Monday, August 20, 2012

Past Prologue: U.S. Open Highlights Through The Years (Part Two)

My very favorite tennis tournament of the entire year starts up next Monday, so my pal John and I have been running down our favorite and most memorable U.S. Open matches, at least as far back as we can remember.

Click here to read Part One at John's blog. Part Two is there for you below...

1991 Semifinal: Monica Seles (YUG) d. Jennifer Capriati (USA) 6-3 3-6 7-6

John: This was a big day for me, as even though I'd been to the Open countless times by this point, it was the first time I'd ever seen live action as late as the semis. What's more, there were two amazing matches on tap – in the first, a resurgent Martina Navratilova upset the top-seeded Steffi Graf in a nail-biting affair, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4. But that match paled in comparison to the second semi. Capriati had won two of the hardcourt warmup tournaments that summer, in one of them notching her first career win over Seles in a third-set tiebreak, and as such, I remember the palpable anticipation in the stadium as the two players took the court. Two of the hardest hitters ever (Seles is still my all-time favorite, while I'll maintain that Capriati is the most physically talented player in history), they came out with guns blazing, and although Seles took the first set 6-3 and went up an early break in the second, Capriati stormed back to take the second by the same score. The third set was an absolute dogfight, with more breaks than holds, that saw Capriati unsuccessfully serve for the match twice. This was one of the matches at which I remember people (including me) screaming at the top of their lungs by the end, which saw Seles reverse the result of their last meeting and win in a third-set tie-break to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. The loss took everything out of Capriati, but that only made it sweeter when she finally enjoyed Grand Slam success in the next decade.

1992 Semifinal: Stefan Edberg (SWE) d. Michael Chang (USA) 6-7 7-5 7-6 5-7,6-4
[Embedding disabled by YouTube, but here's the 3rd Set tiebreak.]

John: Much as with many of the top Americans of the time, Chang was someone I could never really get excited about (Jim Courier was pretty much the only exception from this era). Still, you had to admire the way he battled defending champ Stefan Edberg tooth and nail for four even sets. Edberg, who had barely survived his two pervious encounters against Richard Krajicek and Ivan Lendl, quickly found himself in a deep hole in the fifth set, serving at 0-3 and 0-40. Yet despite Chang's gritty fighting, you sensed that Edberg, with his dominating ability to rush the net, could easily come back if he stuck to the plan and executed. And so it proved – once he saved those break points, his confidence exploded, and Chang only won one more game. Chang still participated in the longest match in the Open Era, for which I hope he thanked the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Joe: One of the many reasons I love the U.S. Open above all other tennis majors is the tradition of Super Saturday, where both men's semi-finals and the women's final are played back to back to back (predictably, guess who hates it?). And in 1992, for whatever reason, I decided I was going to get the whole spectacle on videotape. Boy, did I manage to pick the right and wrong year, as Edberg-Chang went over five hours and my tape ended up running out about halfway through the Seles-Sanchez Vicario women's final that followed (sorry, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, neither of whom I liked anyway! No room for you!). But what a match! Jesus freak or no (I somehow avoided that information), I was a huge Chang fan back then. I guess I really liked those baseline scrappers! His style and Edberg's were a great fit for long, athletic points, and nothing came easy for either player. Epic marathon.  

1995 Final: Steffi Graf (GER) d. Monica Seles (USA) 7-6 0-6 6-3

: Even for someone who wasn't a huge Seles fan, as I was, this had to be the sports story of the year – Seles not only coming back two and a half years after her brutal stabbing, but coming back as the No. 2 seed and possibly in form to contend for the title (and now a U.S. citizen). I had seen Seles play an exhibition against Navratilova a few weeks before, and told anyone who would listen how great she looked, but I could feel the doubts – I couldn't help but feel them too, at least a little, because the mental and physical task before her was just unprecedented. But Seles ripped through the field to reach the final and play Graf, the unwilling beneficiary of Seles's deranged attacker, a Graf "superfan." The quality of play was through the roof from the beginning, with both players connecting with jaw-dropping winners through a first set with no breaks. In the tie-break, Seles was up a set point and banged a serve down the middle she thought was an ace. Although it was slightly wide, her concentration broke, and Graf took the set, only to let down at the start of the second set and find it gone 6-0 before she could even blink. But after Graf saved an early break point in the third, it was Seles who couldn't quite hold her level, and Graf made one break stand up in a 6-3 win. But the image I remember most was Seles, after holding to 3-5 in the final set, looking up around the stadium in wonder, unable to believe that she'd made it all the way back. A win would have been even nicer, but that was the moment to savor.

1998 Semifinal: Patrick Rafter (AUS) d. Pete Sampras (USA) 6-7 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-3

John: Oh, how sweet this was. Rafter had won the title the year before in a surprise run; with his winning game, looks, and personality, he'd be a welcome champion, right? Well, John McEnroe immediately dubbed Rafter a "one-Slam wonder," while Pete Sampras, usually soporific rather than dickish, snitted following a 1998 warmup loss that the difference between him and Rafter was "10 Grand Slams." But Rafter didn't let any of that faze him, as he kept going to the serve-and-volley well and came back from two sets to one down to wear Sampras out, and a win over countryman Mark Phillipoussis the next day meant Rafter was no longer doomed to being a one-Slam wonder. (I could also talk about what a wonder he is in other ways, but I'll let the video do the heavy lifting.)

I cannot overstate how major my tennis crush on Patrick Rafter was. That gorgeous motherfucker. And a gorgeous style of play, too -- one of the few really effective serve-and-volleyers of his era. I fell in love with him during the 1997 summer hardcourt season, predicted him to win the '97 Open as a #13 seed (he did), and he would be my favorite men's player from then on. Everything John tells you about the Rafter-Sampras rivalry in '98 is correct, so watching Rafter get over on Pete, and to come from behind to do it, I was on cloud nine.

2001 Quarterfinal: Pete Sampras (USA) d. Andre Agassi (USA) 6-7 7-6 7-6 7-6
2002 Final: Pete Sampras (USA) d. Andre Agassi (USA) 6-3 6-4 5-7 6-4

Joe: John and I each came armed with separate Sampras-Agassi battles, and with both of them so close in time, we figured we'd combine. Andre Agassi was my favorite American player of all time. He was the guy who got me into tennis. He was the guy who differentiated my youthful sensibilities (Agassi! Capriati!) from my grandparents (Lendl! Edberg! Courier!). I rode every wave of his career, comeback after comeback -- his first wins at Wimbledon, the French, AND the U.S. Open all came at points when his career was "over"; how is that even possible?? He finally was able to get his shit together and remain a consistent Top 10 player, but despite some big wins, Sampras was always his bugaboo, particularly in Flushing. By the time the 2002 final happened, the wind was somewhat out of my sails when it came to Sampras-Agassi matchups. And that was because of what happened in 2001. By the time the 2001 Open started, Pete Sampras was on the way out. An unheard of #10 seed, he had just lost at Wimbledon in the 4th round to Roger Federer in that famous "changing of the guard" match everybody talks about. Meanwhile, Agassi was flying high, on a late-career resurgence, blowing through the early rounds, absolutely taking Federer apart in the 4th round, Andre was primed to FINALLY stand tall (uh, metaphorically, sorry Andre) over Pete Sampras. Hugely hyped primetime matchup -- a finals-worthy event at mid-week! And ultimately ... Andre couldn't break Pete's serve. That's what it came down to. Andre played some of his best tennis, but as one sportscaster said after the match, and I can't remember who it was, if Pete Sampras was playing his best tennis, Andre couldn't beat him. A sad truth I had to accept that night.

John: With my tepid-at-best interest in both of them, Sampras-Agassi was always a sister-kisser matchup for me. Yet the 2002 final was no ordinary occasion—Sampras and Agassi were both well past their prime, and they both must have sensed that it was their last best chance to take home another Grand Slam. Sampras had suffered an absolutely shocking loss to unheralded George Bastl at Wimbledon that summer, but as so often seemed to happen on the big occasions, he got the better of Agassi in a four-set victory. Sampras never played a tour event after this match, and even though he never did it for me, I have to respect that – so many players pay lip service to the idea of going out on a high note, but Sampras actually did.

2004 Quarterfinal: Jennifer Capriati (USA) d. Serena Williams (USA) 2-6 6-4 6-4

: You can talk about the amazingly high level of play or bemoan the fact that these two met so early all you want, but when it comes down to it, all people really remember about this match is the WORST LINE CALL IN HISTORY. As I said to Joe, given all Serena's notorious tirades about line calls over the years, it's hard to believe there was no loss of life after this doozy. It affected the result, too, and even though I was rooting for Capriati for serious, like Joe said with the Roddick-Nalbandian match, it was hard to feel clean while celebrating the victory.

Watching this match again recently really does nail down the true tragedy of that monstrously blown line call (called correctly by the line judge, then overruled by the chair) is that it forever obscures what was a phenomenal tennis match between two huge hitters. Capriati was the rare player on the WTA tour who could hit with Serena; besides her sister Venus, the only other player to defeat Serena as often as Capriati did was Justine Henin, and she did it through impish strategy and shot-selection. Capriati stood toe-to-toe with Serena and took advantage of every crack, including, yes, that indefensible line call. Perhaps it was tennis karma that bit Capriati in the semifinals against Dementieva, the first of two straight years that an epic Capriati-Lindsay Davenport final was foiled in the semis.

2005 Third Round: Davide Sanguinetti (ITA) d. Paradorn Srichipan (THA) 6-3 4-6 6-7 7-6 7-6

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the absolute scarcity of footage of this match, it has grown in my memory to mythic proportions. I don't think I'm overrating it, but it's become so completely mine; I've yet to hear it mentioned by anyone, journalist or fan or whomever. It was practically an accident that I even saw it; one of those matches that only made TV because it was the last day-session match still on the courts, before the night session began. And then it kept going. And suddenly, USA Network was cutting away from the night match to revisit this battle between two unseeded, unheralded players. There was no real hook to the matchup: Sanguinetti was a graying journeyman while Srichapan something of an up-and-comer (though he'd never capitalize on his potential). The draw of the match, as it went on, was the sheer competitive level, with both men living and dying on every point, knowing that a spot in the second week at the Open could mean something huge. I can't remember if it was in the fourth set breaker or some time during the 5th, but after one particularly grueling rally at one particularly crucial juncture, both men looked across the net at each other, smiled, and just started laughing. Purely because of how great they were playing. For as much as sportswriters and broadcasters like to rhapsodize the "love of the game" angle in sports, it's criminal that no one would bother revisiting that moment just because one guy was Italian and the other was Thai and nobody knew them. That moment should be on every montage the Open ever shows, forever. As it is, it's only in my brain.

2010 Semifinal: Novak Djokovic (SRB) d. Roger Federer (SUI) 5-7 6-1 5-7 6-2 7-5

John: Although Joe and I have a lot of fond memories of the same matches, this is one of only two matches in this feature we actually watched together. To be more specific, we watched it at more than one sports bar, and we doublehandedly take credit for getting the second bar completely into the match with our incredibly loud and Djokovic-slanted cheering. Djokovic hadn't had a good result in a Slam since he'd won the Australian all the way back in 2008, and he'd lost to Federer in the U.S. Open three consecutive years before this encounter. Djokovic found a form that had eluded him for ages, but serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the fifth set, you figured he was done. Yet an amazing, possibly-eyes-closed swinging volley after a crazy rally, followed by another forehand winner, kept him alive, and after he held to 5-5, Federer quietly went away for the second of three straight years, which was good, because by then we'd shouted ourselves hoarse and had nothing left to give. Although Djokovic would lose to a year-dominating Nadal in the final, it was the bridge to his own year of historic dominance in 2011, the match that literally turned his career around. Couldn't have done it without you, Roger!

Everything the man just told you is true. I just remember that the people in that second bar were so bewildered at first that we would be cheering for Djokovic. We didn't look Serbian. Why else would we bother cheering for a guy who never, ever, ever got it done against Federer, and certainly not under the harsh Flushing sunlight? And despite waxing Federer in the 4th, it wasn't until that match-point down Houdini act that anybody (including, um, me) thought he could actually pull it off. And then he DID. Oh, did he ever.

2011 4th Round: Sam Stosur (AUS) d. Maria Kirilenko (RUS) 6-2 6-7 6-3

John: This was the second match in this feature I actually saw with Joe, and the first I saw with him in actual attendance at the U.S. Open. We settled in over at the Grandstand court in early evening to watch Stosur, long a Grand Slam disappointment, take on the fashionable Kirilenko, not necessarily expecting that much. What we got was a total barn-burner that included the longest tie-break in Grand Slam history, a 17-15 war that saw Kirilenko save five match points and level the match at a set apiece. Undaunted, Stosur righted the ship in the third set, and it's hard to imagine that this win didn't play a big part in her subsequent run to the title. It's a long trip back from Flushing Meadows on the train, but matches like this make it worth it.

Ever since that Connors-Krickstein match in 1991, I've wanted to attend matches at the U.S. Open. In 2007, I moved to New York City, and for four straight summers, I was thwarted in one way or another. Finally, last year, I made it, and it was everything I'd hoped it would be. I was always fascinated by the Grandstand court, that little addendum to Louis Armstrong Stadium -- literally in its shadow, during those mid-afternoon matches -- where during particularly competitive matches, the crowds from Armstrong would gather along the overhang to watch. Somehow, on the day we went last year, the day session matches went longer than the night session matches, and when the final match on Armstrong was over, people started gathering at the overhang, where the second set was approaching a tiebreak. What followed was the most epic breaker I've ever seen. I was already kind of a fan of Kirilenko and Stosur, and after that match, both women had earned my eternal devotion. That's the best thing about the Open: one match can make you a fan for life. John and I will be attending matches again this year, and if I can find my mini-Maria out on a court again, she'll be getting my full-throated support.

Note: I did not take this video. I was not courtside until the third set. But it is AWESOME.

1 comment:

bfabz said...

Capriati more physically talented then Serena? That's crazytalk. I might even put Clijsters above Capriati.