TEBBUTT: ARTHUR ASHE DRAMA QUEEN
For the second time in three nights, Eugenie Bouchard was pushed to three sets in the largest tennis stadium in the world, and for the second time she squeaked out a 6-4 in the final set victory.
Earlier on Saturday, Milos Raonic preceded her into the round-of-16, outdueling a game but outgunned Victor Estrella Burgos in three tiebreaks – 7-6(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(3).
Comparing Canada’s two top players on the day, Bouchard certainly looked the more dominant player when she won the first set 6-2 and led 3-2 in the second set against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, an opponent she had beaten 6-0, 6-3 in their last meeting. But the match was soon to become a whole lot more complicated.
As for Raonic, though there were tiebreaks in each set, he was generally the one in control, with Estrella Burgos hanging in and hoping that Raonic’s form would dip enough to give him an opening. It did a few times, but either the openings weren’t great enough or sustained enough for him to genuinely threaten the No. 5 seed.
In her second appearance on Ashe Stadium – both times in a night match – Bouchard walked a fine line. On Thursday, there were thrills and chills as she coolly withstood the late match onslaught of Sorana Cirstea to win 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-4, showing steely nerves at the most critical moments.
On Saturday, while the score was an almost identical 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, there was more a feeling of Bouchard just surviving, capitalizing on the crunch-time nerves of her hustling, bustling Czech opponent.
She would later say that she was disappointed that she became impatient and went for too much when the match began to swing Zahlavova Strycova’s way in the second set.
The final set was a roller coaster, with Zahlavova Strycova getting the first service break to 4-3. There was a sense that Bouchard was just making too many unforced errors and that the Czech had steadied just enough to possibly allow her opponent to beat herself.
She looked very good serving at 30-love on the following game but Bouchard won four points in a row to level at 4-all.
In the ninth game, Bouchard failed to convert one break point when Zahlavova Strycova hit a gutsy drop shot winner. But a big forehand set up a second break point and she converted it when a shaky Zahlavova Strycova double-faulted.
The 28-year-old Czech is one of the tour’s more volatile, nerve-riddled players and she reverted to form in the final game of the match. After Bouchard won the opening point with an aggressive forehand, Zahlavova Strycova made three errors to lose the game to love and the match in two hours and 31 minutes.
“She was mixing up the balls well, getting a lot of balls back,” Bouchard said giving credit to her Zahlavova. “I felt maybe it threw off my rhythm a little bit, her changing the rhythm. I mean, you don’t always play amazing. I did way more unforced errors than I expected myself to. So that definitely didn’t help my case in the second set. But, yeah, I mean, I could have definitely kept my emotions in check a little bit more. But I’m happy in the end I was able to kind of pull myself together.”
“I played a little better in my second round than I did tonight. But both were quality opponents. I’m just proud at least that I could battle. Even if it’s a little bit ugly or I don’t feel great, I can still pull it out, which made me happy.”
True to her credo of always trying to dominate play, Bouchard’s winners to unforced errors ratio was a higher 35/38 than Zahlavova Strycova’s 20/27.
She said she had pulled up okay physically after the tough go with Cirstea on Thursday and claimed she would be fine against her next opponent, Ekaterina Makarova, a 26-year-old Russian who ranks No. 18.
Bouchard lost her only previous meeting with Makarova – 6-4, 6-2 in 2013 in Washington when she was a much more inexperienced competitor.
“I expect a lefty,” a smiling Bouchard joked about her round-of-16 opponent. “I’ve played her once and I lost that match a couple years ago. I think she’s played well this year. I think she had a good result (quarter-finals) at Wimbledon. It’s always tricky playing a lefty, so I’m going to get my 60-year-old coach (Nick Saviano) to serve to me. Hopefully that will prepare me a little bit. But besides that, I’m going to try to do better. When I’m ahead, I’m going to keep going, keep pushing, really try to, you know, impose my game, but at the same time, you know, stay consistent. So I’m going to work on that in practice tomorrow. I just want to do better in my next match really.”
The Bouchard – Zahlavova Strycova match lacked real atmosphere until Bouchard faltered and Zahlavova Strycova became a real threat in the second set.
Night session crowds, especially on Saturday night, like to get involved – and Bouchard and Zahlavova Strycova gave them that chance with all the plot twists late in the match.
While the enterprising Zahlavova Strycova had earned a solid group of supporters with her energetic, enterprising tennis, Bouchard was clearly the darling of the Big Apple patrons.
“I definitely felt their support tonight,” Bouchard said, speaking as a Canadian. “Yeah, we’re neighbours. We’re pretty similar countries. So maybe they have adopted me a little. Yeah, the support, the screaming, the chants, it’s amazing. It’s so motivating. I wish I could play on a court like this every day. That’s what makes the US Open so special.”
This year’s US Open draw has certainly opened up with the results of the past few days. Now only No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 6 Maria Sharapova remain from the original top six seeds.
Guess who is No. 7? – someone who went through all kinds of emotions in a highly theatrical Saturday night in Ashe Stadium but managed to emerge a winner – as she has 19 times in singles matches at Grand Slam tournaments in 2014.
Raonic probably made things a little harder on himself than they need have been against Estella Burgos. There was a sense that he knew he would win against the 34-year-old Dominican and got a little sloppy at times.
But some credit has to go to the plucky, tenacious 5-foot-8 qualifier from Santiago. He gave it his best shot and an example of that was that he actually had the same number of aces as the mighty Raonic – eight – at the end of the first 12 games of the match.
In hindsight, that was obviously a bit of a fluke because his final ace count did not increase – Raonic wound up with 22 while Estrella Burgos remained stuck on eight.
Raonic was up a service break in both the second and third sets before Estrella Burgos broke back – both times on points when Raonic struggled to control volleys. In the third set Estrella Burgos actually broke twice and served for the set at 5-4. That game was an example of how things often went during the match. He trailed love-40 – triple-break point – and managed to save them all, the last one after a long, side-to-side, lung-busting rally that ended when Raonic missed a running forehand into the net. But on the next point, Estrella Burgos double-faulted and followed that with a ‘flinched’ a forehand long to level the score 5-all.
In the ensuing tiebreak, Raonic started with a 109 mph ace wide and got the mini-break lead he would never relinquish with a calculated net approach capped by a crisp winning forehand volley to lead 2-0, on his way to 4-0.
Estrella Burgos got back to 4-2 but then double-faulted, obviously feeling the pressure of facing Raonic, especially in a tiebreak.
“Milos, he’s unbelievable when he played the tiebreak,” Estrella Burgos said, “I think he played a lot of tiebreaks. He has so much confidence when he plays the tiebreak.”
Since the beginning of Wimbledon in June, Raonic has played 21 tiebreaks – and his record is 19-2.
Raonic suggested that tiebreaks can be a “coin toss,” but probably got more to the crux of his success when he added, “it can go both ways, but with my serve and ability to finish points quickly and the kind of pressure that puts on my opponents, I can maybe shift odds in my favor. When things aren’t necessarily going well throughout the set, I feel like, ‘okay focus on making sure this goes all the way through. Take care of your serve and give yourself a shot in the breaker.’”
His ability to win points on serve – e.g. he won 89% first serve points on Saturday compared to just 63% for Estrella Burgos – has a huge pressure effect on opponents. That effect being that they often press on their own service points in tiebreaks because they know just how tough it will be to get a mini-break on Raonic.
So, the Estrella Burgos ‘rags to riches’ story at the US Open ends, but the he nonetheless won the first two Grand Slam matches of his career and became the oldest player to win his first US Open debut match. He also moved his ranking up to about No. 70 and that, together with $105,090 (US) in prize money, will help him play regular ATP events, instead of Challengers, for the foreseeable future.
“It was really amazing,” he said about his Flushing Meadows experience. “For me, it was the best week – the third round here in the US Open. Today I played a very good match. I lost, but it was my best match. I played very good level. The three sets were very close. I was serving for the set in the third set. I cannot close the set, but I’m not so… I’m not too sad, because I have a very good week.”
There was no solid identifiable group of Dominicans in the 6,106-seat Grandstand, but a large number of them dotted through the crowd, and they were vocal in their support of Estrella Burgos. They gave him a loud ovation after the match and even Raonic joined in on the applause.
There was a good vibe in the Grandstand and Raonic later said he appreciated it. There were indeed a number of entertaining points as the energetic Estrella Burgos did his best to challenge Roanic. One thing that was noticeable was Raonic’s obvious plan to get to the net as often as he could. He ventured forward a total of 51 times, winning 31 of the points for a satisfactory but certainly not sterling 61 per cent success rate.
He will have to be better at that and at every aspect of his game in Sunday’s round-of-16 against match-up with No. 10 seed Kei Nishikori.
“It’s good to get the win,” the No. 5 seed said about Saturday’s third rounder. “It’s good to put myself in this position in the fourth round to go further in this tournament and give myself an opportunity to play better. I believe I can play better. I believe I will.”
Raonic won his last match with Nishikori – 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-3 – at Wimbledon this year but lost the two previous encounters in Madrid on clay in May and in indoors in the Japan Open final in Tokyo in 2012.
Nishikori has been bothered by a right toe problem that flared up in Washington in late July and forced him to skip the Masters 1000 events in Toronto and Cincinnati He had not played since Washington entering the US Open but says he’s feeling 100 per cent and has not lost a set in his three matches.
“I can (must) get more returns in,” Nishikori said about facing Raonic. “The last match (Wimbledon) he was hitting so many aces and hitting good serves and I couldn’t do anything in my return game. For sure it’s going to be different game here. Still, it’s a fast court here. It’s going to be tough to get his serve. But I have been playing well. I’ll try to focus my service game and try to play another good match.”
It is a fascinating match-up, with the Raonic power game match against one of the fastest players on the tour – and one who is proficient at counterpunching and quickly turning it into attack.
“I have got to focus on myself,” Raonic said about his approach to Nishikori. “I’ve got to clean up a few things, put out a certain level if I want to have opportunities, create opportunities. And then hopefully when those opportunities do arise, I can make the most of them.”
Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau noted after the match that Raonic is still learning how to “pace himself” in a Grand Slam and is optimistic that he will be able to raise him level a notch for the Nishikori match.
The end of Raonic’s media conference on Saturday was open season of some of the non-tennis aspects of the Raonic persona – beginning with the immaculate (immovable?) way that he has been coiffed for the last several months.
“It’s not really a secret,” he said smiling about nary a hair being out of place. “I don’t really have different hair than most people – just the right product”
Pressed about whether he might be open to a hair product endorsement, he replied, “maybe I will. But I’m not necessarily chasing one at the moment. I’ll just let the hair speak for itself. It’s got a Twitter account (@milosraonichair), so it actually does more speaking than I probably do on Twitter.”
The sleeve that Raonic has worn since April on and off – but almost always on – was another silly subject near the end of the session. For the Estrella Burgos match, Raonic had the back of the sleeve pretty well colour-co-ordinated with his New Balance outfit.
“The sleeve started in Miami,” he explained, “I actually needed it at that point. Then it stuck around. It’s stuck around. My team would say it helps me. I haven’t found a reason to argue that so far, so it stuck around.”
Question: “So it helps you?” Answer: “I’m not gonna argue when things are going okay.”
A source reveals that Raonic is getting fairly close to the end of his stash of sleeves. But there is no panic for the moment.
One thing is certain – the folks at New Balance are probably not pleased that their designed shirts are not exactly showcased in the best light with different looking limbs coming out of each of the shirt sleeves. Not exactly the symmetry they would prefer.
POSPISIL AND SOCK CRUISE
Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock are starting to seem like a well-established doubles duo – not one that is only playing in its fifth tournament together.
On Saturday, the reigning Wimbledon champs won for the 16th time in their last 17 matches, defeating Marin Draganja of Croatia and Florin Mergea of Romania 6-4, 6-2. They simply outhit their overwhelmed opponents, converting three of six break points and easily saving the two break points they faced.
The No. 8 seeds look like a good bet to reach the quarter-finals – they will face the unseeded Argentine pairing of Carlos Berlocq and Leonardo Mayer in Sunday’s last match on Court 17, the same stadium where they played on Saturday.
DABROWSKI DOUBLES ADVANCE
Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa and her Polish partner Alicja Rosolska reached the third round of the US Open doubles on Saturday with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and Misaki Doi of Japan.
After upsetting 10th seeded Australians Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua on Wednesday, Dabrowski and Rosolska will next face No. 8 seeds Andrea Hlavackova of Czech Republic and Zheng Jie of China.
“We’ve played both of them,” said Dabrowski about Hlavackova and Zheng, “but never when they were together. They just started together on the grass at Wimbledon.”
One of the pleasant things about watching Dabrowski and Rosolska play is how well they co-ordinate on court.
“We made it harder than it had to be, too many mistakes in the first set,” said Dabrowski, on right, about Saturday’s match. “They were two singles players and didn’t communicate very well. That’s one thing we do, communicate well with each other.”
Just like Milos Raonic last Thursday, Eugenie Bouchard was one of the foldouts in the US Open Daily programme on Saturday.
NOTE: Next blog will be on Monday with Bouchard and Raonic in the round-of-16.