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Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, bites his shirt after defeating Andrey Rublev, of Russia, during the fourth round of the US Open tennis championships Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Sarah Stier)
Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, bites his shirt after defeating Andrey Rublev, of Russia, during the fourth round of the US Open tennis championships Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Sarah Stier)|Associated Press
Tennis

U.S. Open Notebook No. 4: The Joker shows some quit, Berrettini and Schwartzman show no quit and Osaka and McCoco will come back tougher

Plus, little things to watch for when players change sides

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

A Pussy Cat at the Top

On Sunday night, men’s #1 Novak Djokovic fell to Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5, 2-1, retired. Stan the Man came out pounding his groundstrokes and crushing his serves while the defending champion played his usual counter-strike game. The Joker looked okay to me in the first set, but simply got beat. Yet he came out and ran to a 3-0 and 4-1 lead in the second set, not showing much discomfort that he later claimed caused him to drop out of the match. After Wawrinka broke back and held his serve to take him to 3-4, the crowd was clearly in the Swiss’ favor, and Novak seemed to panic a bit. He went for more on some of his shots, making some errors, while Wawrinka battled by running down everything and competing as best he could.

Wawrinka ripped off six out of seven games to take the second set, and as he went up 2-0 in the third, Djokovic looked done. The Joker retired at 1-2 in the third, giving him a career Grand Slam of retirements, having retired at one time or another in every Grand Slam tournament on the calendar---not a record anyone, especially someone who wants to be known as the best ever, should have on his resume. So I’m torn, because I know how difficult it is to play when you have an injury, yet I question why someone who isn’t able to finish a match (especially one that he’s losing) would enter the tournament in the first place. Checking his history, it’s clear that the Joker has retired only when he has been losing, so it begs the question as to what his intent really is. If he had been down to Denis Kudla two nights before, would he have fought to finish the match, or would he have thrown in the towel? My guess is that he would have thrown in the towel. I don’t want to call the world’s #1 player a coward, but how about the nickname for a baby kitten?

Berrettini and Schwartzman become new heroes

On Monday, there were efforts from two players that are really worth remembering. First, Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian to reach the U.S. Open Men’s quarters since 1973 when he simply overwhelmed Russian’s Andrey Rublev. Rublev, who has been playing awfully well and is very dangerous, could do nothing against the new Beast from the East. Berrettini was nothing short of fantastic in his complete demolition of Rublev. He did everything well, including shotmaking, moving, playing the right strategy, and has made an awful lot of new friends here in the States with his play and demeanor. He will surely have a lot of fans rooting for him in his next match, which will be played on Wednesday.

Diminutive Argentine Diego Schwartzman played perhaps the match of his life and simply wore down 6’6” German Alexander Zverev. After Zverev won the first set, Schwartzman played almost magically by crushing groundstrokes with acute angles, getting his slow (85 mph) first serve in constantly, and breaking serve when given the opportunity. He played a bit old-school by hitting his approach shots down-the-line with slices, unlike today’s foolish players, who usually hit their approaches with topspin, cross-court. By approaching on down–the-line slices, the ball stayed low on the tall German, and Schwartzman was able to cut off all possible passing shot angles, which was a perfect strategy. The Argentine mixed in a few impossibly angled drop shots and volleyed with precision when necessary, but simply outplayed Zverev. I was surprised at the outcome, but Schwartzman really is a gamer, and he showed what a smart player he is in this match. He’ll next play Rafa Nadal, whom he has never beaten, but there should be a lot of great shots, great gets, and terrific tennis to be played. That’s one I wanna see.

Don’t Defer

A good ten years ago I went to the Ringe Squash courts at the University of Pennsylvania to get in a workout and I got there early enough to watch the end of the women’s squash practice. Outside of each court lay a single sheet of paper with the following typed in all capitals: “Don’t Defer”. Curious as to what it meant, I asked Penn’s ultra-successful squash coach, Jack Wyant, a former Princeton squash champion, what that meant. He answered that he didn’t want his women opening the door to the courts for their opponents, he didn’t want his players to allow their opponents the courtesy of walking off the court first, he didn’t want his charges to offer a hand of assistance to their opponents should they fall, and he didn’t want any point lost without first fighting for it. He said, “'Don’t Defer' means to put yourself first in competition”.

Ever since that, I’ve watched tennis players as they switch sides after every odd game, and have noticed how interesting a sociological study it can be. Usually the players pass without much of a look at each other, as one player makes his (or her) way before the other. But on the occasions when both players reach the net post simultaneously, what happens? Usually the player who is the underdog defers to the higher ranked player, which seems to establish a pecking order among the players themselves. Sometimes the player who is leading, no matter who they are, will push themselves first, which seems to be an indication that they believe they are the better player that day. And sometimes, but not often, neither defer, and they lock eyes.

Remember back in 1997 when Venus Williams was playing Irina Spirlea in the U.S. Open semis, and they bumped into each other trying to change sides? That elicited the remark from Venus’ outspoken father that Spirlea was a “big white turkey”, which caused all sorts of speculation that Richard Williams was a racist. Well, watch the players change sides and learn something about the social pecking order of the Tour. It’s probably something that you never thought of doing, but it can be useful in determining what frame of mind each player is in. But when you do it, be in it to win it. Don’t defer!

Osaka Will Be Back Stronger

Yesterday at the Billie Jean Tennis Center top-seeded Naomi Osaka was punished by the new Swiss Miss, Belinda Bencic, 7-5, 6-4. Although it has been portrayed as a giant upset, Bencic went into the match with a 2-0 pro career record over Osaka, and had been striking the ball with authority. Bencic struck 29 winners to only 12 unforced errors, and totally outplayed the top seed and defending champion. Osaka didn’t show either the composure or the domination she showed when she outclassed American 15-year-old Coco Gauff the round before, and was punished for it. Bencic will now play Donna Vekic in the quarters on Wednesday for a shot at the Big Money. But as far as Osaka is concerned, her loss here reminds me of when Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open for the first time in 1990 as a teenager and was a real shadow of himself when trying to defend the next year. He needed a little maturation, and when he got it, he became the dominant player on the Tour for a good decade. I expect to see the same from Osaka. She seems far too sensitive and much too nice to simply romp over all the other Tour players right now! Let life knock her down a little, and we’ll relish her game as she fights back.

McCocco Falls in Women’s Doubles

American teenagers Coco Gauff and Katy McNally fell in the third round of Women’s Doubles yesterday, 0 and 1, to the terrific team of Vika Azarenka and Ash Barty. The 8th seeded team bade adieu to the young Americans by simply dominating every facet of the game, and sent the pair home with their tail between their legs. But McCocco have made headlines this whole tournament, and will be back in the spotlight next year, with another year of seasoning under their belt, some more experience, and a year of growth, both physically and tennis-wise. The better team won, but we’ll all hear much more from the two teens that all Americans should be proud to back.

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