50 parting shots from U.S. Open
Andy Murray finally broke through to end Britain's drought and win the U.S. Open
Serena Williams won Slam No. 15, remains one of sports' toughest competitors
Conflict of interest reared its head again; more thoughts from year's final major
NEW YORK -- And with Andy Murray's 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 win over Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, so ends the 2012 Grand Slam season. Here are 50 parting shots on a memorable event.
• Fred Perry, you have a company! Murray picked a heck of a way to win his long-elusive first major. Monday night's win over Novak Djokovic was epic in the truest sense, a wild, five-set odyssey that featured swings of momentum, obstacles, acts of God, redemption and, finally, triumph. As a bonus, Murray wins de facto Player of the Year honors, having won both a Grand Slam title and Olympic gold. In this, the first major with neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal in the final four for the first time in eight years, Murray breaks through. Just tremendous stuff.
• What remains to be said about Serena Williams? Her match to win the title on Sunday night -- the 15th major of her career -- will go down as a defining moment in a career with plenty of definition already. Best competitor in sports, I say. (A must-read on Serena: My colleague S.L. Price looks at her long journey with the U.S. Open.)
• What do we make of Djokovic? Yes, he won "only" one major after his exemplary 2011. And he failed to defend his title in New York, wilting a bit in the fifth set Monday. But what a fighter this guy is. And what a four-way rivalry we now have. Djokovic clearly needs a mental break. But how well does this set up for 2013?
• Victoria Azarenka distinguished herself in defeat, both with her "I've come to play" performance in the final and her measured and mature performance afterward. If this is the worthy challenger for Serena, we eagerly await their next match.
• The current USTA executives cannot be blamed for the absence of a roof. And they are not sitting idly by: Within five years, at least one covered court will be constructed. While the plans remain vague, it also appears that Super Saturday -- a misnomer in recent years -- will be euthanized. But five straight Monday men's finals is a streak that must end. With each added day, a little bit of prestige is subtracted.
• What a strange year for Maria Sharapova. She tears through the clay season, winning the French Open to complete the career Slam on what has historically been her worst surface. She reaches the gold-medal match at the Olympics only to get ONE GAME off Williams. Then she reaches the semis of the U.S. Open -- with a pair of gutty three-set wins over Nadia Petrova and Marion Bartoli -- only to lose a battle to her new nemesis, Azarenka. Good thing she likes competing.
• How do you beat Federer? Take a big, flat-hitting slugger on his game. Give us cool conditions, so stamina doesn't come into play. Add hot serving. Tomas Berdych's results are all over the place, but it's not surprising that he's beaten Federer twice at Slams since 2010. Spekaing of Federer, here is a fun piece we did for Tennis Channel.
• A clap of the racket to Andy Roddick, who surprised us with the mid-tournament announcement -- on his 30th birthday, no less -- that this Open would be his final tournament. It's a fitting place to end a storied career: the site of Roddick's first and only major in 2003; his home Grand Slam event; in front of a crowd that threw its full-fledged support after the announcement. Here's S.L. Price doing justice to Roddick's career.
• Juan Martin del Potro caught Djokovic at his best and lost in the quarterfinals. Must be frustrating to play an exceptional level and still lose in straight sets. Apart from the tennis, he really distinguished himself as a good guy in this event. His response to beating Roddick was pitch perfect, as were his remarks afterward. Against Djokovic, he wore a smile that said, "Too good." He visited the Mayo Clinic before the event to have his wrist examined, but declined even to entertain suggestions that he was dealing with nagging injuries.
• We've been beating the "Conflicts of interests are holding back the sport" drum -- it's a big drum; a bass drum; actually more like an oil drum -- for a while now. It didn't take long to get an unseemly example. On the very first night of play, Donald Young played Federer in the Monday prime-time match. The notion of the McEnroe brothers commenting on Donald Young is akin to letting the Van Gundy brothers commentate on Dwight Howard's first game as a Los Angeles Laker. (If not Roger Goodell reviewing Jonathan Vilma's BBQ restaurant.) Simply waaaaay too much personal history there. As one Canadian journalist tweeted right away: "PMac doing a DYoung match one of those incestuous tennis things that should never happen. 2hr platform to rip him w/o defence. #cantlisten."
Over email and Twitter, I must have received 100 messages on this theme, most of them a variation of this riff from Marco of Portland, Ore.: "It was a regrettable and completely unprofessional display by John and Patrick, both of whom -- despite the allowances we make for the benefit of their candor -- should really know better. The commentary wasn't correct or incorrect. It was just ugly."
As I see it, the issue here isn't John -- whom, I'm told by multiple sources, was taken out to dinner by USTA officials mid-tournament, and asked/told to be less critical of the U.S. Open while on the air. It's about Patrick. First, let's be clear: It's easy to like and respect the guy and this is not about his personal integrity or credibility. (Full disclosure: I would go so far as to consider him a friend, and knowing his appreciation for straight shooting, I proceed with every confidence that we will stay friendly, even after the forthcoming few paragraphs.) But this situation has officially become untenable. And I think arguing otherwise amounts to defending the indefensible.
Patrick McEnroe, the USTA's general manager of player development, is in an executive tennis position. It's an inherently controversial and polarizing job in the best of times, but especially as the USTA, rich as it may be in funding, struggles to harvest talent. McEnroe and the organization that pays him have "skin in the game" on countless issues from this Taylor Townsend debacle, to Sloane Stephens' coaching mishigas, to the ATP players' boycott threats at majors, to the divisive QuickStart program, to the proposed college tennis changes, to the build-a-roof discussion, to the allocation of U.S. Open wild cards, to discussing whether the American fans should've cheered harder for Venus Williams over the years. Putting P-Mac in a position to commentate is terribly fraught. It's also terribly unfair to him. He's in a no-win situation -- and he is losing. So, too, are the viewers and fans.
• This topic absolutely infuriates me -- maybe you've picked up on that? -- for a variety of reasons, not least for how cliquish and clubbish and small-time it makes tennis appear. So indulge me one more item. (Or, of course, feel free to skip down.)
These blatant conflicts violate the most basic media ethics. Here's last week's scenario: ESPN's lead commentator is also the guy who cuts the travel funding to the top-ranked junior in the world -- a left-handed, serve-and-volleying African-American, who won a junior Grand Slam title earlier this year -- over fitness/commitment/health issues. Maybe this decision involving Townsend was justified and maybe not. But this was a huge deal, especially given the context. It's newsworthy and relevant and, as you can see from the current cause célèbre, it's clearly a story that arouses vast interest and passion among fans. (For heaven's sake, Disney-owned Good Morning America did an entire segment on this!)
And yet it went unreported and unremarked upon until the enterprising Tom Perrotta of The Wall Street Journal catches up with the player's mother? This is like a baseball network hiring Theo Epstein to work the booth and then having a rival network break news of a Cubs trade.
But more troublesome still: As in corporate America, conflicts and coziness and cronyism have the effect of undermining accountability, stunting growth and corroding the culture. The USTA's spotty record in harvesting tennis talent is a major story, one that profoundly affects the future of the sport. Maybe it's ineptitude and profligate spending. Maybe it's the fundamentally flawed structure of the USTA. Maybe -- and I put most of my chips here -- it's a function of globalization and demographics and a worldwide talent pool of unprecedented depth. Regardless, this issue is worthy of critical examination and inquiry. And ESPN, with its resources and platform, ought to be leading the charge.
This is unlikely to happen, though. Not so long as the figure leading the USTA development division and drawing the seven-figure salary is also a lead tennis commentator. Keep going here: Multiple high-ranking officials in the USTA have privately expressed concern with Patrick McEnroe and would like him to devote more time to his day job and pick ONE career. It's easy to see how their willingness to express these concerns could be chilled, knowing that McEnroe's other employer pays an eight-figure rights fee to the organization each year.
I'm telling you: No one wins here. Not the networks. Not the USTA. Not the central figures, who might pick up a few extra sheckels for their moonlighting, but whose reputations get battered and bruised. (Don't take my word for this, just check out the relevant social media timelines.) Not the fans and viewers, who must always wonder what information is being glossed and spun and outright withheld. Above all, certainly not the sport of tennis. OK, rant over. Let me take a swig of generic sports drink before continuing.
• Thanks, much better. The usual full disclosure: I was a member of the Tennis Channel broadcast team at this event. Take that for what it's worth. More disclosure: I take a backseat to no one in my fondness ESPN's coverage overall. Make no mistake: This is a force of good in tennis. I am an unabashed fan of many, including Tom Rinaldi and my occasional CNN sparing partner, LZ Granderson. Love the platforms and the quality of the features and the analysis and even Brad Gilbert's pocket squares. But staffing your broadcast booth with executives within the sport you're covering? It's a recipe for disaster. And that's pretty much what we got the last few days.
• Wait, this just in from ESPN PR: a four-pronged response. In all seriousness and sincerity, I really appreciate this. Passionate as we all get, these aren't matters of national security. Reasonable people can disagree; civil discourse is seldom a bad thing. I've also been told that Patrick McEnroe has seen this response and has signed off on it. Here goes:
1) We see no conflict with Patrick doing television commentary while serving as director of USTA Player Development.
2) He has no motivation to either over-compliment or overly criticize the USTA players or others.
3) Patrick's role with the USTA is widely known, certainly among tennis fans and the industry, as well as among his colleagues and ESPN bosses. In fact, it is mentioned on our air frequently. The last thing he or ESPN would want is commentary distorted by motivations beyond objective analysis. Listeners would see through any commentary that appears otherwise. That is, we know of his USTA role, and he knows we know.
4) Patrick has a proven track record of many years as one of sports' most insightful and accomplished commentators, dedicated to his craft. While mindful of the potential of skepticism from critics, we trust Patrick to fulfill his obligations to serve ESPN and our fans with the best in honest and fair commentary.
• Moving on ... In men's doubles, Bob and Mike Bryan defeated Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek to win their 12th major title, an Open Era record. In honor of passing Australian legends Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge for the most major titles, we give the twins a hearty Good on ya. And with that, we ask SI's Andrew Lawrence to take it away.
• The good news for Sara Errani: She reached the semis in women's singles. The bad news: She had to play her friend and doubles partner, Robert Vinci, in the quarters. The worse news: She was obliterated by Serena in the semis. The great news: She and Vinci then teamed to win the doubles, knocking off Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in the final.
• Mixed doubles was won by the shotgun wedding team of Ekaterina Makarova and Bruno Soares, who entered right before sign-up period lapsed. The unseeded pair toppled Kim Clijsters and Bob Bryan in Clijsters' final career match, then went on to take down Kveta Peschke and Marcin Matkowski 6-7 (8), 6-1, 12-10 in Thursday's final.
• My vote for match of the tournament: David Ferrer vs. Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters. On its face, it's one of those matches that separates the casual fans from the real fans. The casuals see a pair of no-names (at least relative to the heavy hitters of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray) grinding for five hours. The real fans appreciate the battle, the shifts in momentum, the supreme fitness and sacrifice. Here's Tipsarevic afterward: "You know, it's not maybe a quarterfinal which they wanted to see without Rafa being there or whatever, but I think David and me -- and not trying to over-exaggerate anything -- played, until now at least, the best match of the tournament."
• Take a bow, Kim Clijsters who, of course, called it a career last week. My favorite story: Clijsters' friend Kirsten Flipkens, the Belgian journeywoman, stuck around in New York before heading to her next tournament. Last Wednesday, she needed a hitting partner. So Clijsters returned to the National Tennis Center -- stopping to play foosball in the lounge -- so her friend, ranked No. 133, had a sparring partner.
• What a strange showing by the big men. John Isner goes up 2-1 sets against Phil Kohlschreiber in Round 3. Then he completely folds and loses in five. Marin Cilic goes up a set and two breaks on Murray before cracking like cheap paint and losing in four sets. Ivo Karlovic? He lost in the first round to Jimmy Wang of Taiwan. Berdych, meanwhile, closes out Federer, then lets the wind get the better of him in the semis and falls to Murray.
• Before his fourth-round match against Milos Raonic, Murray preceded his opponent on the practices courts. When he was through, Murray and his camp lingered and watched Raonic. When tennis writer Tom Tebbutt asked Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl about this, the conversation went like this:
Lendl: "I was looking more at Andy's performance."
Tebbutt: You must have noticed something?
Lendl: "[Smiling] He's got a big serve. ... I hate talking about other players. I really do, because nothing good can come out of it."
As one of you wrote: "Certain words come to mind: close, vest, old, wine, new, bottle."
• Esther Vergeer fans, there was no wheelchair event this year on account of the Paralympics. Yes, she won gold. As did the U.S. Quad doubles team of David Wagner and Nick Taylor. They captured their third consecutive Quad gold, beating the British doubles team of Peter Norfolk and Andy Lapthorne 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. All the results are here.
• Hard to believe that a year ago, Caroline Wozniacki was the top seed at the U.S. Open. We knew the defensive, movement-based tennis coupled with the jam-packed scheduling imposed a physical risk. But the real question: Where is she mentally? She seems to be thoroughly content off the court. Financially, she's set. I can't imagine her as Jelena Jankovic, a former No. 1 lucky to get to the middle weekend of a major. Where does she go from here and where does she find motivation?
• Parity in the women's game is pervasive at the top, but in the middle, too. After two rounds, 12 of the 17 seeds in the 15-32 range had been eliminated.
• The good news for James Blake: He won a pair of matches -- one of them a takedown of seeded Marcel Granollers -- with vintage performances. Hard court? Check. Wheels? Check. Forehand? Check. Rock-'em-sock-'em style? Check. The bad news: He was then thoroughly outclassed by Raonic. Blake soldiers on, though, heading the Metz event (not at CitiField) next week.
• Who was that lanky Columbia University student -- replete with the baby blue "C" ballcap -- received warmly by so many people in the players' lounge? Why, it was Mario Ancic, who enrolled this fall.
• We had a fun discussion on Twitter. "You have $100 to invest in Harrison Inc. and Sock LLC. How are you allocating?" Surprised that overall, I'd say you guys were $70 in for Jack Sock. Can't say I disagree. Still in need of seasoning, tutorials on point construction, match play and whatnot. But the forehand-serve combo will take him far.
• Speaking of Ryan Harrison, this was not exactly a year of surging progress. (As some of you noted, it can't be a good thing when your most notable moment came when you abused your equipment at the Olympics.) Still, is there a player who got it worse from the draws deities? Del Potro (R2) here. Djokovic (R2) at Wimbledon. Gilles Simon (R1) at the French. Murray (R1) in Australia. And you see this so many times. Tennis is a game of opportunities that come and then evaporate, of windows that open and then shut so quickly. Harrison plays Del Potro in the second round. DelPo wins the first two sets. Harrison, though, wins the third. The crowd awakens. DelPo looks sluggish. Harrison then has break points to open the fourth! Naturally one thinks, "Whoa, do we have match here!" Buzz builds. Potential upset. Signature win. Breakthrough ... wait, what's that? Never mind. Harrison fails to convert the break points. He then gets broken in his next service game. DelPo cruises home and wins in four.
• We've written before about the clever-slash-devious musical selection of the Arthur Ashe deejay. Love this guy. But he came awfully close to crossing the foul line, as it were, when, during the Sharapova-Bartoli match, he played Kurtis Blow's Basketball. (Sharapova, you'll recall, had just announced her broken engagement with a former NBA player, Sasha Vujacic.)
• Petrova has always struck me as one of those players who will never win a Slam, but enriches the cast. Good athlete. Good player who did a short stint in the top five. Good doubles players. Good, honest quote. Good back story. Perhaps a little eccentric. But note this: After reaching the middle weekend, she has now been to the fourth round of a major in each of the last 10 years.
• I mean this in the most flattering and least explicit sense, but is anyone else amused by how Bob Bryan has become the gigolo of mixed doubles, sought by aging females seeking one last joy ride? A few years after joining with Martina Navratilova to win the title, Bob teamed up with Clijsters in 2012. Alas, they lost in the middle weekend, albeit in one of the more entertaining matches of the tournament.
• Nice to see Chris Evert protégée -- literally; as in, Chris Evert mentored her from a young age -- Anna Tatishvili, reaching the middle weekend.
• Pet peeve: The cliché "the missing entry on his résumé" or "she can add that to her résumé." Can we eliminate this? I'm thinking: Serena Williams or Roger Federer? Probably not walking around with a leather binder, inside of which there's a CV on thick, cream-colored paper detailing "Achievements," "Objectives," "References" and the like.
• Credit Nick Bollettieri with the line of the tournament: Nick Bollettieri on @bbc5lsx: 'I had 8 wives trying to find one like Kim Clijsters!'
• Speaking of Bollettieri, his new book, It Ain't Easy, is coming out this fall.
• From the Little Things Mean a Lot category: Ana Ivanovic beats Sofia Arvidsson on Arthur Ashe in the second round and hits a signed ball into the stands. A fan tries to make the catch and clumsily drops the ball. Someone else absconds with it. So Ivanovic whips off a wristband, hands it to a court attendant and makes sure the poor guy goes home with a souvenir.
• Juan Ignacio Chela, announcing that he wouldn't play the U.S. Open on account of an injury, wrote: "I am a flamingo with injured wing." (On the other hand, he emerged as a viable lyricist for Kelly Clarkson.)
• One of the many weird twists of the U.S. Open: Players assigned to Armstrong and the Grandstand reach the court by walking out of the back door of Ashe and through the TV compound and loading dock. Saw Ferrer -- the fourth seed! -- walk to his match and nearly get hit by a forklift.
• Punk Alert, Bernard Tomic. Check out this exchange. Totally legitimate questions by Will Swanton (whom I do not know). I would contend that his responses were not only professional but also solicitous. What a bush-league response from Tomic.
• Congrats to Bartoli for reaching the quarters. But Ken Young of Old Bethpage wrote: "My son and I were in the Grandstand on Monday when we saw something we had never seen before. As the U.S.' Jamie Hampton and No. 11 seed Marion Bartoli warmed up to begin a second-set tiebreaker following the long rain delay, Bartoli kept hitting winners and passing shots. The (pro-American) crowd yelled out, "It's just a warm-up! Stop passing her!"
• One of you cracked me up with this: "The ticker informed us "Roddick d. R. Williams." That hardly seems fair. Richard's gotta be pushing 70." (This referred, obviously, to the young American, Rhyne Williams.)
• We should begrudge players very little in terms of their finances. This is a rough sport with no guaranteed contracts. "Eat what you kill" and all. But, man, were there a lot of players who should never have been on the court, motivated, we can safely assume, by little other than the $23,000 first-round losers check. The first match of the entire tournament featured Sam Stosur beating my favorite sleeper, Petra Martic, who was about as mobile as a mailbox.
• Speaking of Stosur, the Woodward and Bernstein Award goes to the intrepid scribe who finally cracked the lid on this vexing issue:
Question: "Not too many WTA players are named Sam. Can you take a moment and say like what the upside of having a name like that is, is there any downside, or give us a rainy-day story about your name."
Stosur: "No, there is no downside. I'm happy -- I guess over the course of my life, my career, Samantha got shortened to Sam. The one person that always called me Samantha was my grandfather. It's good. You certainly don't get confused in the locker room. You hear your name and you know it's about you."
Pretty slick response, there, Stosur. But not so fast! We haven't gotten to the bottom of this just quite yet. Some inconsistencies and vague details we need you to solidify ...
Question: "So [was] your grandfather a traditionalist and not happy for it to be shortened?"
Stosur: "Yeah, I guess he was. My mom and dad only called me Samantha when I was little and did something naughty, so I didn't hear it too often, I don't think. I guess it's one of those names that is not as common."
• The U.S. Open program is always worth picking up. In this year's edition, the piece by Lauren McHale on life as the sister of a pro player (Christina McHale) was the sleeper cut on the album.
• From the Support the Troops category: A clap of the racket to Army Specialist Ryan McIntosh, who lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan in December 2010. Less than two years later, he was working the Ferrer-Djokovic men's semifinal as a ballperson on Sunday.
• Could this be right? There was not one Swede in the entire men's singles draw?
• Biggest upset of the tournament: The Williams sisters losing in the doubles draw to Petrova and Maria Kirilenko. (They win almost 60 percent of the events they enter together.) Next biggest might have been
Ryan and Christian Harrison Sock and Steve Johnson beating Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi.
• Every tournament seems to serve a new "Best name" winner. But what will it take to unseat the American junior Tornado Alicia Black, whose matches might one day be carried by the Tennis Channel and the Weather Channel?
• Spare a thought for Lukas Rosol. You beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in Major X. You fail to qualify for the main draw of Major X+1?
• Great tournament and all, but it didn't feel 100 percent complete without Nadal. I spoke with his camp, which claims he's now targeting the 2016 Rio Olympics as a stop date. Not sure if this should make us happy or sad.
• From absences to presences: How nice to have Bud Collins back with us after a year-long absence. Here's one legendary figure who will never require an injury-protected ranking.