Known Knowns

US Open, Third Round

There were several certainties heading into tonight’s third round match between Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny, or, to render it in the brain-scrambling terminology made famous by Donald Rumsfeld, a number of known knowns. Firstly, it would be an entertaining all-court scramble between a pair of stylish veterans. Secondly, both men would at various moments lose form, and thereafter their minds, inspiring thrashed racquets and whimsical assaults on the scenery. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaThirdly, I wouldn’t know which of the two men I favoured until the match commenced, or maybe until it ended. Both rank among my favourite players. Strangely, this sometimes makes it harder to remain impartial.

By the third set it grew apparent to me that my sympathies today were with Youzhny. The Russian was playing better tennis, and would have been crushed by a loss from two sets up. Paradoxical, therefore, was my concurrent realisation that I preferred to see Haas progress to the fourth round. He hardly deserved victory today, but there were good reasons to hope he’d remain active in the tournament. The winner of today’s match would face Lleyton Hewitt, who’d backed up the sterling upset of Juan Martin del Potro by seeing off Evgeny Donskoy in four sets. Hewitt and Haas have some (ancient) history – inevitably given they’ve both been on the tour forever. If Haas won that match, he would have reached the quarterfinals, thereby gaining a decent shot at returning to the top ten. Alas, he lost. I understood that I couldn’t have it both ways.

In any case, it was a stylish all-court scramble, one fairly bursting with dazzling rallies, bold offence and desperate saves. Anyone seeking to compile a highlights reel will have a lot of material to work with, and some tough decisions to make if they want to keep the running time under twenty minutes. Haas hit at least two backhand lobs as good as you’ll see, though only the first of them came off the strings. Sadly they were struck over an hour apart, and he committed a heroic number of errors in between. His performance through the second set was especially poor, and contributed to the nearly unprecedented sight of Youzhny winning a set by being the steadier player. Naturally there was a third set resurgence from Haas, prompting Youzhny to take to the on-court speedometer with his foot, and to the court surface with his racquet. It didn’t last. Haas was particularly virtuosic on his overheads tonight, but sadly this cannot be translated into a match-winning pattern at this level, especially as Youzhny displayed emphatic preference for flashing backhand passing shots over lobs. Youzhny took the fourth set with reasonable comfort, and afterwards saluted the crowd with obvious relish.

Haas’s loss meant that his US passport couldn’t be invoked in the event that no other American males reached the fourth round of the US Open, which hasn’t happened before in the Open era. John Isner was his nation’s great hope, or at any rate its faint hope, but his anticipated revenge match against Philipp Kohlschreiber turned out to be even less competitive than last year’s. With Isner (and Haas) gone, only the affable Tim Smyczek stood defiant in the face of history. Even as Haas trudged from Louis Armstrong, Smyczek was at that moment entering a deciding set with Marcel Granollers on Grandstand.

Thankfully the American was in rare form, gaining an early break in the fifth, and generally belting winners around at will. Chants of ‘U-S-A’ boomed around the stands, much as they hadn’t for Isner a few nights earlier. Granollers, to be sure, is no Monfils. Indeed, I’m still not quite sure what Granollers is, aside from one of the ungainliest players I’ve ever seen. Like Adrian Mannarino he appears to be a throwback to an earlier era, when even top pros were self-taught. I persist in thinking his current ranking of No.43 is if anything generous. Nonetheless, he took advantage of a rare weak game from the American, broke back, and eventually broke again. Smyczek’s inexperience truly manifested itself in the final game, when he should have made the Spaniard earn a tough hold, but instead relieved Granollers of any discernible pressure by over-hitting all his returns. Just like that, there are no American men left. In the absence of any official announcement to the contrary, we must assume the tournament will somehow continue.

Fortunately there remain a few foreigners whose names should be passing familiar to the general public, even if none of them have yet given anyone much reason to pay close attention. In every case the result has been an entirely known known. Novak Djokovic started his match against Joao Sousa well after Smyczek and Granollers began theirs, but didn’t tarry nearly so late in ending it. Sousa should feel immensely proud at becoming the first Portuguese man to progress to the third round at the US Open, and quite fortunate to win four games once he got there. Meanwhile Mannarino won only five games against Roger Federer last night, as did Julien Benneteau against Tomas Berdych today.

Florian Mayer got all the way to a first set tiebreaker against Andy Murray, but it wasn’t close, and nor were the ensuing sets. Rafael Nadal also saw off Ivan Dodig in straight sets. David Ferrer contrived to drop a set to Mikhail Kukushkin, but wasn’t seriously tested. So far through the three rounds the top players haven’t looked troubled in the slightest, and there’s no good reason to think they will be until they’re fated to face each other (apart from Berdych, who must face Stan Wawrinka, and Ferrer, whose match with Janko Tipsarevic almost certainly won’t reprise last year’s classic quarterfinal). For all that the first week has officially ended, the second week, with its vague promise of known unknowns, still feels some way off.

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