Murray heats up Player of the Year race, more U.S. Open thoughts
Andy Murray should get Player of the Year, but the award is far from clear
Props to Victoria Azarenka for maturity, and to Serena's serve: the best ever
Milos Raonic has developed, time to scrap grunting, more thoughts on U.S. Open
Surely there's a formula to accurately determine Player of the Year in men's tennis. Perhaps there should be no discussion until the year-end championships in London.
Then again, why bother with such trifles? Let's just hand Andy Murray the award and be done with it.
There was a marvelous symmetry to this year's Grand Slam season. For the first time since 2003, it was a four-man affair: Novak Djokovic at the Australian, Rafael Nadal at the French, Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Murray at the U.S. Open. To put it another way, eight years had passed with at least one of the Big Three winning multiple majors.
Now that the standings are even, this award is best gauged on the emotional scale. As Murray basks in the glory of sustained applause, I'd imagine those other three men are altogether sympathetic.
The Player of the Year cannot be Nadal, not the way his knee injury so badly curtailed his summer. It can't be Federer, although his career resurgence was marvelous to behold. Djokovic has the credentials, but he had a letdown year in the wake of his 2011 dominance.
Murray's season -- Wimbledon final, Olympic title, first British man to win a major since 1936-- is the one we'll remember. It wasn't just a soul-satisfying breakthrough for Murray, or tennis-starved Scotland, or the whole of Great Britain. It was amajor development in tennis, lending great promise to 2013 and sweeping up the public's attention along the way.
Wrapping up the Open on other fronts:
Maturity: Victoria Azarenka charmed everyone, even her most ardent critics, on her way to a stirring final against Serena Williams. She seemed to embrace the importance of an engaging press conference. She wasn't beating herself up at every turn. Most importantly, she established herself as the tour's only player capable of slugging it out with Serena. There were times in that match when the sheer power exchanges had the look and feel of a high-level men's match.
The trick now, for Vika, is to keep her new life in order. She seems skeptical and dismissive by nature, hardly surprising for a woman who led a solitary existence in the transition from her native Ukraine to U.S.-based training. The No. 1 ranking is significant, if occasionally misleading (somehow, Serena remains No. 4). The greater accomplishment will be inheriting Williams' throne -- perhaps a year or two down the road -- and wearing that status with dignity. She truly grasped the big picture on Sunday, describing the experience as "priceless" and "a lot of fun," and concluding, "I feel like I'm in a place that I belong." Those are huge steps in the right direction.
Caution: Serena's dramatic comeback-- down 3-5, 30-all in the third -- stirred memories of another time, when patience and discipline eased players out of a crisis. So often these days, particularly on the women's side, players blithely crush their groundstrokes with full force and abandon, even when facing match point. Williams took the old Chris Evert approach, saying in essence, "I'm not going to miss another shot for the rest of this match." She hardly went soft, but she played the percentages, figuring that if anyone was going to misfire, it would be Azarenka. That's exactly what happened, particularly when Vika committed three unforced errors while serving at 5-4.
For the record: This was the first Open women's final to go three sets since Steffi Graf beat Monica Seles, 6-3 in the third, in 1995. For sheer drama, it was the best since '94: Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario over Graf, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4.
Historic: Serena's serve has been called the best in the history of women's tennis, and rightly so. The opinion goes consistently unchallenged, largely because no worthy comparisons come to mind -- save perhaps Martina Navratilova or Serena's sister, Venus, in their prime years. Martina was a classic example of a serve-and-volley player getting 100 percent of her body behind the serve, something that can only be accomplished when moving forward. Today's players are veritable statues, many of them looking downright awkward on the serve and tossing the ball ridiculously high. Credit Serena for her exquisite balance, power and timing -- something that may never be matched.
Davis Cup: U.S. captain Jim Courier made the sensible call for this weekend's Davis Cup tie in Spain, rewarding Sam Querrey for seniority and some excellent summer results. Still, I'd love to have seen Ryan Harrison on the U.S. team. He's had a tough year, consistently drawing top players and fighting his tendency to self-destruct. What better setting than Davis Cup, on the road, to gauge his progress.
Anticlimax: If you're a casual follower of the sport, doesn't it seem odd that so much tennis remains on the calendar? The U.S. Open should be an annual landmark of closure, the final determination of rankings and reputations for the year, leading up to a legitimate off-season. It's all so spectacularly chaotic and momentous, so perfectly New York, that the remainder of the year pales in comparison.
Alas, dreamers, the tennis schedule is more rigid than The Changing of the Guard. But Courier and Justin Gimelstob had an interesting debate during a first-week rain delay, having to do with the Open's format. Courier, thinking strictly of building the tennis fan base, suggested spreading all the majors over 16 days, starting on a Saturday for favorable weekend viewing.
"I understand how it impacts tournaments the week before, but I'm sorry," said Courier, "these are our playoffs, when the non-tennis fan is finally paying attention. I love Winston-Salem, Eastbourne, New Haven, but they don't matter to the non-tennis fan, and those are revenue opportunities for players who can't win here (the Open). You won't see Roger Goodell looking to shrink the playoffs in the NFL."
Gimelstob clearly appreciated the sentiment, saying "it would be great if we could start from scratch" with the entire tennis calendar. "But an extended schedule is not a viable alternative," he said. "It's a major puzzle. Too many moving parts."
Must see: To get a glimpse into Murray's good nature -- and we're seconding Jon Wertheim's recommendation here -- check out this YouTube clip of Murray on the British comedy show, "Mock the Week." He comes into play about two minutes into the show.
The Mentor: Here's a toast to Ivan Lendl, who worked so diligently with Murray behind the scenes while steadfastly avoiding media exposure. It was odd to see him dressed so loudly (bright red sweater) on Monday, but Lendl was typically stoic throughout.
Mary Carillo on CBS: "I haven't seen him smile yet, this tournament."
John McEnroe: "Haven't seen him smile this year."
That's New York: No player was more fully immersed in the Open experience -- the thrill, the majesty, the absurdity -- than Tomas Berdych. I've known a number of great athletes who perform their best at night, and with his first assignment into a nocturnal Open time slot, Berdych masterfully knocked Federer out of the tournament. Up against Murray in the semis, Berdych found himself in a veritable hurricane. While chairs flew across the court and every shot became an exercise in creativity, Berdych played in a snit and left the grounds mumbling about unfairness.
Congenial: Milos Raonic has matured considerably, after a youth-tennis career marked by temper tantrums, but sometimes he seems a bit too gentlemanly. In past losses to Federer, he welcomed his opponent with smiles and an arm on the shoulder at the net. So it was against Murray, in the Open's fourth round, and some wondered if the fast-rising Canadian player is overly accepting of defeat.
Such a reaction is certainly more appealing than a refusal to shake hands, or an embittered rush to the locker room, but it's interesting. Does Raonic know, deep down, that he'll be a Top 5 player in time? Or does he figure he's reached his limit, and he's sufficiently delighted with the prospect?
One thing for certain: Raonic is properly appreciative of an opponent's greatness. After the Murray match, he admitted, "When I did get ahead in critical moments, he just did something I really have no answer for -- something I haven't really experienced."
Prescient: Cliff Drysdale made a great call on ESPN during the depths of Murray's quarterfinal despair against Marin Cilic. With Murray down a set and 5-2, Drysdale very confidently predicted, "This is going to be a match," all but guaranteeing a Murray victory. That's right about the time Cilic collapsed in a swirl of dreadful body language and alarmingly tepid groundstrokes.
Hammered: As the issue of a roofed stadium raged on, the USTA took a hit from New York's most influential sports columnist, Mike Lupica of the Daily News. Lupica demanded that the grotesquely large Arthur Ashe Stadium "be torn down so the USTA can build something other than the worst and ugliest tennis facility at any Grand Slam venue. The geniuses at the USTA say they can't build a new stadium because they're still paying off this one, even though this tournament is a big fat cash cow. That happens to be less than truthful. The real reason they won't tear down Ashe and build a smaller and better place for tennis -- and one over which they can build a roof -- is because they're too stubborn and too arrogant to admit they're wrong."
Personal note: There's no clear or obvious solution to this problem, but it's been reported that the USTA would consider dismantling Ashe's upper level, then reconstruct it to allow for a more feasible installation of a roof. What? Just eliminate that top section, period. It's a terrible vantage point, and it gets filled to capacity maybe four or five times (if that) over the tournament's two weeks. Cut it down, create a stadium of reasonable size, then install the roof. Choose good sense over greed, just one time.
The Voice of Reason: I was among the many thousands of fans who watched the Maria Sharapova-Victoria Azarenka semifinal with muted sound. That put me well ahead of several tennis-loving friends, who told me they couldn't stand the racket and simply turned off the TV altogether. There was a point in the second set, however, when the CBS telecast showed clips of the two players practicing. And I wondered: Could this be a Mary Carillo rant on the two players' inexcusable shrieking?
Bingo. And thank goodness she's around. There couldn't be a more favorable confluence of factors -- major network, major final, weekend afternoon -- for some serious truth-telling on the subject.
Warming up before the match, Azarenka was shown to make a fair amount of noise, but "acceptable," said Carillo. "Now look at Maria. She doesn't make any noise when she practices. She doesn't make noise when she plays exos (exhibitions). It sounds like I'm coming down on them -- I'm angry at the people who decided that noise is OK. Don't you worry about the fans? Don't you have to listen to them?"
This turned out to be the tail end of Carillo's take, so I rewound it back to the beginning. All it took was a clever graphic -- including "Grunts" on the Match Summary chart -- to get her started.
"They're not even grunts," she said. "A lot of this stuff is screeching and barking and ... I don't know what you call the sound that Azarenka makes."
Carillo noted that the WTA undertook an exhaustive study, "hearing from world-class coaches, grunticians and gruntologists, and they've decided the current crop of grunters can play the rest of their career sounding like this, but they're gonna stop future, would-be grunters. They're saying, after much study, that what these two do is an ingrained motor skill and it would be hard to ask them to un-ingraine."
That's such a laughable "finding," it's incredible the WTA would attach its name to such nonsense. As Carillo pointed out, athletes constantly adjust or abandon certain motor skills to improve their performance.
"I'm disappointed, to say the least," she went on, "that the Women's Tennis Association couldn't come up with something more than stopping juniors, who no one has paid hundreds of dollars to watch. So this is the message: "See these two best players in the world? Don't do what they do. Just don't do it."
At this point, McEnroe noted that young girls shriek like crazy at his academy, because they're trying to imitate the stars.
"Well, you have to stop that, John," said Carillo. "Because no one else will."