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The Professionals

On Labor Day at the 2014 United States Open, the men finally decided to join the women in producing compelling tennis. Without any weather delays, the night session at Arthur Ashe Stadium lasted until 2:26 a.m., tying the mark for the latest night-session close in tournament history and making Todd Martin jealous. 

This night session started with a riveting three-set match between two-time U.S. Open finalist Victoria Azarenka and qualifier Aleksandra Krunic. It concluded with an almost-as-riveting and generally well-played contest involving oft-injured Japanese star Kei Nishikori and Canada’s big hope in men’s tennis, Milos Raonic. Night-session ticketholders at Ashe — if they were willing to stay to the bitter end — witnessed eight sets of tennis and four players who, in their separate pairings, created very little separation from each other.

Yet, as dramatic and fun* as those two matches turned out to be, they formed a small part of a full and busy day at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center.

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* = Editor’s note: Many people don’t think Raonic matches are fun. Well, not when he cruises through service holds at love or 15 and his opponents do the same. When he comes up against a strong returner such as Nishikori and has to deal with a lot more scoreboard pressure in each game, the contrast in styles proves to be delicious.

P.S. — Pete Sampras wasn’t boring, though I know many will disagree. This reflects an eternal divide in terms of taste and preference. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, merely people being different. Moving on….

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This was a day that begged to be captured in many ways, and a friend of this blog — the crew at The Changeover — did a terrific job of summing up the balance of the day before the late-night show involving Nishikori and Raonic.

Much of what Monday provided in New York could be boiled down to one essential insight at the year’s final major tournament, when bodies are strained and minds are more vulnerable to capitulation, especially in the nasty, high-humidity conditions that deplete a body’s fluids and the physical resources needed to compete on the court.

What’s that insight? At the core, it’s this: If you’re a seasoned tennis observer, you can know, in the middle of a major tournament, when the players with a measure of staying power in the sport lift themselves above the rest. That’s what Monday was all about in Flushing Meadows. Various matches acquired different textures, but they ended with certain players demonstrating why they’re likely going to remain factors on tour in the near future.

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WHEN THE VOICES IN THE HEAD ARE ANGRY… BUT POSITIVE

Like Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka relishes competing and genuinely enjoys dealing  with on-court adversity. Playing with such fire and anger leads to stormy moments on court, but the key point to realize with Azarenka and Sharapova is that they channel their frustrations and dissatisfactions into improved performance as a match continues. This separates the two from so many of their peers on the WTA Tour. When they're on the court, they're all business, and they project nothing other than ruthless, hard-edged ferocity. Yet, that exterior melts away after match point... because they usually win and can smile in the face of their hard-earned achievements. That's how the story of women's tennis has developed over the past few years in the halves of draws not containing Serena Williams.

Like Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka relishes competing and genuinely enjoys dealing with on-court adversity. Playing with such fire and anger leads to stormy moments on court, but the key point to realize with Azarenka and Sharapova is that they channel their frustrations and dissatisfactions into improved performance as a match continues. This separates the two from so many of their peers on the WTA Tour. When they’re on the court, they’re all business, and they project nothing other than ruthless, hard-edged ferocity. Yet, that exterior melts away after match point… because they usually win and can smile in the face of their hard-earned achievements. That’s how the story of women’s tennis has developed over the past few years in the halves of draws not containing Serena Williams.

Let’s start with that aforementioned night session before touching on earlier matches from Monday. Victoria Azarenka lost 3-0 and 4-2 first-set leads against resourceful qualifier (and conqueror of Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova) Aleksandra Krunic. She walked through the valley of frustration every struggling tennis player experiences. Azarenka is a fitter player in New York after hobbling through Montreal and withdrawing from Cincinnati, but her lack of steady match play after an injury-riddled spring and early summer has left her short of ideal form. As a result, we’ve seen a version of Azarenka that is simultaneously nothing close to the vintage player who reached the past two U.S. Open finals, and yet is every bit that same player in another equally powerful sense.

The fullness of Azarenka’s game is not there yet. The groundstrokes are not always as punishing, the full game not as imposing, as it was when the Belarusian is at her best. There’s not as much bite or sting in Azarenka’s attack. She’s not quite at “No. 2 in the world” form on offense.

On the other hand, Azarenka’s defense and the coping skills which accompany it are quite evident. Azarenka can do amazing things when painted into a corner on the court. A scrambling half-volley pickup from the baseline turned into a perfectly-calibrated down-the-line passing shot that floated above Krunic’s small frame and landed near the corner for a spellbinding winner. That’s the magic Azarenka can summon on court, and that magic was abundant in the final two sets of this match. Krunic won a lot of hearts and imaginations with her clever game and dazzling dexterity, but Azarenka — still without her best fastball — won anyway.

That, in short, is the mark of a top-tier professional tennis player: The full arsenal of weapons might not exist at all. At the very least, said arsenal might not be operating at maximum levels of potency and efficiency. Yet, without an A-game or the imposing, full-flight attributes that enable a match to become an easy stroll, the player in the arena manages to prevail in the end. Players who regularly make their way to the final few days of a major, the ones who make their names remembered when the story of tennis is written in full, win the kinds of matches Azarenka won on Monday. When Azarenka plays her way into form, she won’t need “6-4 in the third” to see off Krunic. She’ll be able to win in straights and reclaim her place as the second-best female tennis player on the planet… maybe the best if Serena finds it hard to regain her 2013 level of form next year.

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At Louis Armstrong Stadium, Tommy Robredo was all set to repeat history, but Stan Wawrinka wouldn’t let him. A year ago on that same Armstrong court, Robredo defeated a Swiss man named Roger Federer by handling big-point moments and late-set sequences with far more composure than his opponent. On Monday, it’s not as though Wawrinka was the picture of composure. In a highly contentious match, Wawrinka often barked at himself and became unsettled enough to jeopardize Switzerland’s upcoming Davis Cup semifinal against Italy by engaging in a bit of foolishness normally reserved for Gael Monfils:

After that mindless decision, Wawrinka stretched out his legs and worked his knees to make sure his movements were going to be okay as the match moved forward. Wawrinka called for the trainer earlier in the match, and he needed more help from the trainer after his dive into the front row. As a match tied at one set apiece moved into a third-set breaker, Robredo appeared to own both momentum and the leverage which flowed from a body that didn’t seem to be in evident distress.

Robredo might have been taxed by accumulated court time at this tournament, but that’s the fatigue which is common to veteran tennis players midway through a major. Wawrinka — intent on hitting big to shorten the length of points late in that third set — seemed to be affected by bumps and bruises, some genuine instances in which his body’s capacity for fluid movement was diminished to a slight extent. When Robredo took a 6-4 lead in that tiebreaker, the Spaniard — so close to foiling another son of Switzerland in the fourth round of the U.S. Open — gained what felt like two virtual match points. It would have been so easy for Wawrinka to curse the fates and lose focus in that moment.

Instead, Wawrinka elevated his level of concentration instead of allowing it to dip. Two authoritative points, with well-struck but high-margin groundstrokes that were not reckless in the Monfils vein, enabled Wawrinka to level at 6-6 and make a change of ends instead of a sad walk to his chair with a two-sets-to-one deficit. Wawrinka then snatched the next two points, using superior court positioning to outfox the outfoxer, Robredo, who ran around his backhand at the wrong times in that breaker. Wawrinka took the one-set lead into the fourth, and he used that scoreboard advantage to authoritatively close out a match that, minutes earlier, had “five-set marathon” written all over it.

Constantly irritated and far from his very best, Wawrinka played not with the timidity which accompanied his Roland Garros flameout against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, or his capitulation to Julien Benneteau in Cincinnati, but with the fire that has helped him win the Australian Open and capture the Monte Carlo title. Late in that third set, Wawrinka made the quick and dramatic leap from “Gael Monfils-level fool” to “persistent, tunnel-vision professional.” It was precisely the kind of match Wawrinka just didn’t win very often before his run to the semifinals at last year’s U.S. Open. It was the kind of match which showed why Wawrinka is No. 4 in the world and — after a rough Canada-Cincinnati stretch — the favorite to reach the semifinals from his quarter of the draw.

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The common thread from many of Monday's significant matches at the U.S. Open was obvious: Players dealt with the inadequacies of their bodies, their minds, their tennis games, or any and all of the above, and managed to survive. Andy Murray competed magnificently against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a headline-grabbing fourth-rounder. He showed all the competitive resolve that was so noticeably absent from his meek showing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals against Grigor Dimitrov. If this version of Murray shows up in a blockbuster quarterfinal against Novak Djokovic on Wednesday night, Murray will have a very legitimate chance to win.

The common thread from many of Monday’s significant matches at the U.S. Open was obvious: Players dealt with the inadequacies of their bodies, their minds, their tennis games, or any and all of the above, and managed to survive. Andy Murray competed magnificently against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a headline-grabbing fourth-rounder. He showed all the competitive resolve that was so noticeably absent from his meek showing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals against Grigor Dimitrov. If this version of Murray shows up in a blockbuster quarterfinal against Novak Djokovic on Wednesday night, Murray will have a very legitimate chance to win.

The other matches that made news on Monday carried storylines similar to what Azarenka and Wawrinka forged in their survival acts. As was the case with both Azarenka and Wawrinka, Andy Murray moved through the storms of his own sometimes-tortured emotions to find a level of focus that carried him past a formidable opponent.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did not play his best on Monday, but he was far from his worst, to be sure. Murray and Tsonga played a very good match — not a classic, but well above average — marked by punishing and consistently crisp ballstriking. Tsonga took break leads in sets two and three, but Murray, who had surrendered a 3-0 final-set lead to his opponent in Toronto a few weeks ago, managed to author a firm and conviction-laden response this time around, ushering Tsonga out of New York in straight sets. Murray went after his forehand and did not allow his body to get in the way of his performance. Murray’s game fell into place against a high-quality opponent for the first time in many months.

Some will quite reasonably say that Murray has to show well against Novak Djokovic in a titanic Wednesday night quarterfinal before he can be viewed as being fully “back” as a championship contender on the ATP Tour. Fair enough. Yet, the mentally fragile player who was seen in Toronto and Cincinnati (and Wimbledon, for that matter) did not emerge on Monday in New York. If Murray was worried about finding his best tennis before the end of 2014, he can say that he found it at least once at the U.S. Open. Whether or not he can carry that form into (and through) the Djokovic quarterfinal is another question altogether.

Nevertheless, Murray’s ability to put a very frustrating season behind him against an always-dangerous Tsonga — one of the most dynamic athletes the sport of tennis has ever produced — marks the Scotsman as one of the better professionals on tour. It’s good for the sport that the supremely professional Murray is making his way back into the regular rhythms of ATP life.

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The final story which merits at least a brief note is Nishikori’s late-show triumph over Raonic, a four-hour, 19-minute victory forged from a most improbable position. Few tweets from last night on #TennisTwitter put the matter more succinctly than this one from Juan Jose Vallejo:

Nishikori was leading Rafael Nadal in the Madrid final earlier this year when his body — pushed to the limit by long matches in prior rounds of that tournament with relatively little rest in between them — simply gave way. Nishikori owns an injury-magnet, body-of-glass identity that looms over his career: He couldn’t play well at Roland Garros, robbing the tennis world of a chance to see how great a clay-court player he had become earlier in 2014. He made his way to the fourth round of Wimbledon, but Raonic and his trump card of a serve were too much for him. Nishikori wasn’t able to play a full schedule during the summer hardcourt season, leaving him short on match play heading into the U.S. Open.

Therefore, when he received attention from the trainer in the fourth set of last night’s (or this morning’s) match against Raonic, trailing two sets to one, it seemed that the 24-year-old was not going to escape this graveyard shift with his U.S. Open title hopes still alive. Logic pointed to a familiar narrative: Injuries would limit his progress, preventing him from climbing in the rankings despite a return game that’s almost as good as what Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray currently possess.

Yet, with his body groaning under the strain of prolonged combat on an unforgiving hardcourt surface, Nishikori calmly gathered himself, riding out the storms of Raonic’s serve and managing to hold all of his service games in the fourth set. With Raonic — a big man and therefore not the ideal “marathon man” specimen in tennis — beginning to tire in his own right, Nishikori was able to create and then pounce on a break chance late in the fourth set. He leveled the match, gained a new wave of energy, and rode that energy to the finish line, looking much fresher than Raonic at the end. The effective marshaling of internal resources made the difference for Nishikori on a night which didn’t flow in his direction for most of the first three sets, each of which Nishikori could have won with more clarity in big-point situations.

This familiar theme — fighting through the self-created landmines of body, mind, emotions, and negative circumstances — marked Nishikori’s victory, linking his conquest on a general level with much of what had preceded it on a memorable, momentous Monday at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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