30 August, 2011

US Open Day 1 - 3 Thoughts

As we watch this year's US Open we will begin each day with a brief recap of the prior day's action.

It's got to be tough to be Maria Sharapova.  No, I'm not talking about the annoyances that come with her good looks, fame or fortune, I'm talking about the ones that come with her game.  Before her match yesterday, I tweeted that win or lose, I hoped the yips wouldn't be a factor.  Of course, no sooner did that thought reach the ether did the Sharapova serve go completely and utterly off the rails.  You have to give credit where credit is due, for two sets, the 104th ranked young Brit, Heather Watson, gave Sharapova all she could handle, but there were two thoughts I couldn't shake.  

First, Sharapova has played matches like this all summer.  She has rarely seemed to string two strong sets together, instead going through pockmarked periods where her serve takes a lunch break and her groundstrokes make more of an effort to blast through the back wall than her opponent's backhand.  Second, since leaving Madrid, Maria has amassed a 23-4 record with titles in Rome and Cincinnati, a final at Wimbledon and a semifinal at Roland Garros.  Maria Sharapova has found a way to shockingly become the most consistent player on the WTA this summer while struggling to manage virtually every aspect of her still powerful, but highly erratic game.  It's yet another testament to Sharapova's mental strength that her game can all but desert her, her opponents can play well (as Watson did for 2 1/2 sets) and the Russian still finds her way to the next round.  A win is a win, and Sharapova will take it.

On the other hand, you have Ryan Harrison.  The young American has proven himself a significant talent, but he was outclassed by the bigger and more experienced 27th seed Marin Cilic, in a first round loss.  I'd say that Harrison's racquet was on the ground as many times as it swatted winners...guess he won't be signing a Tournagrip deal any time soon.

Harrison has been showing off his fiery temperament all summer, but the New York crowd was having none of it.  A chorus of boos rang down as Harrison flung his racquet to the court after dropping the second set in his 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (8) loss.  Despite the example of players like Pete Sampras and Venus Williams, many still think of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors' brash behavior when they think of American tennis.  The difference is they won majors.  To this point, Ryan is in the top 75 and has had a couple of nice tournaments, but after a promising first round win over Cilic's countryman Ivan Ljubicic last year, Harrison fell at the first barrier this go-round.

On one had, I'll say that Harrison is a nice contrast to a generation of athletes who seem to be happy losers.  This isn't a guy who's going to come off the court and say "I'm happy, I tried really hard and I played a good match and I lost 2, 2 and 2."  Harrison's a refreshing contrast to some of the meek players we've seen out there who are happy with their participation ribbon.  This is the US Open, we're New Yorkers, we certainly respect a player who leaves it all on the court, a player who shows some aggression, a player who has a little attitude.  That said, more than anything else, we respect winners and we don't put the cart before the horse.

Everyone's not Steffi Graf and that's OK.  Serena Williams took 2 1/2 years to win her second major after breaking through at the 1999 US Open.  Maria Sharapova needed over two years to back up her 2004 Wimbledon title with a 2006 US Open triumph.  It even took Robo-Nole 3 years to appear in Melbourne after he first won the Aussie Open title as a mere human back in 2008.  So, let's not panic about Petra Kvitova, OK?

Yes, she's 2-3 since winning Wimbledon.  Yes, she crashed out of the US Open in straight sets yesterday.  Yes, she is the highest seed out of the event, but I'll be honest.  If I'd won Wimbledon, I'd probably still be too drunk to even get on the court.

The big picture is that it often takes a champion a while, years even, to become accustomed to the pressures of consistently playing in the upper echelon.  Kvitova is for sure a trendy champion, she plays a big game, won tennis' biggest title against a fellow champion, Sharapova and didn't crack when she had every opportunity to do so.  Let me just say what I'm dancing around, she's everything Caroline Wozniacki is not.  In some quarters, Kvitova's been annointed as a Joan of Arc figure who will lead the WTA out of chaos and into a post-Williams new world order, if ever such a world were to exist.  I guess if Petra's the savior, we've got a little while to wait for the second coming.

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