The heart of the tournament sets up a day made for the remote control, but out on the grounds of the Lindner Family Tennis Center, you can only hope that your feet won’t fail you because who knows what you might miss as you’re dashing between courts to catch all that you can of the human highlights. And today would definitely offer its share of highs. —-
After a slow start though, especially for Li Na on the Grandstand Court against Samantha Stosur, who lost to Serena Williams last weekend in Toronto. Stosur comes in strong, looking to make an even stronger showing here. And Li, for the second match in a row, has a sluggish, error-prone match. An early break by Stosur sets the pace. She capitalizes on Li’s mistakes like a professional should and displays a machine-like sense of purpose. Li has flashes of technical brilliance, but too much of the match remains covered by dark clouds of erratic play. The match goes the distance, but Stosur moves on 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
Over on Center Court, Rafael Nadal, with the fingertips on his right hand taped to protect burns, finds himself locked into a Spanish Civil War against countryman Fernando Verdasco, in what proves to be the epic match of the afternoon session. Nadal claims the first set tiebreak. Watching his game is like sitting ringside at a boxing match with a fighter, a real brawler who also understands the sweet science of boxing. Nadal hits for power again and again, and then slips in a beauty of a slice or a drop shot that blindsides opponents and fans.
(View Brian Taylor's photos here.)
Feeling the Center Court match was in hand, there’s a mad sprint over to the Grandstand again, now to catch Mardy Fish, the top ranked American who looks, more than possibly anyone else in the field other than Novak Djokovic, like he believes he can and will win every point. Richard Gasquet steps up more than the Russian Davydenko did in the previous round, but Fish simply will not be denied. He is the player to watch at the U.S. Open, maybe the toughest to beat because he’s not taking anything, not a single point, for granted. He dispatches Gasquet 7-5, 7-5.
Around the time that Fish finishing things up, Nadal, still struggling to complete the opening match on Center Court, scratches and claws against Verdasco in a third set tiebreak, following Verdasco’s second set tiebreak win to even things up. Nadal has never lost to his fellow Spaniard in 11 meetings, but Verdasco has his eyes on rewriting their history. Back and forth they go in the final tiebreak, but alas, it is Verdasco who blinks on a couple of points and Nadal limps his way into the next round (although before that, he has a doubles match to play with partner Marc Lopez against Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes — and Nadal/Lopez go down in straight sets 6-4, 6-2.
The evening session has luster and a bit of epic drama of its own.
Roger Federer, a fan favorite, runs headlong into another sentimental favorite in American James Blake, a rematch of their final here a few years ago — although Blake had to be hoping for different results (Fed breezed through that match to claim the title). It was obvious after Federer broke Blake during the first service game of the match that there wasn’t much going on to keep hope alive. The only mistake made here was leaving the first set thinking that there would be a chance to come back to catch a little more action in the second, because after a 6-4 first, Federer flipped the switch and ended this tawdry affair 6-1.
Jelena Jankovic versus Francesca Schiavone issued its siren song from the Grandstand. Schiavone has a strong reputation as a clay-court specialist (having reached the finals at the French Open the last two years and earning the title in 2010), but it was worth catching her to see if her game translates to the hard courts. Small in stature, Schiavone stalks the court with a huge heart and tons of swagger. She, like Fish, has the look of a player who believes they own each and every moment when the ball is in play. Jankovic breaks her early in the first set, but the feisty Italian dares her to try to sweep her off the court. The Serbian grabs the first 6-3 and its time to race over for another intriguing match-up. More to come here.
On Court Three, Gael Monfils stares down Philipp Kohlschreiber, who knocked the big-swinging Roddick out during the first round. The first set is nearly over with Monfils up 5-2. The Frenchman is such a fascinating player to watch. He reacts to each and every point, sometimes each swing during a point. Fans love him and he has the skills of a top 10 player, but he can be frustratingly inconsistent.
Scouting a match like this one, though, captures him striking the ball cleanly and offers proof that his raw talent can carry him far. He seemingly plays each point, and again each individual stroke like it is all new to him and he’s enjoying the newness of the experience. He’s amazed that he can do these things — throwing his long, lean body into his serve, snapping his strong yet sensitive hands into a volley — but not completely surprised. He knows he’s got the talent, now it's time for him to hone it into a plan he’s ready and willing to execute. Kohlschreiber is no patsy, he knows how to handle big service heat, but not when it is followed up by sharp net play, and so he falls to Monfils 6-2, 6-2.
Back on the Grandstand, Jankovic and Schiavone continue to knock each other all over the court. Schiavone battles back and seizes the second set 7-5, setting up a third set that draws every available fan into the tight confines of the night here. Surveying the crowd, under the lights, and the atmosphere feels like one of those late matches at the U.S. Open with everything on the line. Agassi vs Blake or Sampras vs Agassi. A classic.
And the women don’t disappoint. Jankovic has to call the trainer to kick things off, but once play resumes, it's Schiavone who needs assistance. She sprays shots all over and gets broken twice (down 4-1) before she sets her mind to the task at hand and wills herself back into the mix. She and Jankovic dig deep, deeper than either likely anticipated when this one started at 7 p.m., seemingly an age ago. Jankovic gets broke once but hangs in for a 6-4 win and a ticket to the quarters.
The real winner though might have been Schiavone, who impressed the crowd and sets herself up as the player no one will want to see in their part of the bracket at the U.S. Open. She is the kind of woman LL Cool J was talking about, a real-life “Around the Way Girl,” making toughness and a feisty spirit sexy, exactly what you want in your corner.