String Theory

US Open pot-pourri (Mon-Fri, Week 1)

As is his wont, Rafa started the tournament slowly, with a grinding three-set win over Gabashvili that included two tie-breaks. It was strange seeing him arrive on court wearing black, looking more like “Darth Federer” than Federer himself – who looked more like Little Lord Fauntleroy, with his navy-and-white-trim outfit. Maybe Anna Wintour is now consulting for Nike. In any case, Rafa’s groundstrokes didn’t look very sharp against the Georgian. In the match against Istomin (no relation to the pianist!) Rafa was already playing a notch above, and his inexhaustible determination helped him overcome a 5-1 deficit in the second-set tie-break, against an opponent playing at a very high level. As always, Nadal played at his very best precisely when he needed to. The most exceptional thing, though, is that he now brings major heat to his serve, hitting consistently at over 130mph. How can he have improved so much since Cincinnati? Considering the quality of his return game, Nadal being able to hold serve easily should be very worrisome for his future opponents…

I was somewhat dismayed at McEnroe’s comment about Rafa supposedly liking “classical music” because he has seen Phantom of The Opera a bunch of times. I’m not faulting Nadal for his tastes (although they are a little odd), but I thought McEnroe was a little more sophisticated, with the art gallery ventures and whatnot. In Mac’s defense, though, you could say that Phantom is “classical” compared to, say, the Stones or Metallica, from a relative point of view.

I don’t care how many times Gasquet’s broken my heart over the last few years, and how hopelessly erratic his career’s been so far. Watching him wield his backhand like a wand-racquet is one of the most beautiful sights is any sport. I’m always amazed by the way he’s able to hit winners off that side from any corner of the court, the adjustment of his racquet face, the perfect shoulder turn…His second-round upset of Davydenko was admittedly against a player still trying to feel his way back into the game after a long layoff due to a wrist injury, but still… I hope Richie doesn’t wake up today with a cold, though.

Might Roddick have had a chance in his second-round night match against Tipsarevic if he hadn’t lost his marbles over a foot-fault call (which was a good one, even though the lineswoman put her foot in her mouth by not knowing her left from her right)? Roddick seemed pretty lethargic, and although the incident shook him out of his haze for a while, he just didn’t seem there.  He appeared gaunt, perhaps as a result of his recent mono diagnosis. Could it also be dawning on him that his last chance at a slam was last summer at Wimbledon?  A quick psycho-analysis might reveal a post-traumatic letdown. That’s my (totally superficial) diagnosis.

Still trying to make sense of Hedgehog’s (Novak) comment about the spreading shade beeing like “sleeping with my girlfriend” after his first-round escape against Troicki. In what way, exactly? How about some details? Tennis-wise, though, his habit of struggling in the early rounds of the slams has to be draining, and he seems too passive to me to have a shot against the likes of Nadal, Federer and Murray.

Soderling (a.k.a. The Wood-chopper) made mulch out of Taylor Dent, who didn’t make a single dent into Soderling’s game. I admire Taylor’s serve-and-volley game, but his physique doesn’t match his style. When I see him, I think of Edberg, Sampras and Navratilova and how quick and agile they were. If Dent’s conditioning were up to par, he might have more success, even in the age of the brutish return.

Murray/Dustin Brown: Andy Murray is nothing if not consistent, a model of level-headedness in his play. Perhaps too much so occasionally. In contrast, Brown plays an amazingly powerful, flashy style. Murray seemed a little taken aback in the first few games of their second-round encounter, with the Jamaican trying to hit outright, flat-stroke winners on every single point. But like a musician who plays the fast parts spectacularly but doesn’t take the time to concentrate on musicianship, Brown’s game is one-dimensional, and he can’t string a whole piece together. Murray’s court-sense being second-to-none, he easily steadied the ship and came away with an easy win.

Ryan Harrison seems to be coming into his own, with an impressive first-round victory over Ljubicic. His natural facility, all-around game, and the quality of his serving bode well for American tennis, whose youth has been in hibernation for a while now. Even in his narrow defeat to Stakhovsky, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. He also seems to be a very mature and composed 18-year-old. Harrison possesses the power, not to mention determination, missing in Donald Young’s game, who was easily dispatched in the second round by Gilles Simon.

This is fabulous news!

The women’s draw, notwithstanding the absences of Serena and Justine H., is somewhat of a wasteland after just a few rounds of play. The dramatic concussion suffered by Azarenka before her second-round match against Dulko leaves a big hole. This seems to be Maria Sharapova’s year, with her most dangerous opponents Venus, Clijsters, Stosur and Dementieva all playing each other at the bottom of the draw. Ivanovic and Kuznetsova’s confidence appears to be rising, but they are still too short on victories this year to be considered legitimate contenders. And Wozniacki, even as the #1 seed, will not make it past Maria.

In a category on her own, the amazing Francesca Schiavone seems to be on a collision course with Venus Williams in the quarters. She thrilled the crowd in her second-round match against Bondarenko with her all-around play, including a great  between-the-legs shot á la Yannick Noah (the first to attempt it regularly), followed by a sweeping forehand winner. Her game might not resist the big hitters’ power, but there is no one in women’s tennis with a more exciting game – including Justine Henin. If her passionate play carries her past Venus, she would meet Clijsters (against whom she has a disastrous 0-11 record) in the semis; but I really want to believe in the victory of style over the bulldozers of the Shara-power variety. Who wouldn’t want to see her win the Open? If there is a tennis god, make your presence felt immediately. Please.

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