As we head into the first weekend of the US Open, here are the daily stories of the first five days of the last Grand Slam of the year. I hope everyone has a great Labor Day weekend, as I will be working all weekend and hopefully drafting yet another fantasy football champion on Sunday night.
Monday - Another retirement announcement at the US Open
Last year, Andy Roddick abruptly announced his retirement at the US Open prior to his first round match. Roddick's retirement was shocking since he had just recently fallen out of the top 20, and had given no indication that he would be ending his storied career so quickly. This year, another American with a solid career chose to retire prior to stepping on the court in New York. While James Blake didn't have the career accomplishments that Roddick had, he was still a top 5 player and amassed 10 career titles during his 14 years on tour. He also overcame the loss of his father and a freak injury to his neck that nearly ended his career and could have left him paralyzed. Personally, Blake was one of my favorite players of all time. He always acted like a professional on the court and a gentleman off the court, and his effort and work ethic were always at the top of the game. He loved playing at the US Open, and always knew how to work the court and get them fired up during his matches. The night session at the Open was made for a player like Blake; unfortunately he didn't last long enough in this year's tournament to get one more match under the lights.
Tuesday - The arrival of a new American star
On Tuesday afternoon, only the most hardcore of tennis fans had ever heard of Victoria Duval (I'm a pretty big fan and all I knew about her was that she was from the United States). By Tuesday night, everyone knew who the 17-year-old was. She knocked off 2011 champion Samantha Stosur in the first round, and became the star of the 2013 US Open. Duval was ranked just inside the top 300 in the world leading up to the Open, and had to get an invitation just to get into the qualifying tournament which was held the week prior to the event. Her three wins in qualifying got her into the main draw and a meeting with Stosur, who is the exact opposite of Duval. Stosur looks like she is chiseled out of stone, an imposing figure on the women's tour, with a muscular build and more spin on her shots than any woman in the game. Duval looks and sounds like she could have just graduated from the 10 and under courts, but she definitely has the game of an adult. Her celebration after the match, which had her jumping up and down and looking like she was going to kiss the court, will be the highlight of this year's US Open.
Wednesday - A career comes to an unpredictable end
Ivo Karlovic's career has lasted almost as long as James Blake's, whom he played in the first round. When down two sets to none in a best-of-five set match, Karlovic had one career victory heading into Wednesday's match. It was against James Blake. After their first round meeting, Karlovic now has two career wins when down two sets to none. This one ended the career of Blake. Maybe next time he's down two sets to none Karlovic should envision his opponent looking like James Blake.
Thursday - Another year, another classic under the lights at Flushing
It seems like there is at least one match every year at the US Open that personifies how great of a tennis venue Flushing Meadows is. The weather delays on Wednesday pushed more matches onto the outer courts on Thursday, which lead to the best match (and atmosphere) of the tournament so far. John Isner looked to be in control of his match against Frenchman Gael Monfils on Thursday night, winning the first two sets in routine fashion. Monfils reminded everyone why he was ranked in the top 10 a couple years ago by playing inspired tennis in the third set. As his play improved, Monfils started to interact with the crowd on Louis Armstrong Stadium, becoming the showman that has endeared him to tennis fans in the past. By the fourth set, more fans were rooting for a French player than an American player. To Isner's credit, he didn't let the crowd or Monfils' antics affect him, instead picking up his level of play to match Monfils in the fourth set. The result was a tremendously exciting and competitive fourth set, ending in Isner taking a tiebreaker seven points to four. Monfils may have had the fans on his side during the match, but Isner will undoubtedly gain a ton of them back with his play and his composure in a difficult situation.
Friday - The 2001 champ upsets the 2009 champ
Lleyton Hewitt has been asked for a couple of years when he will be retiring. After Friday night that question should not be asked for a while. Hewitt looked better than he has in years, defeating Juan Martin Del Potro in five sets and just over four hours under the lights. Hewitt, who has struggled with hip and foot injuries in recent years (he even has a couple of his toes fused together!), looked like the fresher of the two players, especially after taking the fourth set in a tiebreaker. Del Potro was avoiding using his two-handed backhand throughout the match, which could signal that his previously injured wrist was flaring up again. While it was disappointing to see a contender like Del Potro bow out of the tournament so early, it was great to see that Hewitt still has a flash of greatness left in him. Hewitt not only showed the talent and desire that got him to #1 in the world, but also the fistpumps, the yells of "come on!", and his famous "lawnmower" gesture that made him a crowd favorite during his prime.
This Weekend - American hope for the second week of the Open
Three American men are left in the third round of the US Open, with the U.S. contingent in the men's draw going 11-12 so far. John Isner, the #13 seed, plays #22 Philipp Kohlschreiber next with a 4th round duel with #2 seed and prohibited favorite Rafael Nadal looming. Jack Sock, ranked 86th in the world, plays #18 Janko Tipsarevic next, while Tim Smyczek, ranked just outside the top 100, faces former top 20 player Marcel Granollers in the third round.
Five American women made the third round, with the ladies holding a 15-14 record in the first two rounds of the tourney. #1 Serena Williams has had no problems so far in the singles draw - but was forced to a third set in her first round doubles match with her partner Venus. She will face #15 Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. Stephens has looked stronger in every round at the Open, as she quickly dispatched fellow American #23 Jamie Hampton in round 3. Christina McHale, who was ranked in the top 25 at this time last year but who's ranking is now outside the top 100 due to an injury-filled 2013, faces #13 Ana Ivanovic for a trip to the round of 16. Alison Riske, who also made the third round at Wimbledon this year, plays #7 Petra Kvitova to advance to the second week of the tournament.
Honorable Mention - The next big thing Eugenie Bouchard
The 19-year-old Canadian ranked 59th in the world has all the talent in the world, and many experts are predicting Grand Slam titles in her future. She took a set off of Serena Williams in Cincinnati this summer, and played a terrific second round match with #8 Angelique Kerber in New York. The combination of her wicked groundstrokes and her looks will ultimately draw comparisons to Maria Sharapova. Bouchard has the chance to be the face of tennis for years to come. As much as people don't want to admit it, talent will only get female athletes so far. To crossover and become a star one has to have the game and the looks, which Bouchard has. How she performs in the next couple of years will show whether or not she can live up to the hype of becoming tennis' next big thing. Her performance against Kerber was a strong step in the right direction.
Honorable Mention Part II - Victoria Duval
Yes I know I talked about her already but after listening to her during Serena's late night match on Friday night/Saturday morning I had to mention her again. Although she sounds like a 10-year-old girl she speaks like a veteran when she talks about the game of tennis. She was sitting courtside taking mental notes of both players, remarking that after watching both Serena and her opponent Yaroslava Shvedova (who has a serve over 115 mph) she definitely needs to work on her serve. She is very articulate and didn't seem fazed or overwhelmed with her new-found celebrity or the fact that a legend in the game like Pam Shriver was interviewing her at close to 1am on ESPN2. You can tell she's still a teenager when she said that she was most excited that rapper Nelly tweeted about her victory (she said she doesn't have Twitter - my advice to her is don't get it it's terribly addicting... I used to hate it and I'm on it constantly), or that she wanted to make sure she took a trip to Hoboken, NJ before she left the area so she could visit Buddy Valastro aka the Cake Boss. Duval's victory on Tuesday made her relevant, but her reaction, exuberance, and glowing personality made her a star in New York this year. That's the magic of the US Open, and over the next 10 days there will be other stories and other stars to be made.