Going Medieval

US Open, Semifinals

‘He’s gone medieval!’

The medieval moment came as Stanislas Wawrinka finally caved into mounting pressure, having been broken early in the fourth set of his US Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic. Momentarily lost to frustration, Wawrinka twice hurled his Yonex VCore Tour 97 against the court surface with sufficient force to crack the frame in several places. Apparently dissatisfied with the thoroughness of the job, he bent it further around his knee and tossed it to the side of the court. Enric Molina issued a point penalty, having earlier bestowed a code violation when Wawrinka launched a ball into the stands. Sky Sports, having failed to note the earlier warning, commenced an elaborate sequence of musings as to why a mere racquet smash merited a point deduction, culminating in Mark Petchey’s declaration, quoted above, that Molina had lost the plot. Al Bello/Getty Images North AmericaIt says a great deal about the gentility of tennis that its version of going medieval is to issue a putatively excessive point penalty. One suspects Marsellus Wallace had something further in mind for the men who’d violated him in Pulp Fiction.

Sky Sports tends to receive rough treatment on The Next Point – no doubt this has been the subject of crisis-meetings among their management – and so I should concede that on the whole they’ve done an admirable job in the two long days since Andy Murray’s ignominious exit. This is a shame. The Scot’s loss has regrettably lessened the flow of high comedy for which the English broadcaster is famed, which is admittedly the real reason why I tune in. (For those craving measured insight, Frew McMillan was querulously murmuring away on Eurosport, as ever giving the impression that viewers just happened to be overhearing his private monologue, like Hamlet. They were also running ads for the same Yonex frame that Wawrinka had so expertly disintegrated, featuring the Swiss player in a gentler mood. I admit I didn’t hear how Frew handled the racquet smash. For all I know it inspired a vehement tirade against the tyranny of umpires. Probably not, though.) Still, even with Murray gone, Sky usually brings a laugh or two.

It also brought the unusual sight of host Marcus Buckland standing out on location, as opposed to his usual position seated in the studio. I’d previously assumed he was permanently attached to the anchor’s chair, the result of a prank featuring industrial adhesive, and that on those rare occasions when Annabel Croft fronted the coverage she made do with back-up furniture. But today Buckland was to be seen loitering on his own feet out on the Arthur Ashe court. Croft was there with him, as was Boris Becker, though the two of them were forced to share a single microphone, presumably an austerity measure. This presumption was borne out a short while later when they were joined by Greg Rusedski in what passed for the on-site Sky studio, which is to say a ratty bit of carpet with four bar-stools in front of one of the practice courts. Still, it was better than the facilities provided for Eurosport, which apparently consist of grounds-passes for Barbara Schett and Mats Wilander, and nothing else. At least they had a microphone each.

Anyway, amidst all this fun there was also some tennis. You probably know by now that Djokovic actually beat Wawrinka, thus reaching his fourth straight US Open final. Initial impressions were that he wouldn’t. The world number one came out flat and tense, and a semifinal that had boasted the potential to be one-sided looked like it would be, but in the wrong direction. No commentators on any network could come up with a compelling reason why this might be the case, though nor could I. Djokovic afterwards confessed he’d just been nervous. Seems plausible. Anyway, he won in the end, though that came four hours later.

As a match it superficially recalled their great Melbourne encounter from January, in that Djokovic started woefully and it went for five sets. Beyond that however there was little resemblance. Petchey overplayed his hand early on by suggesting it was already shaping up to be a contender for match-of-the-year, but it was hardly that, especially in a year that has already generated some outright classics. You can’t blame him for talking up the featured match. (Even as I write, Sky is demonstrating that the first semifinal does condense down into a handsome highlights package. I also note that Petchey’s commentary style, built around undelayed expostulation, is eminently suited to highlights: ‘Would you believe it?!’ ‘Quite incredible!’ etc.) Nonetheless, it certainly had its moments – one of which came in the third game of the fifth set and lasted twenty minutes – but there were also sustained periods in which little of note occurred, much like the Middle Ages.

The most memorable moment came after the match, as the gallant Wawrinka was granted a standing ovation that almost, but not quite, drowned out his brief interview. It is rare for the beaten player to speak on-court. Wawrinka did his best to ensure it won’t develop into a trend, providing the sound bite doomed to endure when he commended his opponent for being so ‘fucking strong’ (or ‘f—ing strong’, as many bashful American journalists relayed it). Sky immediately apologised for the fucking s—ng language. So did CBS, repeatedly. Unlike Sky, they sounded like they really meant it. There’s talk of a free counselling hotline for traumatised viewers. Where was the five-second delay? Heads have presumably rolled. Thank heavens Wawrinka didn’t wrench down Mary-Jo Fernandez’s top.

You could see Wawrinka’s point. Djokovic is making a habit of five-set semifinals – this was his third in a row at Majors, and third in four years at this event – but he is still through to the final. There he’d be joined by Rafael Nadal, once the Mallorcan had inevitably dispensed with Richard Gasquet. To be fair, Gasquet rose above our expectations, although the fact that he still lost in straight sets tells you how subterranean those expectations were. He did contrive to break Nadal’s serve, the first man to do so in weeks, and thereby managed to push the second set to a tiebreaker. Sadly the Frenchman did not acquit himself well at this point, opening and closing the breaker with double-faults and generally faffing about with more elan than intent. He also concluded the match with a pair of double-faults.

Nadal didn’t play anything like as well as he had in the quarterfinal, even allowing for Gasquet’s superior skills compared to Tommy Robredo. But nor did he have to. Gasquet struck any number of flashy winners from the backhand, but as ever failed adequately to regulate the pace and depth on his forehand. Consequently Nadal merely made a virtue of patience and waited for his openings. When he struck, it was invariably decisive. As had been the case in Paris, an exciting first semifinal successfully depleted the crowd’s energy for the second. Gasquet wasn’t granted an on-court interview afterwards, and there was no standing ovation. Nadal was permitted to speak. The gist was that he was very pleased.

Being a noted expert in the glamorous field of randomly naming very high-ranking tennis players, I was in my element when asked before the US Open to predict who I thought would win it. I promptly named Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka, although I could have as easily chosen Nadal and Serena Williams. Arguably I should have, since those two were considered the pre-tournament favourites, an opinion that no one has since bothered to revise. Being a self-avowed contrarian I opted to be rebellious, but really affairs are in a sorry state when Djokovic represents the most iconoclastic prediction one can make without lapsing into obvious caprice. As it is, both the men’s and women’s finals will pit the top two ranked players against each other, and in both cases the top two ranked players are also those most in form. Picking anyone else felt like a waste of time.

In some ways it is churlish to complain. Partially offsetting one’s legitimate terror that Djokovic and Nadal will reprise the eternal grind of last year’s Australian Open final is a desperate hope that they’ll produce a match more like this year’s Roland Garros semifinal. Furthermore, for all that the two finalists were pre-ordained, Gasquet and Wawrinka’s presence on the final weekend wasn’t. We should be grateful to see fresh faces in the last four, with fresh faces in this case denoting a couple of weather-beaten top ten players who’ve each been on the tour for almost a decade. Still, consider that in 2011 and 2012 there were no first-time Major semifinalists. Suddenly they’ve appeared at consecutive Majors. It’s something. Perhaps change is coming.

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