September 13, 2009

What a Super Sunday!

For the second straight year rain has pushed back play at the U.S. Open, forcing the men's semifinals and women's championship to be played a day late. But boy, was today's action worth the wait.

Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro took the stage first -- a little after noon the newly reinstated #2 in the world took on the six-foot-six Argentine who was looking to make his first ever Grand Slam final.

Going into the match, all the commentators were giving the clear edge to two-time Washington champ DelPo, who had actually won the pair's last two meetings. I was only somewhat surprised by the bias -- these guys have a serious case of fair-weather friendship, and though just days ago everyone from John McEnroe to Mary Carillo was harping on Juan Martin's fitness to play in the hot summer sun, today they all seemed certain he was the favorite.

In truth, he was -- Rafa has been struggling with a stomach strain since Cincinnati and, while DelPo finished up his quarterfinal match years ago, Nadal had to wait more than a day and a half before finishing off Fernando Gonzalez on Saturday. And from the start the Spaniard seemed out of sorts -- he lost his serve first and couldn't capitalize on any of his five break chances to get beack in the match.

But somehow the scoreline -- 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in DelPo's favor -- doesn't reflect the fight from the six-time Major winner. The seemingly one-sided match took nearly two and a half hours and included some long rallies -- twenty-seven strokes in one -- that reminded you why Nadal was so recently the best player in the world.

That's not to say Juan Martin didn't deserve the win -- he clearly played a fantastic match today, controlling his serve better and winning four points for every three of Nadal's. Though he might have been considered more of a favorite last year, when he came into the Open having won four straight tournaments, this year he benefitted from a little more maturity -- and the fact that someone else took care of his biggest threat. But in doing so, the twenty-year-old earned the right to play for the title.

He'll have a rough time of it tomorrow, though. In Monday's final DelPo will face Roger Federer, who has already met and dismissed five different opponents in his last five championship matches in New York. He obviously hopes Juan Martin will be lucky number six.

Federer had a bit more of a struggle this evening than the Argentine, with fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic putting up quite a fight in each of their three sets. The Serb -- the only man besides Roger or Rafa to win a major since Roland Garros in 2005 -- actually got the first break of the match. But then couldn't really pull things together again and had to rely on theatrics, quite literally praying for calls to go his way.

But as plenty of players have learned before him, Novak discovered that Roger is different kind of force in the Grand Slams. He delivered an amazing between-the-legs shot to give him match point while Nole was serving for a third set tiebreak and followed it up with a winner to earn his sixth straight appearance in this Major's final. Djokovic put up a fight, winning just fourteen fewer points than Fed, but the much more experienced player was just too good tonight -- as, of course, he is almost any other night of the year.

That match was followed by the women's final -- one with two unlikely players battling for the title, though both were riding some pretty impressive streaks. Kim Clijsters, who advanced after a controversial point last night, last appeared in Flushing Meadows in 2005 when she won the title. She wasn't able to defend the next year due to a wrist injury, and then she retired -- so before tonight Kim had won thirteen straight matches here.

In the final she met Caroline Wozniacki, whose semi against Yanina Wickmayer, relegated to Louis Armstrong Stadium on Saturday, was the lowest-attended singles event of the tournament. After a slow start to the summer, she rallied in New Haven to defend her title there, and through tonight has won eleven consecutive games of her own.

Everyone gave Clijsters the advantage tonight -- she'd beaten four seeded players on her way to the final and had performed well in both of the tournaments she'd entered since un-retiring, and obviously had all sorts of experience on her side. But Wozniacki came out firing. After losing her first service game, she won three in a row, even serving for the first set. The Danish teenager saw her nerves get the better of her, however, and eventually dropped it, 5-7.

In a final that was more exciting than anyone could have imagined, eventually Clijsters secured the only break of the second set and after slamming an overhead won the second Major of her career. She fell to the ground in victory and cried tears of joy on the sidelines, able to do one month into post-retirement what it had taken eight years to do the first time around.

Clearly it was an impressive comeback after being gone for over two years, but you have to give credit to Wozniacki too, who was the picture of class both during the match and in her defeat. It looks like both these ladies will be around for a long time to come!

Congrats to all of today's winners!

Incidentally, this also marks a year of Tennis Spin! (Actually, a little more, as a late Labor Day pushed the whole U.S. Open back a bit, but I digress...) My first post came out the morning of the last ladies' final, which also took place on a Sunday. Thanks so much to all of my readers and followers -- I really appreciate your loyalty, insights and comments! Keep it comin'!

And here's to several more years of Spin!

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