suggested.  Dropping two tiebreaks to Simon, Del Potro played passively and unintelligently at crucial junctures in sets, while the forehand that battered Federer off the court two years ago could not end points with such casual ferocity.  Rather than following the usual upward trajectory of a comeback, Del Potro’s return has traced a winding route for reasons not always apparent.

Tipsarevic:  When he reached his first Slam quarterfinal by outlasting the dogged Ferrero, one expected him to bow with little resistance to his top-ranked compatriot.  Instead, Tipsarevic battled toe to toe with Djokovic from the baseline for two compelling tiebreak sets that stretched over two and a half hours.  Although his overstretched fitness ultimately betrayed him, this new member of the top 20 continued his momentum from a breakthrough summer and has gained great motivation from his fellow Serb’s accomplishments.  Often an enigmatic competitor, he projects more power from his serve and groundstrokes than his small frame would suggest.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - 2011 US Open - Day 8

Tsonga:  Recalling his comeback against Federer at Wimbledon, his surge from within six points of defeat against Mardy Fish appeared to reveal a player who could curb his affinity for distractions when necessary.  As his almost equally talented opponent self-destructed in the final set, Tsonga kept his antics to a minimum as he plowed through games with accumulating momentum.  Then, the maturity that this victory seemingly had demonstrated gave way to a disappointingly flat, unfocused loss against Federer in the quarterfinals.  Despite the damp New York night and the largely hostile crowd, Tsonga should have produced a sturdier effort when he faced a player whom he had conquered twice this summer.  Undermining thoughts that he might have evolved into a reliable contender, the loss illustrated the gulf in competitive vigor separating him from the elite whom he chronically upsets, a fact that no amount of dazzling acrobatics can obscure.  On the other hand, his even-tempered, positive attitude towards tennis and life enables one to connect with him more than with the grim stoicism of Murray  or the ethereal elegance of Federer, for example.

Roddick:  Somewhat like Muller in Nadal’s previous match, the 2003 champion offered merely a hapless foil for the brilliance of Rafa’s return game and passing shots.  During the four preceding matches, though, he gave American fans much to celebrate with performances greatly improved from his tepid spring and summer.  Especially notable was his four-set victory over Ferrer, the tenacious grinder who wore down Roddick in Davis Cup but could not crack his focus or determination here.  After winning what felt like a “six-setter” to him, the American rounded Court 13 to revel in his triumph with the crowd who had supported him on every shot—one of the 2011 Open’s more satisfying moments.  Recapturing some of his lost public relations capital there, Roddick also deserved credit for his strong stance against the bizarre scheduling decisions that unfolded during the soggy second week.

Isner:  A debut Slam quarterfinalist together with Tipsarevic, the most challenging serve in men’s tennis impressed almost as much by winning tiebreak after tiebreak, including three in one match against Simon.  Content to focus upon holding serve and letting his opponent do likewise, Isner won four matches while seeming to expend little more energy during points than between them.  Despite the inevitable opportunities for humor that his game invites, he gave Murray little cause for laughter during their four-set encounter.  Spectators might not see the most captivating tennis when they watch Isner, but they almost certainly will see a match decided by only a handful of key points, converted by the more opportunistic player on that day.

Young American men (no pun intended):  Seemingly headed into the dustbin of tennis history, the less famous Donald in New York started to unlock some of his unexplored potential in an impressive win over Wawrinka.  When Young previously has recorded his illusory “breakthroughs,” like an upset over Murray at Indian Wells, he would slump to an ignominious defeat in the next round against a highly beatable opponent.  This time, by contrast, he eased past Chela with minimal drama and reached the second week of a major for the first time.  The nearly forgotten Young much surpassed the disappointing fate of Ryan Harrison, trumpeted as a plausible Open sensation after consecutive semifinals in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  Again unable to channel his temper effectively, this teenager twice failed to serve out sets against Cilic in a step backwards from his first-round victory over Ljubicic last year.

Cilic:  Gone in the third round like his fellow giant Del Potro, the Croat nevertheless showed glimpses of his former self in pummeling his inside-out forehand past rising stars Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic.  The only player other than Djokovic to win a set from Federer, he competed more courageously than one might have expected through the first three sets of that match.  That performance may have testified not just to the five-time champion’s depleted aura but to a renewed sense of purpose in a powerful game that lost direction over the past two years.

Fish:  In the finest year of his career to date, the top-ranked American reached one major quarterfinal and failed even to equal his best performance at his home Slam.  Leading two sets to one against a deflated Tsonga, Fish played an inexcusably sloppy game when leading 4-4, 30-0 in the fourth set and then faded into fatalism during the crucial early games of the final set.  Considering Tsonga’s famously fallible focus, these lapses loomed large as proof of the American’s lack of the killer instinct that defines great champions.  He remains a remarkable talent, an engaging personality, an exemplary representative for American tennis—and a very human competitor who simply can’t handle the pressure of the greatest matches on the grandest stages.

Ferrero vs. Monfils:  The former flagship of the Spanish Armada, the gracefully aging Ferrero engaged in a five-set, nearly five-hour epic with a player several years younger and many rankings slots higher—and won it.  On one hand, Monfils should shoulder the responsibility for blowing a match in which he led by two sets to one and committed 81 unforced errors.  On the other hand, those 81 unforced errors came with 81 winners, ranging from the impressive to the spectacular.  Neither player cruised through any of the five sets without encountering stiff resistance from the opponent, several deuce games, and a harrowing test of nerve.  When Ferrero finally stepped to the service notch at 5-4 in the final set, though, he ended this extravaganza with the emphatic style worthy of this veteran, stoic and undaunted throughout the firework display across the net.  Perhaps the final glowing memory of his career, it stayed the most compelling match of the first week and one of the most compelling matches in the men’s draw overall.  While one would have hoped to see Monfisl advance further, the Frenchman always has prioritized entertainment value over winning and certainly delivered in that regard.  Even in the losing role, he enjoyed himself to the utmost, as did all of the fortunate observers.

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We return shortly with a preview of the Davis Cup semifinals, which might feature the top two should they recover from their latest clash of swords.

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