Sportswriter and broadcaster David Fearnhead, Women’s Tennis Blog’s loyal supporter, shares his Top 5 talking points from the 2015 US Open.
Strength in Depth
The 2015 US Open has been memorable for many reasons, and it got off to a cracking start as the seeds tumbled early. Lucie Safarova, Ana Ivanovic, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Karolina Pliskova all ousted in round one. By the end of the second round, with Caroline Wozniacki being dispatched by Petra Cetkovska, just three Top 10 players remained.
Even recent Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza couldn’t get past a qualifier in round two, as Johanna Konta battled her way to victory in a marathon match that lasted three hours and twenty-three minutes on one of the hottest days of the tournament. Was it a fluke? Had Konta just had one of those days when everything goes right? Well, that was answered in the next round with a straight sets victory over 18th seed Andrea Petkovic. The Sydney-born Brit managed to get all the way to the fourth round, whilst the better known British girls of Heather Watson and Laura Robson were both first-round casualties.
Having never previously gotten past the first round, Konta was playing inspired and battle-hardened tennis. Perhaps some credit should go to Juan Coto, who began working as her mental coach at the end of 2014. As this US Open was to highlight a player’s ability to handle their emotions would be key to who took the crown, but more of that later.
Whilst we are talking of inspired Brits, it is high time we saluted Jordanne Whiley. Jordanne is wheelchair tennis champion and holds six Grand Slam doubles titles along with a Paralympics bronze from London 2012.
Jordanne suffers from brittle bones disease, which means that whilst she has the use of her legs, she is confined to a wheelchair for sport. She became Britain’s youngest ever national women’s singles champion in wheelchair tennis at the age of 14. Having done the Doubles Calendar Grand Slam last year with her partner Yui Kamiji, she doubled up in 2015 with the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles titles. At Flushing Meadows, she did something quite outstanding by adding her name to the rarified list of British Grand Slam singles champions.
It may be too early to talk of repeating her Doubles Calendar Grand Slam in singles, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against it happening. At 23, she’s already proven she can win at the very peak of her sport and of all the champions to emerge from New York this year, hers is a name which deserves equal mention.
Mental fragility costs the Top 2
By round three any worries over Simona Halep’s fitness following her withdrawal in Connecticut had all but disappeared. She’d been on cruise control and doubts over her mental fragility in Grand Slams had faded away. She was back to Smiling Simona. In the fourth round she met Sabine Lisicki, her first real test of the tournament. Lisicki is tricky opponent, not least for her skilled gamesmanship. Even when Lisicki edged it in the first set tiebreak, Halep looked as though she would bounce back. It was at best a wobble. A one-legged wobble as she fought off what looked like possible cramping.
Next up was Victoria Azarenka, a player whose current ranking of 23 is a joke. On any day of the week Vika is a Top 10 player, at her best she’s Top 4. It was to prove a worthy clash, interrupted by rain, the momentum of the match swung back and forth until it was Halep in 3.
On paper you’d have to favour Simona Halep over her semifinal opponent Flavia Pennetta. When they’d met early this year in Miami on hard court, the Romanian had won in straight sets. Pennetta may have edged it 3-1 in their past meetings, but one of those was a retirement. Even if Pennetta had won on a second set tiebreak in their 2013 US Open clash, you’d have to say Halep was a much improved player since those days when she was ranked outside the Top 10.
Predicting tennis results is never easy. Having a deep affection for Italy and being a long-time admirer of Halep’s game, I found it a hard one to call. Whomever won I would be genuinely happy. My inkling was that Flavia would start the brighter, with Halep coming through in three sets. However, I’d never have predicted a 6-1 opener for the Italian and I knew then something was not right with Simona. For sure Flavia played inspired tennis, and I know she has a history of doing well in New York, but her 6-1 6-3 demolition job on the world number 2 was something else.
On her performance Flavia would probably have beaten anyone that day, but I can’t help being troubled that the weight of a nation – which is what Halep carries – is proving too much weight for her slender frame to carry.
Serena Slam Slumped
Mental fragility is not something we’d expect to see from Serena Williams. Ok, we’d seen her wobble, we’d seen her not close out when she should have done, we’d seen her visibly struggling and looking beaten, but Serena always had a magic ability to reach down deep inside and find that something extra to get her over the line.
At 6-2 all was going to plan. Even when Roberta Vinci came back to level it, you were convinced that the third set would be Serena’s. Weren’t you? I mean, an unseeded Italian making it past the greatest female tennis player of our time, to set up an all-Italian final. Even a staunch Italophile and writer, such as I, felt that would be moving too far into the realms of fiction. And yet, I’d had my doubts about Serena’s ease of victory since I’d made a point of watching all of Vinci’s televised matches from New York.
Vinci is an extraordinary player in the modern era of power tennis. Where most turn up the power, she has sacrificed it for something far more beautiful, spin. Indeed, when I travelled to Wimbledon, I made sure I got court side to witness her skill. She imparts a seemingly impossible range of spins on the ball. A proven winner in doubles, Roberta has honed her natural talents to the level of artistry. Some of the tennis she played against Serena was sublime. This was easily my match of the tournament – not least because it engaged my emotions to the extent that it almost elicited tears at its conclusion.
If Halep had the weight of a nation on her shoulders, then Serena was carrying the expectations of the entire tennis world. In the end it proved too great a burden, but nothing should be allowed to distract from the stella performance of Roberta Vinci. It’s also worth remembering that following her victory at Wimbledon this year, Serena held all four Grand Slams at the same time, having been US Open champion in 2014.
And so it came down to two. Two southern Italians, two friends since the age of 9, two players who would end the tournament sat side by side casually chatting as though this was a regular weekend at their local club.
In the end, Pennetta had the extra gear, to which Vinci could not respond. When the tears had been dried, Flavia praised her opponent’s game, to which Roberta joked that she’d just take the trophy herself then. If ever a trophy could be shared, this would have been the one. Then Flavia dropped the bomb.
The 33-year-old announced it was her final goodbye to the world of professional tennis. I don’t know if she will reconsider, or if she will return for one last time to play in Italy. Players always say they want to get out at the top, but how poor the sport would be if they all did that. I will miss Flavia, but I’m glad that Roberta will still be playing for a good few years to come. (photos: Jimmie48)