NEW YORK CITY — With Andy Murray and Serena Williams both out of the U.S. Open, the only certainty is that nothing is certain this year, in tennis no less than other places of public interest.
In the Scot’s case, the shock is mitigated by the realization that he was defeated by Kei Nishikori, who reached the finals at this very tournament in 2014 by defeating Novak Djokovic, and was quite properly viewed as a dark horse to win this year’s event.
However, it came as a rude shock given Murray’s stellar performance this year, when he won the Wimbledon championship and Olympic gold in Rio, both for the second time.
Yet, scarcely 24 hours after the Murray bust, there was an even more unexpected one: Serena Williams was ousted in straight sets from the U.S. Open by the 24-year old Czech Cinderella, Karolina Pliskova.
This is the second year in a row that Miss Williams loses in the semis at Flushing Meadows. The world No. 1, who a day earlier broke the record for matches won at the U.S. Open and is tied with Steffi Graff for most Grand Slam wins (22), is, with Murray, this year’s Wimbledon champion. She is the dominant player on the women’s tour. Her loss on Thursday is even more remarkable than last year’s, at the hands of Roberta Vinci.
Miss Vinci was a veteran player, cunning and gritty. By comparison with her, let alone with Miss Williams, Miss Pliskova is a beginner. Where Miss Vinci’s guile and court savvy were the weapons that flummoxed Miss Williams last year, this time it has to be said that it was Miss Pliskova’s extraordinary calm under the intense pressure of a semifinal at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the first time she had got so far in any major.
The Czech star answered power with power, made good use of her first serve, and for the rest, let the American beat herself. Miss Williams double faulted at 5-6 in the second set tie break to lose the match.
As story lines go, this one could scarcely be more dramatic, as Miss Pliskova had to beat Venus Williams in the fourth round to get this far.
The same player beating both of the sisters, who have dominated the women’s tour since the late 1990s, has been seen more than a few times, nine to be exact. And this should not be surprising, given Serena and Venus’ habitual presence in the last rounds of tournament draws for almost two decades. However, the last time this happened was 2010.
Despite a tough, three-set quarterfinal win over Simona Halep on Wednesday for Serena, which must have taken some fuel out of her tank, no one seriously expected her to fall to her sister’s conqueror. But she was at less than the 100 percent than she was able to summon against the Roumanian star, visibly in pain and not moving well. Miss Pliskova took full advantage of this, staying focused and consistent as Miss Williams dropped her concentration and shanked her great forehand, instead of using it to fire winners to the baseline.
Karolina Pliskova goes on to the final, there to meet Angelique Kerber, who beat one of Serena’s best friends, Carolyn Wozniacki, in the other semifinal. Miss Kliskova shocked Miss Kerber at Cincinnati a few weeks ago in the Southern and Western Open final.
Grudge match? Both women are polite, even somewhat shy; Miss Pliskova perhaps less so. But it should be lively.
However, apart from knocking Serena Williams out of the tournament, Karolina Plikova knocked Andy Murray out of the tennis news headlines. Prior to the women’s match, the only news that mattered on Thursday in the English-speaking world (and the Japanese-speaking world as well) was Murray’s loss on Wednesday afternoon to the world No. 7, Kei Nishikori. The Floridian stopped Murray’s sensational summer in five sets whose scores suggest more volatility than there was.
The 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 set scores evoke a wild and close match. Naturally, with two such gifted players, there were baseline rallies to take away your breath, down-the-line shots to leave you in a mild state of disbelief, great catches on the sidelines, and beautifully saved points.
Nishikori and Murray are two of the sport’s great marathon men, however, and they almost never see a ball they do not instinctively pursue. Rallies and cross-court rockets were on the program; both men knew it.
The difference was that Nishikori had a plan B.
Notwithstanding the numbers and the duration of the match, the Japanese Floridian was in charge from the second set. He would lose the third set, but he was dictating the pace and movement of the match overall. He did this, essentially, by introducing an attacking game into the essentially defensive offense that both players prefer and at which Murray excels.
The defensive offense goes back to Rene Lacoste, the leader of the “Four Musketeers” of French tennis. Lacoste’s philosophy was simple: Hit the last ball to go over the net. Today this is called the “baseline power game,” which is said to have supplanted the offensive offense favored (many decades ago) by Anglosphere players. Their typical weapon was the serve-and-volley.
“Hit it where they ain’t” is one way to express this view of how to win; or, “put it away,” which says the same thing.
Nishikori is an excellent baseline power man; his years in Florida’s tennis schools (called academies), where this tactic is highly regarded, marked him deeply. However, he knows Murray is a better baseline man than he, and slugging it out with him is poor strategy.
Nishikori saw this in the first set, in which he was routed by the sheer force and consistency of the Scot’s grand strokes. In all likelihood he knew he had to make an adjustment rather than dream his own groundstrokes would over time prevail over Murray’s. He said afterward that a rain delay in the second set, during which he was able to confer with his coach, sealed the notion: he had to challenge Murray rather than wait for him.
The effect of distractions on Murray’s game, beginning with the rain delay and continuing with a momentum-breaking problem with the public address system, will live on in anecdotal history. The key to the match, however, is that Nishikori put Murray off his game by changing his own.
He did this by repeatedly going toward the net, catching volleys on the run or getting himself into position near the net to get returns when they came at him. This is not easy thing to do: in the other quarter final of the day, the mighty Tower of Tandil, Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro, countered Stan Wawrinka’s net attacks, hitting lobs and stunning forehand passing shots against balls that were supposed to be smashed too fast and too hard to be retrievable. Del Potro lost nonetheless, but that is another story.
Murray was visibly disconcerted by the effectiveness of Nishikori’s tactical adaptations and his changes of pace. At the crucial moment in the final set, he made a double fault that his opponent capitalized on: he took over the game, broke Murray, and carried the momentum into the next game, serving successfully for the match.
The sting is sharp; after the triumph at Wimbledon and the gold at Rio, Murray and his fans harbored high hopes for a second U. S. Open title. But this is no time for might-have-beens: the British revealed themselves to be a renewed force at this slam. With terrific performances by Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund, as well as Johanna Konta, the contingent held its own, and, keep in mind, Jamie Murray is in the men’s doubles final.