Southern California Tennis

US Open – Fritz “Che Forte”

Four times every year, two weeks of non-stop action captivate the tennis world during each of the Grand Slam tournaments. The majors unfold like a reluctant flower in slow motion. The momentum begins with Australia, and followed by Roland Garros and Wimbledon in quick succession. Then there is a build up of fanfare that serves as an introduction to the ultimate extravaganza of the year – The US Open.

Taylor Fritz  Photo Susan Mullane _ camerawork usa

Taylor Fritz
Photo Susan Mullane _ camerawork usa

The 2015 New York adventure played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was like a calliope that never stopped the music. The melody accompanied a fortnight of Big Apple surprises. Topping the charts, (and perhaps from a Southern California tennis point of view, the back story), was Roberta Vinci’s, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, electrifying performance against No. 1 seed, Serena Williams, (who learned to play tennis at an LA84 Foundation/NJTL Program, held at a public park in Compton). The Italian from Taranto, in what many tennis experts believe is the biggest upset of all-time, ended Williams’ run at a Calendar Year Slam two victories short of her goal. (Williams had already earned the women’s trophy at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon.)

Flavia Pennetta added to the improbability of the situation by “dissecting” Simona Halep of Romania, the No. 2 seed, 6-1, 6-3 in the other semifinal. The result was a women’s final between countrywomen who have known one another since they were ten (Pennetta) and nine (Vinci). The last time a same country women’s final, took place at the US Open was in 2003 when Justine Henin defeated her Belgian compatriot, Kim Clijsters, 7-5, 6-1.

 Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson  Photo

Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson

Pennetta, who at thirty-three, is from Brandisi, roughly fifty miles from Toranto. She is a year older than Vinci. The two were doubles partners and roommates for four years when they moved to Rome as juniors to participate in the development program of the Italian Tennis Federation. The 2014 Indian Wells winner downed her friend, the No. 43 ranked Vinci, (who had only one singles match at a major this year), 7-6, 6-2 in New York on Saturday.

Following the encounter, they sat side-by-side awaiting the trophy presentation chatting as if they were trying to decide where they might go for dinner. Though fiercely competitive, their care for one another was obvious. Everyone on hand came away with not only a sense of appreciation for what had taken place, but a feeling of warmth after observing the unshakeable friendship that Pennatta and Vinci have.

Williams was dramatically direct about the loss, saying in her abbreviated post-match press conference, that she didn’t want to discuss not winning the Grand Slam. Having a 48-2 record going into the Open, Williams concluded her brief comments saying, “…I think she played literally out of her mind.” (Though it should be brought out that Williams had double the unforced errors that Vinci had – 40-20 – and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou suggested she had “lost her way mentally…?)

3. Brandon Holt and Riley Smith Photo

Brandon Holt and Riley Smith Photo

The delightfully personable Vinci, who has a career doubles Grand Slam with countrywoman, Sarah Errani, was captivating, explaining to the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, after eliminating Williams, that, “It is an incredible moment for me…” Living it to the fullest, after one extended rally that she won, Vinci endeared herself to the crowd admitting that while they were all for Williams, they should,  “Come on, one time (at least, cheer) for me.” At the end of her interview, she mentioned being sorry for defeating Serena, for spoiling her Grand Slam, “But, today (it) is my day. Sorry, guys.”

Francesca Schiavone literally shocked the tennis world with her magical triumph at Roland Garros in 2010. It was the first Grand Slam singles title earned by an Italian woman. Pennetta and Vinci were the first Italians to face one another in the final of a women’s major. The situation was made even more ethereal when the winner told the capacity crowd that a month before the tournament she had decided that the 2015 US Open would be her last Grand Slam tournament appearance. (She will play until the end of the year.) Adding to the final’s movie script appeal was the fact that her boyfriend, Fabio Fognini, who had defeated Rafael Nadal in a thrilling five set third round contest, returned to New York from Rome to offer support. (He had been preparing for Italy’s World Group Davis Cup tie at the end of this week against Russia.)

Taylor Fritz was a Simple Garcons finalist at Roland Garros to Tommy Paul, and a semifinalist to Boys’ tournament winner Reilly Opelka at Wimbledon. He faced Paul, who scraped out a three set victory in Paris, in the US Open Boys’ final. This time, the result was different. Fritz solidified his top International Tennis Federation (ITF) singles ranking and realized a long-term goal to put his name on a Grand Slam singles trophy. It wasn’t easy, as the 6-2, 6-7, 6-2 scores bring out. Overall, it was a formidable Fritz performance as he won 99 points to his opponent’s 83. He clipped 11 aces (with merely two double faults) and matched winners/unforced errors at 30 apiece. With the victory, Fritz became the first Southern Californian to win the ultimate US junior tennis title since Tim Trigueiro did it in 1985.

There was more to local performances in New York than Fritz’s success. Brandon Holt (who is one of Tracy Austin’s sons) and Riley Smith (whose father, Peter, coaches the USC men’s team) were unseeded, but that didn’t matter at all as they played their way to the US Open Junior Boys’ Doubles final. In the trophy contest, Felix Auger Aliassima and Denis Shapovalov of Canada, who were also unseeded, edged Holt and Smith, 7-5, 7-6.

Sam Querrey often played doubles with John Isner, and though focused on singles, they became a very competent big-serving pairing. Of late, Steve Johnson, who also has a big serve, has been Querrey’s partner. During the second week of the tournament, both players were named to the US Davis Cup team for the September 18th -20th World Group Playoff against Uzbekistan in Tashkent. (Fritz will be a practice partner.)

Davis Cup captain, Jim Courier’s choice may have been influenced by Johnson and Querrey’s, 7-6, 5-7, 6-3 first round victory over the No. 1 seeds, Bob and Mike Bryan. (The defeat meant that the brothers, for the first time since 2004, didn’t collect a Grand Slam title in 2015.) Jamie Murray of Great Britain and John Peers of Australia squeaked out a 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 semifinal decision against Johnson and Querrey (and they went on to lose the final to the French team, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut).

Querrey was even better in the Mixed Doubles, teaming with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. They were 6-4, 3-6, 10-7 finalists to the incomparable duo – Martina Hingis of Switzerland and Leander Paes of India.

Coco Vandeweghe received prime time attention pushing Maria Sharapova, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, in a quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon. Overlooked was how she has built a solid doubles partnership with Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany. At the All England Lawn Tennis Club, they lost a third round match, 9-7 in the third set. In New York, they found even better form, reaching the semifinals where Casey Dellacqua of Australia and Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan were 6-7, 7-5, 7-5 better. (Hingis won her second championship at this year tournament teaming with Sania Mirza of India to defeat Dellacqua and Shvedova, 6-3, 6-3.)

As always, trying to cram a fortnight of excitement into a relevant summary is nearly impossible. That the championships is played in New York makes it difficult to surround all that is taking place. Still, it is impossible not to mention a seminal moment at this year’s drama. Mardy Fish said farewell to professional tennis. His finale was a draining five set, second round loss, to Feliciano Lopez of Spain. It was a fitting end to a career that has recently been focused on dealing with health issues. In the end, Fish was able to say goodbye his way.

Not to be eclipsed by the unexpected all-Italian women’s final showing, the men’s US Open conclusion was expected. Novak Djokovic, appearing in his fourth major final of the year, secured his third 2015 Grand Slam trophy. This time, the No. 1 seed downed Roger Federer, No. 2, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

Though Serena Williams wasn’t able to realize a calendar year Slam, she has a total of 21, which leaves her in realistic sight of the record of 24 held by Margaret Court of Australia. Next year, Arthur Ashe Stadium, which has always been imposing, will become more so. The closeable roof will be ready and the delay that made the countdown to the men’s final even more dramatic won’t be an issue.

In the end, there was so much in the New York spotlight with the multitude of brilliant performances by a contingent from the section. True, Vinci and Pennetta added zest and flavor, but Taylor Fritz, Brandon Holt and Riley Smith, along with Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey, were che forte (amazing, fantastic) in New York.

Mark Winters

Look for a fresh examination of tennis topics at “Mark Thoughts”


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