NEW YORK, August 30, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Tennis isn’t always logical. If it were, then Andy Murray – not Fernando Verdasco – would be playing No. 3 seed Juan Martin del Potro in the third round of the U.S. Open on Friday. After all, Murray, the former No. 1 had won 13 of his 14 previous meetings against Verdasco with only a defeat in the 2009 Australian Open spoiling a clean slate. So, it seemed, Murray had history riding on his side.
Instead, the resurgent Verdasco and the rehabilitating Murray, ranked 382nd, pushed Wednesday afternoon’s day session on Arthur Ashe Stadium into the early evening – much to the delight of the fans who braved another day of brutally hot, 90 degree-plus temperatures at the the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. As it happened, the No. 31 seed Spaniard battled his way to victory over the fighting Scot, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. It marked the first time in 10 years that Verdasco has reached the third round of the U.S. Open. The loss sent the 2012 U.S. Open champion Murray to an early exit.
Verdasco closed out the three hour and 23 minute match on his serve, saving five break points after letting two match points slip past him. Verdasco’s big serve, which produced nine aces, won it for him on his third match-point opportunity. He finished with 52 winners to offset his 48 unforced errors. Murray hit 35 winners but committed 46 unforced errors.
After the match, David Law, BBC5 Live commentator and co-host of the The Tennis Podcast, tweeted that Murray “looked like a proper tennis player tonight. Not his old World No. 1 self, but way better than we could have expected this spring.”
During an on-court interview with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert after his incredibly physical and hard-fought win – perhaps, a tribute to his character and fitness – the 34-year-old Verdasco was reminded that he had only one career victory over Murray. “It was a little bit of motivation to try to beat him again,” said Verdasco, who praised his 31-year-old fallen opponent as “an unbelievable fighter.” He said “he was really happy” for his victory.
Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who analyzed the match for ESPN across much of North America, said, “it was a tremendous match by both players, especially with Murray battling back from injury after missing four straight Grand Slam events.
“The positive he takes away from this is he was moving well. It didn’t look like his hip was bothering him. He’s building his confidence, he’s healthy and feeling good. It’s been a long road back for him.
“The competition between the two was awesome … simply impressive.”
Powerful del Potro continues to dominate
No. 3 seed Juan Martin del Potro is nine years removed from his 2009 U.S. Open championship victory over Roger Federer, but he’s showing signs like this could be his time to win it all, again. Through his first two matches, which included a 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (4) win over Denis Kudla of the United States on Wednesday afternoon, the 6-foot, 6-inch (1.98m) Argentine hasn’t lost a set. Playing the final day session match on Louis Armstrong Stadium, the 2017 semifinalist dominated his opponent by never losing a service game or facing a break point. Del Potro fired 20 aces, placed 73 percent of his first-serves in play, hit 36 winners – mostly from his forehand side – and lost just eight points on his first serve.
“It’s important to win in three sets, to keep my body in good shape,” said del Potro during his post-match press conference. “Now, I’ve been doing recovery so I will be fine after tomorrow. I was doing a good preparation mentally to try to deal with this kind of forecast. And I did well.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s third-round match against Verdasco, del Potro said, “Fernando is a really good player. I don’t like to play against a lefty because they can mix it up all the time. They play different angles of the game. They make aviation’s all the time. It’s not going to be easy for me.”
It’s Williams versus Williams – again
On Friday, the Williams sisters will meet for the 30th time in their legendary careers, but just the second time during the first week of a Grand Slam. No. 16 seed Venus did her part to ensuring a continuation of their storied rivalry by beating 40th-ranked Camila Giorgi of Italy, 6-4, 7-5, Wednesday afternoon on Louis Armstrong Stadium. Then, under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium before another packed night session crowd, six-time U.S. Open champion Serena easily beat 101st-ranked Carina Witthoeft of Germany, 6-2, 6-2, on the strength of 13 service aces and 30 winners.
Interviewed on court after her win, the 23-time Grand Slam champion said, “Cheer for me … or Venus. Either one will work.”
The last time that Venus, herself a two-time U.S. Open champion, and Serena met in a major was in the final of the 2017 Australian Open. It was won by Serena who played while two months pregnant. It prompted Venus to quip that her younger sister had an unfair playing advantage. “It was two against one,” she said.
Serena leads the career head-to-head matchup with her older sister, 17-12. In their 15 Grand Slam meetings, Serena has won 10 of them.
Pliskova rallies to advance to third round
No. 8 seed Karolina Pliskova ran off the final six games of her second-round match against 83rd-ranked Ana Bogdan of Romania, to win 6-2, 6-3. The 2016 U.S. Open runner-up from the Czech Republic rallied from down 0-3 in the second set to advance to the third round against 65th-ranked Sofia Kenin of the United States. The 19-year-old Kenin beat No. 32 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
Pliskova hit five aces and 18 winners against Bogdan. “I think I was just mentally not there in the first two, three games in the set set,” said Pliskova after her win. “Then, I just came back to play how I was playing in the first set, and that’s why I did six straight games after.
“I feel pretty good – it was only just two bad games. I did some mistakes, she played some good shots, but overall, I think it was pretty good today.”
After working with former U.S. Open doubles champion turned broadcast analyst Rennae Stubbs earlier this summer, Pliskova is now also working with the former Grand Slam champion Conchita Martinez.
“They both are trying to bring something different to my game,” Pliskova was quoted as saying on the U.S. Open website. “Rennae, she was playing great doubles, so she wants me to go to the net more often. Conchita won Wimbledon … and she had a great game, so we try to work a little bit on everything. Still, it’s about my game, so they don’t want me to change much, to still be aggressive … and so far, it’s worth pretty well.”
• Call it winning ugly, but No. 28 seed Denis Shapovalov of Canada came from two-sets-to-one down for the first time in his career and pulled out a 6-4, 4-6, 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory over Andreas Seppi of Italy, ranked 51st, who was playing in his 40th five-setter. The win earned the 19-year-old #NextGenATP star a third-round berth against 2017 U.S. Open finalist Kevin Anderson. The No. 5 seed from South Africa advanced in straight sets over 46th-ranked Jeremy Chardy of France, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
• World No. 1 and top seed Rafael Nadal of Spain rolled to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over 88th-ranked Vasek Pospisil of Canada in the final night session match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. The defending U.S. Open champion, sporting a sleeveless look during the fortnight, showed steady form during his 1 hour and 59 minute match. He won 84 percent of his first-serve points, hit 26 winners and converted five of seven break-point opportunities against Pospisil.
“The conditions were tough; it was a very warm day,” said Nadal after his win during an on-court interview with ESPN. “Winning the first set was positive. I’m happy about the victory. I appreciate being able to play in the night sessions.”
Next, Nadal will face No. 27 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia, who defeated 121st-ranked Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.
• Other winners: Men – No. 11 seed John Isner of the United States gutted out a five-set win over Nicolas Jarry of Chile, ranked 42nd, 6-7 (7), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 in three hours and 38 minutes. Isner fired 38 service aces and hit 72 winners. Nikolaz Basilashvili of Georgia, ranked 37th, upset No. 18 seed Jack Sock of the United States, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (3). Women – No. 18 seed Ash Barty of Australia defeated Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic, 7-5, 6-3. No. 19 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia advanced over Claire Liu of the United States, 6-3, 6-1.
• Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who sat in Roger Federer’s box on Tuesday night, was back at Arthur Ashe Stadium Wednesday night as a guest of Serena Williams. Serena, who is outfitted by Nike, wore a lilac version of the Virgil Abloh-designed black tulle tutu she wore for her first round match on Monday night. Williams accessorized her outfit with lavender high top Nike shoes.
What they’re saying
• With another Serena versus Venus matchup at the U.S. Open, coming Friday, it’s already prompting comment from other players. Victoria Azarenka was quoted by Matt Cronin of Tennisreporters.net as saying, “That’s going to be exciting for the fans. I’m sure they (Serena and Venus) will hate it, both of them hate this, but I think it’s going to be beautiful for tennis.”
• Hall of Famer Jim Courier, who is working as an analyst for both Tennis Channel in the U.S. and Amazon Prime U.K., on match scheduling at the U.S. Open: “It’s often debated by fans and social media ‘why does this player play that way? Why is there favoritism for that player?’ Players will complain about the schedule, but we have to keep in mind that TV plays a massive role in this. A player who suffers for that on a day like today is Andy Murray. Why? Because he’s playing in the middle of the day. Why? Because Great Britain is five hours ahead of New York time. He’ll be playing around 2 o’clock. That is awful as far as the heat and humidity goes, but that’s prime time in the U.K. Kei Nishikori, on the other hand, gets to play later in the day because that means people waking up in Japan get to see him play live. So, never underestimate the power of television and the money they pay to these tournaments and what they get to say in the control room.”