Among the traditions of the US Open are the second-week strolls of tournament referee Brian Earley onto Arthur Ashe Stadium to gaze upward at the glowering clouds before trudging ruefully back to the shelter of his office. Delayed by a day in each of the last four years, the season’s final major completed just two matches on Tuesday and might not accomplish much more on a Wednesday where more rain looms. Nevertheless, we look ahead at all of the matches scheduled to start amidst the completions from the day before. (For the completions, return to our Day 9 preview.)
Errani vs. Vinci: One of the world’s best doubles teams when on the same side of the net, these Italians will need to cast aside the bonds forged by their productive partnership when they stand across from each other on Thursday. They have not enjoyed much success in that regard lately, combining for a trio of lackluster matches since the start of the 2011, all won comfortably by Errani. A year before, Vinci had swept their two meetings on hard courts in tightly contested three-setters, so their rivalry appears to trend currently not only away from drama but away from the veteran. Buoyed by the Dallas title and a strong week in Montreal, she deployed her oddly dipping backhand slice to devastating effect against Radwanska. The Pole who specializes in discomfiting her victims paid her conqueror the ultimate compliment after this fourth-round upset by describing her style as “uncomfortable” to face. Equally impressive was Errani’s gritty effort against Kerber on the same day and the same court, which could have tilted in either direction but for her poise and her ability to execute her tactics confidently on the handful of decisive points.
Central to the game of both Italians is their readiness to venture into any part of the court, finding angles that might not occur to singles stars because of their experience in doubles. Their mastery of nuance and placement compensates for the dearth of raw power in a clash between these two puny servers, and the winner will struggle to survive a semifinal against a vicious returner. For now, though, those who view tennis as an art in addition to an athletic competition will appreciate the clever shot selection of the versatile Italians, who illustrate the multitude of uses to which one can put a tennis ball.
Ivanovic vs. Serena: Quite the opposite of the other women’s quarterfinal is the evening encounter between two former #1s. The owner of just one major title to Serena’s fourteen, Ivanovic never has won a set from the greatest player of her generation, but she has stayed within range in all three of their meetings. The Serb recorded a dramatic breakthrough in the previous round by finally reaching her first major quarterfinal since winning Roland Garros four years ago, although that accomplishment itself demonstrates how far she has fallen. Aiming for much greater achievements, last year’s finalist eyes a relatively clear route to a chance for redemption on Saturday night (or Sunday, or whenever the clouds see fit). When they collided at the start of the second week here last year, Ivanovic never seriously threatened Serena on her serve outside one game midway through the first set. Even more intimidating on her delivery now, the American has won 20 consecutive games here and languished through only one unimpressive set.
Like Federer, Serena generally becomes ever more dangerous once she survives the earlier rounds to face competition worthier of her steel. After her last match, Ivanovic realistically recognized the towering challenge before her and said that she would have a chance only by attacking her opponent’s second serves. If her fate essentially hinges on Serena consistently missing one of her best shots, the outlook looks grim indeed for the smiling Serb.
Murray vs. Cilic: When they met on this court in 2009, the rising Croat stunned the Scot in straight sets a year after the latter had reached the final. Despite his calm demeanor, which suggested a precocious maturity, he has settled into the stagnation of those with much more talent than urgency. One major ago, Murray dismantled him uneventfully en route to the Wimbledon final. Like Ivanovic, Cilic has advanced through an especially accommodating draw that culminated with a fourth-round opponent ranked outside the top 50. Even in that match, though, he drifted through some wayward moments before he prevailed. By contrast, Murray swept aside Raonic with intimidating speed that night, allowing the Canadian only ten games in a statement of intent that should have resounded through the draw. That highly anticipated encounter became nothing other than a showcase of Murray’s manifold talents when deployed against serve-reliant players. Drawing his tall opponent to net with drop shots, jamming him with body serves, or forcing him to reverse direction along the baseline, the Scot turned Raonic into a helpless foil and likely will do the same for the similar style of Cilic.
One key difference does separate the Canadian from the Croat: the sparkling two-hander of the latter, which creates a groundstroke symmetry valuable in rallies with someone as balanced as Murray. In fact, the gold medalist likely will want to target Cilic’s forehand instead, for the longer swing on that stroke can misfire more frequently on these fast courts. Unbroken against Raonic, Murray should encounter little pressure with a similarly commanding performance behind his serve, but he can expect more credible returning from a more technically solid challenger with a sweeping wingspan.
Federer vs. Berdych: The most notable match on Thursday, this sixteenth encounter between familiar foes marks their first at the US Open. Among the previous fifteen were meetings at all of the other three majors, six of nine Masters 1000 tournaments, two editions of the Olympic Games, and even one of the rare Davis Cup ties in which Federer participated. Having clashed on four surfaces and four continents, each man guards few secrets from the other. After the Czech ambushed a complacent Swiss star in Athens eight years ago, Federer spent the next five seasons exacting his revenge by winning 18 of 19 sets. When his star began to wane in 2010, though, Berdych launched the most glorious season of his career, during which he built surges to the finals of Miami and Wimbledon in part upon the bones of his long-time tormentor. Perhaps galled by observations that such a reversal in their rivalry signaled his decline, Federer has fought back to claim three of their last four meetings, albeit not without drama. (Berdych came within two points of victory in one of these matches and within two games of victory in another.) Meanwhile, the younger man has not quite maintained his level of two years ago despite bursting into occasional flashes of it.
A stronger competitor than his former self, Berdych has responded more firmly to adversity and more than once this fortnight has steadied himself to subdue an initially sizzling opponent. Starting each of his matches authoritatively, on the other hand, Federer has experienced no true adversity yet. Will the steep jolt upwards in competition, combined with the three-day respite provided by Fish’s walkover, catch him off guard? Perhaps more than at any other major, the heavy ball-striking of Berdych can trouble Federer on a court where Del Potro hit through him in 2009. But also rewarded by the fast surface is an important advantage of the Swiss, the efficient, precise movement that prepares him for each stroke in the minimal amount of time. Moreover, the top seed brings far more momentum to this quarterfinal from a summer filled with exploits than does an opponent burdened by disappointments at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. Unless he decides to engage in a straightforward firefight with Berdych from the baseline, a temptation hard for Federer to resist, his more polished style and soaring confidence should carry him to a ninth straight US Open semifinal after a few intriguing twists and turns.