NEW YORK CITY—You expect a close match, at once bruising and shrewd, when Andy Murray faces the kind of opponent who can cause him grief. Against a big, young, risk-taking athlete such as Nick Kyrgios, he deployed a broad gamut of tactics late Tuesday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, center court (under renovation) of the Billie Jean Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens. It is the site of the U.S. Open, last of the tournaments on the year’s Grand Slam circuit, and the winner will be rich and famous.
Or richer and famouser. Murray won the tournament in 2012 when he beat Novak Djokovic on this court in a thrilling test of endurance for both men. Djokovic, top seed this year, breezed through his first match on Monday, as did second seed Roger Federer a few hours before Murray-Kyrgios. The other member of the Big Four of men’s tennis, Rafa Nadal, ran into trouble late Monday night, but he dealt with it handily enough.
Now the question is whether Murray is going to make top-men supremacy unanimous in the first round. He has beaten Kyrgios in each of their three meets, but the recent teen (he just turned 20), by all evidence and according to every observer is no push over.
On the contrary, he pushes. He hits a huge first serve, relents only slightly on the second, and he cracks his forehands like a whip, setting up shots so he appears to be walking calmly to them and then making them explode off his racket. Aware of this, Murray aims to the backhand. Kyrgios’s tactic is to force Murray to give him right-side shots. Murray served first, won on a couple of aces, but is broken in the third game, because Kyrgios sets up one of those forehands and kills it. The kid’s ahead, 2-1.
The men play best-of-five-set matches in grand slam play. Murray is testing, seeing whether he has the right game plan. He begins to apply it in the next game, breaking back with a combination of steady ground strokes from the baseline, increasing the pace as he sees Kyrgios hates chasing down balls and is weak on running to a forehand (as opposed to stand-and-wait for it to come). On the last point Murray uses a spin that Kyrgios misjudges and hits long. It is going to be a match of hard thinking as well as hard hitting, so the money’s on Murray.
Tennis as we know it was invented in England in the mid-19th century; British men have been less than outstanding in the Open era (since 1968), however, and Murray is well aware of the burden he carries. He won at Wimbledon (the de facto British Open, though unlike the others it belongs to a private club) the year following his U.S. Open triumph, again beating Djokovic. Then he slumped.
He came back this summer with—again—a win over his old friend and rival (they are nearly exact contemporaries) from Belgrade, after losing eight straight to him. He won in a great match at the Rogers Cub, de facto Canada Open, played in Montreal. This capped his best season since 2013, notwithstanding a series of stinging losses to Djokovic in finals, starting at the Australian Open, during the first half of the year. At Cincinnati, the last important U.S. tournament before the Open, he lost in the semis to Federer, who then trounced Djokovic in the final, but in perspective it has been a very good year indeed. This being the Open era, money talks and this year Murray has earned over five million dollars in prize money.
The winner of the U.S. Open gets $3.5 million; the total purse is over $42 million. If you lose in the first round you still get almost $40,000. The women’s champ gets the same, parity having been established early in the century. A Frenchman, Gilles Simon, remarked that this did not make sense (or was illogical, in French), as men draw bigger audiences than women. Tuesday afternoon, Simon, who is ranked No. 11 in the world on the ATP computer, lost to 68th-ranked Donald Young in a stunning five-setter in which the brilliant but inconsistent American came back from two sets down and, as he put it, believed. Simon beat him the last time they met at the U.S Open, in the first round as it happens. Young has earned under half a million dollars this year, Simon a little over a million. Money talks, and it also pays for the entourages most players travel with, coaches, trainers, yogi. This was unheard of in the days of Arthur Ashe, but times change.
When America had a successful foreign policy, there were about a dozen staffers in the president’s National Security Council, plus the actual council members. Now there are about 500. However, tennis is not foreign policy.
Rafa Nadal always gives credit to his team, led by his uncle, Toni Nadal. Nadal, like many top athletes, comes from a sporting family, another uncle having been a leading striker at the Barcelona football club. CoCo Vandeweghe, whose uncle KiKi was a New York Kicks standout, beat her compatriot, the good natured and pretty Sloane Stephens, in an upset around the same time Young was winning; Miss Stephens’s parents are big-time athletes, too. Nadal’s opponent was an 18-year old from Croatia, Borna Coric, the best player this year among teenaged boys and sometimes described as a young Djokovic, not for the geographical proximity of their origins but for his defensive style. He beat Nadal a year ago, a quite remarkable performance even if it came at a time when Nadal was entering a prolonged slump.
Obviously the question Monday night was whether Nadal was or was not snapping out of it. He answered it with an attacking game so fierce there were murmurs of child abuse in the stadium. It was no such thing, and moreover Nadal always has been solicitous of other players on the Tour. But here he gave no quarter. If Coric had game plan, Nadal exploded it immediately and never let him back into the match until the third set when, tired—by his own admission—and distracted by the high humidity (“I sweat a lot,” he reminded journalists at the post-match conference), he let the kid from Zagreb take a consolation prize. He then closed it out.
If Nadal and Murray each in his own way represents a kind of redemption story, going through bad stretches and fighting their way back with guts and patience, Roger Federer, now 34 and the old man of the Big Four, continues to show the world how many ways there are of being a classic. A class act, too: Federer always has exhibited a kind of Olympian fairness toward one and all, even Nick Kyrgios, who already has earned a “bad boy” reputation. He has worked out with him on his own courts and complimented him with utter sincerity when he lost to him last year. But he was severe on the kid’s bad behavior this summer.
Federer, to be sure, had a difficult 2013—by his standards—but last year and this he has been phenomenal, not winning any of the majors (though reaching the Wimbledon final both years), but winning enough to maintain his man-to-beat status. He ranks No. 2 in the world behind Djokovic, whom he beat at Cincinnati’s classic Western & Southern Open after beating Murray in the semis, causing commentators to ask if he was reinventing the game.
He is reinventing his game, as he always has since emerging at the turn of the century. He draws upon the classics of the past, including the style of his current coach Stefan Edberg. Federer, like Edberg, always looked for chances to go to the net, but under the great Swede’s mentoring, he has increased his approaches, repeatedly discomfiting everyone—even great defensive men like Murray and Djokovic—with attacks they would not dream of. Beating Djokovic in Cincinnati, he went in on return of serve. Since you have to let the ball bounce when it is served, that means catching it—at 100 mph or faster—immediately on the up-bounce. This is known as the half-volley, and if you will forgive the cliché, no one has done it like Federer.
Federer won at Flushing Meadows five years in a row from 2004, finally losing to a young Argentine, Juan-Martin Del Potro, an extremely likeable and talented player who unfortunately has been out of action with injuries over most of the past two years. His compatriot Leonardo Mayer met Federer in the first round the other day and was immediately demolished—to everyone’s surprise as Federer himself had warned this would be a tough opponent, who had very nearly beaten him at their last encounter, at Shanghai. With only a hint of irony, Federer explained after the match that, in fact, the conditions there and at Ashe are so different that there could be no comparison, and the Ashe conditions happen to be to his advantage. Mayer is a fine player but this was a case of never having a chance.
This matter of conditions is something of a puzzle to non-high level tennis players. The balls are the same, the courts seem to all be the same dimensions, the net is at the same height. What’s the problem? Actually, the balls are not the same. They may all be made in Asian sweatshops. But what is the alternative? Maoism? They are made to specs whose differences (within boundaries set by the sport’s governing bodies) professionals sense acutely. Federer, for example, noted that in point of fact, the perfect conditions for him are at Cincinnati, with hard high bouncing Penn balls on courts that are “fast,”meaning the ball gains comparatively more velocity when it hits the ground and stays lower on the rebound. At Ashe, he added, they play with duller Wilson balls and the court is a little softer. This favors deep baseline men like Djokovic and Coric and explains at least in part why Nadal took such an aggressive game right away to the young Zagrebian. Shanghai conditions are slower still and would help an Argentine, partial to clay.
Like Coric, Kyrgios was able to take the third set, capitalizing on the physical fatigue Murray visibly experienced. The weather has been hot and humid in New York and you feel it over the two-and-a-half or three hours a match typically lasts. More players quit (the polite official term is retired with injury) in this year’s first round than any other in history—12 by my count but maybe more. A Russian girl quit after less than half an hour against Serena Williams, the defending champion and big favorite of the women’s draw. The Ukrainian dynamo Alexander Dolgopolov, ranked 39th (earnings this year, $625,000) gave up after three sets against Australia’s Sam Groth (83rd, $416,000), whose serve, allegedly the fastest in the sport (often above 140 mph; Federer and Murray, who have very effective serves, typically hit at between 110 and 120), simply wore him down to the point he could scarcely lift his arms.
So, Murray let down his guard in the third set and Kyrgios charged in. But this, of course, had an effect on him, too, and the fourth set was over in minutes, the only one in the match that was not competitive, 6-1. Twenty-year-olds get tired too.
Kyrgios also was playing under the cloud of a suspended suspension—on probation, in effect, for gross verbal injury against a fellow player, the great Swiss champion Stan Wawrinka, during the Canada tournament. In fact, though insult certainly there was, the really classless act was the insult to the girl in the scandal; in effect he kissed (through a proxy) and told, which is far more hurtful (and mean) than his cheap shot at the guy, who is old enough, mature enough, and big enough to take it, whereas the girl is just a teen and defenseless. It was Martina Navritalova, very big in the tennis establishment, who insisted on the suspension, specifically for the hurt to the girl—the sitting tennis authorities apparently viewing a fine for the insult to the guy as enough.
Worth noting, however, for what it says about civilization as we now know it, is that Kyrgios was not reprimanded for insulting Dawn Fraser, a legend-in-her-own-time and the doyenne of Australian sports. This is due to the fact that she provoked him, allegedly, by stating publicly that his vulgar behavior and instances of poor sportsmanship were a shame and if he did not want to uphold Australian honor, he could go back where his immigrant parents are from. Not the sweetest thing in the world to say, but after all in the rough and honest custom of Australian tradition. I treat you fair, mate, but I tell you straight.
Kyrgios accused Miss Fraser of being “racist.” This was enough to turn the tables, because these days, even if race had nothing to do with anything, the fear of being “racist” sends everybody into panic mode. The poor kid (the size of a football player and swarthy) was being hurt emotionally by a mean old white woman. In Australia they came down on her like a pack of hyenas; thus bludgeoned (she is in her 80s) she made an apology.
Anyway, he never apologized to her, and his apologies for the kiss-and-tell episode were perfunctory. Does it matter? He is an extraordinary tennis player, no doubt. You could not fail to have the summer nastiness in mind, however, as he turned away from really difficult shots that required movement. f the ball is where he wants it, Kyrgios can do almost anything to it. But exertion leads to thinking: worth my trouble? He shakes his head a lot, throws his racquet. Of Murray’s 18 aces, Kyrgios must have let three quarters go by without swinging. By contrast, Murray connected with almost every one of Kyrgios’s biggest serves, serves that by all rights could have been aces. He won many returns—he is with Djokovic arguably the best returner—but often his return was a lob or a soft shot that gave Kyrgios the chance for an easy winner. He was consistent in unnecessary errors, compared to Murray’s steady power and thoughtful shot placement.
Technically, it was a lesson in staying focused, playing the match and not playing to the crowd. What is the point of leaping into the air on an easy shot, a la Gael Monfils, if it is only to net the shot? Humanly, it was a lesson, I suppose, in what we call sportsmanship—class.
It probably did not take; but he is only 20.
Andy Murray was generous in victory, said, fairly, that Kyrgios will grow into a great champion if he wants to. Now Murray has a Frenchman to contend with next, and eventually could meet Stan Wawrinka in the semis—an old pal who might feel like saying to him of that first round, “Thanks, Andy—should have been me doing that, but it was your draw.”