September 3, 2010

Keeping Focus Amid the Storm

If the theme for the first part of the week at the U.S. Open was the blazing heat, then the theme for the this weekend is the pending arrival of a hurricane named Earl, who promises to wreak havoc on the play today.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but some of the late night matches are clearly at risk -- if not for cancellation, then certainly for suspensions and delays. And that might give players like Rafael Nadal and John Isner, Venus Williams and Flavia Pennetta a few fits as they try to wrap up their day.

Pennetta's will be the last match on the Grandstand this afternoon, and she takes on Shahar Peer in what could be a very close game. The two have only played on hardcourts, with Peer -- ranked slightly higher at #19 to the Italian's #21 -- battling to victory in their last meeting at Indian Wells. A few months ago I might have chosen Flavia to power through this match easily -- if only for revenge -- but a foot injury that forced her out of New Haven puts her prospects in question. We know the girl can handle disruption, though, as she famously survived a meltdown by Vera Zvonareva at last year's Open. If she can find the power that got her past Jie Zheng in Cincinnati and Daniela Hantuchova in Montreal, I like her chances to win here too.

Big-hitting American John Isner should start his second-round match with Marco Chiudinelli before the rain starts, but if their five-setter at Roland Garros is any indication, he might not close it out in one shot. Isner certainly knows how to handle delays in a match -- the winner of the three-day Wimbledon marathon was able to keep himself loose and focused even through multiple over-night breaks. More comfortable in front of the hometown crowd, he might have the advantage over the Swiss, and hopefully this time his efforts will not be stopped short immediately after the initial win.

Venus headlines the night session on Arthur Ashe tonight, taking on her second qualifier in a row in Luxembourg's Mandy Minella -- a twenty-four year old who ousted Venus's foil Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round. You have to hand it to an unknown that can make it through three matches before even seeing a main draw and then continue her streak. And though Venus should be able to handle her easily, the two-time U.S. Open winner will have to remain focused on returning a solid serve and keeping up with an agressive baseliner. Battling injury herself, you can expect Williams to make a statement early -- she doesn't want to face the prospects of interrupting any momentum she gains by aggravating her knee any more.

Top-seeded Rafael Nadal hopes to cap off the action Friday night on Ashe, but the coming rains are not his only obstacle. Uzbek Denis Istomin made the finals in New Haven last week with a win over a tough Viktor Troicki in the semis, and he took a set from Rafa back at Queen's Club. He had a solid win over Maximo Gonzalez in the first round of the Open and fired off six aces to his opponent's zero. Nadal, on the other hand, was pushed to two tiebreaks against a feisty Teimuraz Gabashvili Wednesday and might be less comfortable on the quick courts. Admittedly, I'm a little nervous about this match -- two years ago, Rafa was unable to come back during a rain-disrupted semi against Andy Murray and ended up losing the match over two days. Hopefully this year he'll be able to keep his cool and, if needed, return to the court even stronger.

It sure looks like we're in for a lot of stop-and-start play today, and that could surely play with the momentum and focus of even top players. But when the day is done, hopefully no one will be too bruised and battered, and we'll only see better play to come.

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