With a golden summer of British sport coming to a close, all eyes as far as the tennis world was concerned were now keenly focusing across the Atlantic on the final major of the year- the US Open at Flushing Meadows, New York.
With last year’s finalist Rafael Nadal sadly sidelined due to a lingering knee injury, much of the talk surrounded defending-champion Novak Djokovic, recently deposed as world number 1 after painful losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics. Roger Federer, no.1 again has been riding some serious momentum after his Wimbledon triumph. Having claimed a record fifth Cincinnati Masters title just before the start of the final major with a win over Djokovic in the final, it was fair to say that it would take some performance to stop him. Many also tipped Andy Murray to finally break his major duck after being injected with a new sense of belief following his sensational Olympic gold medal triumph last month. However, having been given a fairly tough draw which included being placed in the same half as Federer, it was not unreasonable to think that the 76-year wait for a British major champion was set to continue.
On the women’s side, for the first time in a while, the outcome seemed much easier to call by a country mile. It was all about Serena Williams. Having won Wimbledon and Olympic gold (both in singles and doubles respectively), the virtually unanimous feeling was that the 131st edition of the US Open was hers to lose.
Nevertheless, the drama that unfolded on the women’s side throughout the fortnight was not only entertaining, but also rather emotional on occasion. While the big names (Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka) cruised through the early rounds barely losing games along the way. Former world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki’s slump continued as she bowed out in the first round as she did at Wimbledon.
The real stories of the first week surrounded the retirement of 3-time US Open champion Kim Clijsters and the emergence of champion-in-the-making Laura Robson who put together a sensational run to the 4th round. However these two storylines coincided in the 2nd round as one of Laura Robson’s high-profile victims was none other than sentimental favourite Clijsters. Robson, who secured a silver medal for team GB in the mixed doubles partnering Andy Murray, denied Clijsters a fairytale swan-song with a stunning display of power-hitting which made many sit up and take notice of this perhaps, future grand slam winner. Clijsters closed the book on a stellar career to warm applause but this upset seemed to represent a sort of passing of the torch as it were. Robson’s draw didn’t exactly open up afterwards however as she was then pitted against China’s Li Na who had put paid to Heather Watson (another British hopeful) in the first round. Yet, riding the newfound support of the New York crowd, Robson did not buckle as she pulled off another shock with a smile on her face. However, her next match against defending champion Sam Stosur seemed a bridge too far as although she certainly pushed Stosur, it seemed that the physical and mental exploits of her momentous week had caught up with her as that same sharpness which was there against Clijsters and Li was not quite as evident. Nonetheless, Robson had now announced herself as one for the big stage in the most encouraging of fashions and what’s more, she will only get better.
Into the second week and people were still not looking past Serena Williams whose serve was only broken twice en route to the final. Even Sara Errani, French Open finalist who had quietly put together a run to the semi-final was powerless against Serena is this form. Meanwhile, both Sharapova and Azarenka were forced to overcome a few scares in the form of three-set epics. The most notable of these came in the quarter-finals where Azarenka battled past defending-champion Stosur in a final-set tie-break in what was arguably the women’s match of the tournament. Nevertheless, both women collided in the semi-final in what can certainly be described as a noisy affair. Neither women had lost a three-set match all year, yet in the battle of the decibels, something had to give. After a brutal encounter in searing heat and suffocating humidity, Azarenka was the one screaming with delight (as well as ‘grunting’ with effort) as she reached her first US Open final.
The showpiece was set- it would be official world number 1 Azarenka squaring off against (perhaps the real women’s number 1) Williams for the US Open title. Williams was keen to erase the memories of her meltdown in last year’s final against Stosur where she was also, the overwhelming favourite. She did just that in the first set as she steamrolled Azarenka with winner after winner. However, this was where both players began to stop reading the script. Williams seemed to suddenly go off the boil as her error count increased and Azarenka, cheered on by the crowd who unsurprisingly wanted their money’s worth, fought back to force a deciding set.
Unbelievably, it was the first time since 1995 that a US Open women’s final had gone three-sets and make no mistake, it was worth the wait. The final set was a thriller with momentum ebbing and flowing as the quality of tennis continued to increase along with the pressure. Azarenka actually served for the championship at 5-4. Yet the combination of a nervy game and the legendary resilience of Serena turned the tide once more as Willams found the form that had won her 14 majors over her career. Serena rattled off the last four games from 5-3 down as she blitzed Azarenka for her 15th major title and 4th US Open crown. Azarenka (who won the Australian Open at the start of the year) was clearly emotional while she delivered a classy speech. However, it was not only clear that she had won legions of new fans, but also that she would be fighting for much more major silverware in years to come. As for Serena- what next? Her amazing story continues to run and run.
On to the men’s draw and during the first week, although there were a record number of comebacks from two-sets to love down in the first round (nine to be exact), there were few shocks and surprises of note. Top two seeds Federer and Djokovic dismantled their early round opponents with ruthless efficiency whereas Murray, while ultimately winning, was typically giving his fans a fright as he was forced to dig deep out in the hot sun and battle fatigue in the tightest of encounters against big-serving Feliciano Lopez in the third round.
The earliest seeded casualty of the men’s draw came in the form of world number 6 Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Despite reaching the semi-final of Wimbledon, he looked totally out of sorts on the cement of Flushing Meadows and was ousted in the second round by little-known world number 52 Slovak Martin Klizan who certainly has a big game and will be one to watch at future events. However, the real shock of the tournament came off-court when former US Open champion Andy Roddick called a surprise press conference and announced after his first-round victory that this would be his last tournament. Like Kim Clijsters, A-Rod had decided to call it a career at the venue that had brought him the most success. That admission seemed to ironically, breathe new life into Roddick as he produced some of his best tennis in recent years to storm to the fourth round where he ran into another former US Open champion- Juan Martín Del Potro. Roddick’s departure would no doubt reveal the glaring lack of depth in US tennis as he was the last American left standing in the draw after American number 1 John Isner disappointingly went out in the third round. Despite a spirited effort spurred on by (at times) raucous crowd support, A-Rod finally succumbed in four-sets to the younger and fitter man. While clearly emotional, Roddick gave a touching and heart-felt on-court interview that made it clear that there would be no regrets as he embarked on a new and exciting chapter in his life.
Unsurprisingly, as match-ups improved in the second week, so too did the quality and drama, including a number of upsets. The second week started with a bang and the (on-court) shock of the tournament as world number 1 Federer was dumped out of the event in the quarter-finals by world number 7 Tomáš Berdych in a fearless display of power-hitting. It was Federer’s earliest exit at the event in nine years and the first time in 22 matches that Federer had lost a night session match in New York. However, perhaps more importantly in the context of the tournament, it had opened up Murray’s draw to a certain extent. The stars seemed to be aligning with the early departures of Tsonga and now Federer.
Could this be the year for Murray’s maiden major? Obviously it was far too early to be thinking such things, highlighted all too clearly by Murray being a point away from facing a two-set deficit against Marin Cilic in his quarter-final. At a set and 5-1 down, things were looking bleak. However, that new calming influence of Ivan Lendl in his box has worked wonders for Murray this year and that proved the case once again. Incredibly, Murray came back to win the second set on the tiebreak and after that, Cilic was all but beaten. Murray had made the semi-final for the second straight year. However, unlike 2011, Nadal would not be waiting for him and instead it would be Federer’s conqueror Berdych. Things were much less stressful for Djokovic who brushed Del Potro aside in his quarter-final with surprising ease with what can only be described as a sparkling performance. With Federer out, Djokovic was now the firm favourite for the title and he was playing like it. That left the final quarter-final to be resolved which took place in the quarter of the draw that had what can only be described as a gaping hole where Nadal would have been had he been fit to play. Therefore, although it could be argued that it had the least x-factor on paper of the quarters, it was also the most open and perhaps, the most interesting as a result?
However, the match between world number 5 David Ferrer and world number 9 Janko Tipsarević wasn’t exactly lacking for star power and actually turned out to be the best of the bunch and one of the matches of the year. After four and a half hours of pulsating tennis, Ferrer outlasted the Serb in a final set tiebreak to set up a semi-final with Djokovic. However, come the final weekend, the tournament was yet again plagued by horrendous weather which included torrential rain and tornado winds. Every year since and including 2008, the final has been delayed to Monday and one of the semi-finals has been unfairly disadvantaged. This led to many arguments resurfacing about the possibility of building a roof over the main stadium or even changing the venue which served as a somewhat unwanted distraction.
Nevertheless, Murray and Berdych were first up and immediately it became clear that they were going to be battling the elements as much as one another. Despite losing the first set, Murray battled back strongly to lead two sets to one while Berdych was clearly struggling to cope with the wind as his errors started to pile up. In fact, at one point, the courtside chairs were blown onto the courts which served to further underline the increasingly farcical state of affairs. It looked as though Murray was almost going to be gifted a final place as it appeared that Berdych’s precision game, which had been so effective against Federer, was seemingly gone with the wind. Yet, it wouldn’t be Murray if there wasn’t a scare or two and when Berdych battled back to force a fourth-set tiebreak, many started to think that Murray’s chance was slipping away. Yet by the skin of his teeth, Murray beat Berdych and the gale-force winds to reach his second US Open final and his fifth major final overall. The organisers immediately got Ferrer and Djokovic on-court to complete the order of play, but after Ferrer jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the first set against an increasingly frustrated Djokovic who was certainly the more affected of the two by the conditions, organisers decided to evacuate the stadium due to a tornado warning. Questions were raised about why the second semi-final wasn’t played simultaneously with the first on another court as it was clear that both matches were never going to be completed with the forecasts as they were. Regardless, the organisers stood by their decisions and the final once again, was to be delayed until Monday. Djokovic and Ferrer resumed Sunday with Djokovic rallying to win in four sets while Murray put his feet up. From a British perspective, things were looking more and more promising.
After a fortnight of tennis and weather ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the tournament would have a classic match-up as its final. The last time Djokoivc and Murray had met in a major was at the Australian Open at the start of the year in the semi-finals where Djokovic ultimately prevailed in almost five hours. Djokovic was bidding to re-assert his authority, defend his championship and claim his sixth major title while Murray was hoping to end the painful 76-year British wait for a major champion and also, to not gain the unwanted distinction of being the first man to lose his first five major finals.
As the first set unfolded in what were windy (yet not quite tornado-like) conditions, another epic seemed to be on the cards. Murray managed to carve out a crucial lead as he edged the first set in a tiebreak 12-10 while his supporters (including Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Sean Connery) began to sense that there was something in the air. This feeling only intensified as Murray held his nerve to withstand a fight back from Djokovic and to wrap up a two-set lead as he won the second 7-5 in what was already a lengthy encounter. However, despite having no rest day before the final, Djokovic fought like only he can and clawed back the deficit with such incredible grit and determination that many were already fearing the worst as Murray went into the fifth set looking physically and mentally winded. However, despite everything, Murray remained calm just as Mr Lendl had instructed and dug his heels in. There was one more set to play and he was going to give it his all. Brutal rally after brutal rally, Murray started to break Djokovic down. Incredibly, Murray started to serve better as the set went on and constantly put pressure on a Djokovic who at 5-2 down just before Murray was due to serve for the match, called the trainer on amidst boos and jeers from a crowd who felt that there may be some gamesmanship involved. However, it was clear that Murray had won the physical battle and after four hours and 54 minutes (one minute shy of the longest ever US Open final), he stood tall to deliver one final serve which Djokovic could only slap long. Murray had done it. Djokovic had thrown everything at him, yet he had withstood the barrage. The scrawny and bratty teenager had matured and was now fully deserving of his place in history. Andy Murray had well and truly got that 76-year old monkey off his back and had proved to others and of course, to himself, that he wasn’t a bottler or a nearly-man. However, what’s perhaps more amazing is that for just a second, it looked as though Ivan Lendl cracked what appeared to almost be a smile at the young man’s triumph.
If that doesn’t just cap off an inspirational summer of British sporting success then frankly, I don’t know what does!
By Alaistair Fatemi