Meltingly Warm and Liquid Quick

US Open, Days Five and Six

(3) Murray d. (30) Lopez 7/6 7/6 4/6 7/6

We’re now almost three rounds deep in the 2012 US Open, and one of the top three seeds has actually dropped a set. It was bound to happen sooner or later, if only when they came to face each other. The smart money was on it happening to Andy Murray rather sooner than that, given his tougher draw, and so it turned out. Today he managed to defeat a gallant Feliciano Lopez in four sets, despite winning fewer points, boasting less comprehensive stubble, and being ironically less accomplished at modelling argyle knitwear. On a meltingly warm and liquid-quick day in New York, Murray won the points that mattered, especially the last one. Roger Federer earlier won even more of these while seeing off Fernando Verdasco in straight sets, to whom he likewise yields primacy in facial hair coverage, although the world number one has been known to rock a mean sweater when in the mood.

It was sufficiently warm that the hackneyed phrase ‘brutally hot’ seemed stiflingly apt even in its overuse. More pertinently, the heat proved to be decisive in quite a few of the other matches played today. The lately revitalised Sam Querrey did an excellent job of staying with Tomas Berdych for a few sets, but faded sharply upon falling behind two sets to one. In fast conditions, the Czech can be a hard man to stay with. It is, surprisingly, the first time he’s reached the round of sixteen in New York since 2007. In the fourth round he’ll play Nicolas Almagro, who beat Jack Sock. You may recall that Almagro and Berdych met in the same round in Melbourne earlier this year, producing a fine match that will mainly be remembered for Berdych’s gifted amateur theatrics, as the Spaniard drilled a ball straight at him, whereupon Berdych rag-dolled to the court as though speared. I cannot guarantee the same thing won’t happen again, or even that the tables won’t be turned, even if I wanted to. The only guarantee is that ESPN will seek to heighten the ‘rivalry’, for all that the pair have met since, with no retribution forthcoming.

Novak Djokovic yesterday gave the good burghers who’d shelled out for Arthur Ashe tickets another reason to regret their extravagant purchase, assuming they’d been hoping to see something other than the world number two pulverise Rogerio Dutra Silva for the loss of five games. It’s a problem that plagues centre courts at all the majors through the preliminary rounds. On the one hand you want to see the big names on the big courts. On the other hand you’d probably like to see some competitive matches. Through the early going, these two conditions are for the most part mutually exclusive, especially with 32 seeds to protect the top players. The night sessions have suffered especially at this year’s US Open. To a match, they’ve been fizzers, even the ones we’d all insisted would be close.

Actually, even as I write Mardy Fish has just defeated Gilles Simon in a bland four setter on Arthur Ashe stadium. Cruelly, the first night match of the tournament to exceed three sets was one to make viewers wish it hadn’t. A lesson in being careful what you wish for, I suppose. The Frenchman was injured, which inspired him to fashion his rallies even more carefully than usual. He served at about 150kmh for the entire match – Al Trautwig in the commentary box never ceased marvelling at this – which Fish somehow failed to take as an invitation to attack. When healthy, Simon’s superb defence is sharpened by the real threat of sudden offence, but not tonight. Tonight it was almost all defence, barring the odd passing shot. Fish, after a perfect start, was eventually sucked deep into Simon’s psychic mire, although he retained a strong enough sense of self to abuse the umpire when things ceased going his way. They went his way in the end, but he was clearly dissatisfied when interviewed afterwards, and could summon little spark in the face of Justin Gimelstob’s unfettered cheer. He faces Federer next.

(20) Roddick d. Tomic, 6/3 6/4 6/0

The most hyped fizzer of the round was Andy Roddick’s dust-up with Bernard Tomic, the American’s first outing since he’d suddenly announced his entire support team’s imminent unemployment. The occasion was huge, the stadium was enormous, the crowd was partisan, the stakes were high, the platitudes were piling skyward, and the dull parallel clauses just kept on coming. Tomic was rubbish. Roddick was excellent. There had been a prevailing feeling that the young Australian would seize this moment, and thereby provide some gratification for those who enjoy nothing more than the fulfilment of a good changing-of-the-guard narrative. This hope had been buttressed by the universal assumption that Tomic performs best on the large stage, although I am beginning to think this assumption relies heavily on his disappointing results on small stages. To be fair, he is only nineteen.

Afterwards Tomic was eager to quell the suggestion that he’d tanked the final set, for all that even the five points he did contrive to win came against the run of play. Given that this suggestion had been widespread, and mostly delivered as a pointed accusation, quelling it required considerable attention. He insisted, somewhat unconvincingly, that the real issue was stage fright. However, few juniors have ever been afforded more opportunities to grow accustomed to the bright lights of prime time than Tomic. And it seems strange that his stage fright became most crippling in the third set, when he’d already been on court for an hour, after a couple of sets in which he hadn’t looked to be tanking so much as merely playing badly, faced with a veteran opponent who’d unshackled himself from mortal cares.

For a match that was potentially his last, it was perhaps ironic that Roddick finally played with the boldness and conviction that most pundits have been insisting he play with for years. Back when he was the best player in the world, he played like this all the time. His forehand was feared. Then he spent the best and worst parts of a long decade almost never playing like this. At least one can now hope he’ll continue to play like this for the remainder of his career, the extension of which will require defeating Fabio Fognini in the third round. Quizzed on how he’d feel for last night’s match, Roddick replied that , ‘I could come out and play great, or it could be the worst thing you’ve ever seen.’ In order to prolong his career for at least one more round, he’ll need defeat a guy for whom every match is like that. There is, consequently, no way of knowing what will happen.

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