No name, no matter how large, is spared the pressure of a Grand Slam tournament. It’s not about how well you play, necessarily. It is also about how well you can handle the adversity surrounding the action. The peripherals — the crowds, the heat, the speed of the courts, the form of your opponent — all come into play when seeing whether or not a big name can survive the draw. Some handle it better than others, and the second day of the 2010 U.S. Open served up several prime examples at every level.
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We have one day left to go in the first round of singles draws, and the floodgates open tomorrow on doubles play when both the women and the mixed partners get their start on the journey toward Grand Slam success. So before even more inevitable craziness ensues, let’s take a look at everything that befell the players who took to the court on the first Tuesday of the tournament…
It was a gruesome day for men’s contenders, as one after another some of the top seeds in the draw were taken to five sets by their lesser foes. It hit #16 Marcos Baghdatis first, as the Cypriot star took to Louis Armstrong Stadium against Arnaud Clement. Baghdatis coughed up the first set 6-3 before what looked to be his turnaround in the second and third. Up two sets to one, Baghdatis would be broken just twice more — but that would prove enough to send the Frenchman through in the upset, 6-3 2-6 1-6 6-4 7-5. It’s now been four years since Baghdatis last reached even the second round of this tournament, and he’s never been beyond even that in the U.S. Open in six tries during his career. With a 2-6 record overall in Queens, the Cypriot will probably be secretly happy to depart New York for the friendlier confines of Limassol.
Novak Djokovic nearly suffered the same fate when he went down two sets to one against fellow Serbian Viktor Troicki at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The #3 player in the world went down 6-3 3-6 2-6 after three sets, and after two hours of playing in the sticky New York heat it was just the type of match where many might’ve expected the injury-prone Djokovic to throw in the towel. But the former Australian Open winner dug deep, girding his loins and playing nearly two more hours of tennis in defeating Troicki. The crowd in the showcase arena would see Djokovic find his second gear and some extra reserves, the two Serbs playing almost four hours of tennis in the thriller that ultimately saw the chalk hold.
Nadal, playing in prime time at Arthur Ashe Stadium against Teymuraz Gabashvili under the lights, was one of the few contenders who didn't struggle on Tuesday...
A couple of the hottest players coming into the tournament nearly saw their dreams come crashing down when #19 Mardy Fish and #31 David Nalbandian also caught the five-set bug. Fish, the great American darkhorse hope behind the perma-contender Andy Roddick, came to Queens on fire after tearing up the warm-up tournaments in Cincinnati and Toronto. He’s got the confidence to square off against anyone; unfortunately he also has the tendency to play down to his competition when facing weaker opponents, and we saw that today against Jan Halek on the Grandstand Court. Fish dished up a bagel in the first set before ceding ground in the second and third. (Familiar story yet?) But Fish reawakened, dominating to the end from there with a 6-0 3-6 4-6 6-0 6-1 scoreline that was as lopsided as it was effective. Nalbandian, relegated to Court 11, had his own hell of a time with South African Rik De Voest. The two split a tiebreak, they split the second and third set, and the Argentine won by the slimmest of margins. Many people’s favorites in 2010, both Fish and Nalbandian saw some of that magic wear off today.
And then not every seed that fell had such a close encounter. #24 Ernests Gulbis defied many people’s expectations and was swept right off the court by a streaking Jeremy Chardy in straight sets, 6-2 7-6(1) 6-4, on not-so-lucky Court 13. Two matches later on the same court, #28 Radek Stepanek mustered a set out of Julien Benneteau but had no more answers in his 6-4 6-2 4-6 6-4 loss. Right before Nalbandian’s scare, another Argentinian seed — #30 Juan Monaco — was issued his marching orders by Canuck Peter Polansky 6-2 7-6(5) 6-3 on Court 11.
Fernando Verdasco, #8 in Flushing Meadows, needed five sets of his own to get past Fabio Fognini. Things were a lot easier for a guy like Rafael Nadal… but then, when you’re the top seed in the tournament and the #1-ranked player in the world, that’s to be expected against the Teymuraz Gabashvilis of the men’s world…
The biggest upset yet at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center came right off the bat in men’s doubles play, as the defending champions Lukas Dlouhy and Leander Paes blew their #3 seed in an opening-round loss to the Czech/Slovak pairing of Martin Damm and Filip Polasek. The champs would take the first set in a tense tiebreak, prevailing 9-7 in the extra frame for the 7-6 set victory. But it seemed as the match went on as though Damm and Polasek were starting to figure out their more decorated opposition. Sweeping the next two sets 6-3 6-4, the underdogs slid out from under their deficit to emerge victorious… and things just got a whole lot easier for the other favorites, the Bryan brothers and Nestor/Zimonjic and the rest.
Rajeev Ram and Bobby Reynolds are one of the main beneficiaries. I had this team meeting up against the #3 seed in the quarterfinals, and their sudden absence from the draw opens that entire quarter of the bracket for everyone to begin dreaming. Ram and Reynolds got their doubles campaign started right, eliminating Stephen Huss and Andre Sa 6-3 6-3 with little trouble. The Russian tandem of Sergei Stakhovsky and Mikhail Youzhny, slated to face Dlouhy/Paes in the second round, also benefit, as do #14 Simon Aspelin and Paul Hanley, not the highest seed in that octet of bracket branches.
Brazilians Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares also booked passage for the second round at the expense of another seed. Frantisek Cermak and Michal Mertinak, the #6 pair in men’s doubles, were narrowly edged by the young Brazilians 7-6(4) 7-5 to crash out of the tournament. #5 Lukasz Kubot and Oliver Marach avoided a similar fate as their top-six brethren, going through on the strength of their 7-6(4) 6-3 victory over Ross Hutchins and Scott Lipsky. There are still a lot of strong names in this field, but the absence of the defending champs so soon is going to make things particularly interesting moving forward…
And then there were the women. First-round play finished up for the ladies on Tuesday, and I’m already looking quite ugly on my predictions. Sure, my favorites for the title matchup are still well alive, but that doesn’t mean that a bracket with this much red ink after one round doesn’t deflate the ego just a bit:
#8 Li Na bombed out against Kateryna Bondarenko. #17 Nadia Petrova couldn’t survive the onslaught of Andrea Petkovic. #28 Lucie Safarova was ousted by Tamira Paszek. And #30 Yarslava Shvedova, a player who I thought had the potential to go all the way to the quarterfinals this year, couldn’t even make it through Lourdes Dominguez Lino. All four were three-set casualties, like the men pushed to their brink. Some survive, some can’t, but while it can make trying to predict the sport vexing at times it sure makes it one of the most fascinating and engaging spectator sports in existence!