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Reaching the finish line at the US Open: how do players stack up?

The pursuit of excellence is mired by obstacles, both physical and mental, in an individual sport like tennis. Athletes earn fame and fortune point by point, match by match and tournament by tournament. Always judged by the media and the world at large, athletes constantly work hard and try to remain unfazed by how their performances are dissected and devoured.

The US Open 2015 had everything that a tennis buff could ask for. Punctuated by drama, it had its share of upsets, new heroes and history albeit of an unexpected kind on more counts than one.

The finish line could mean different things to different players. And especially in tennis it is a matter of timing. Some players achieve their potential and some don’t.

Some tripped over before they could cross it

A distraught Serena Williams (right) congratulates an awestruck Roberta Vinci at the US Open 2015 Semi Final

The tickets for the US Open Women’s Final, for the first time in history, was sold out earlier than the Men’s Final. The focus was on one incredible woman – Serena Williams. Having achieved the Serena Slam 2.0, she was expected to lift the US Open title and equal Steffi Graf’s tally of 22 Grand Slam titles.

The draw looked ominous for Williams as it featured players like Madison Keys, Karolina Pliskova, Belinda Bencic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Venus Williams. In the other half of the draw Eugenie Bouchard was scripting a much awaited comeback by toughing out 3 consecutive match wins. She had to withdraw from her fourth round encounter due to a concussion she suffered due to an unfortunate accident in the Women’s locker room.

Over the first two days of play the dark horses in the Women’s Draw were ousted one by one by those players who had no business to do so, till they actually started turning predictions on the head. Roberta Vinci did the unthinkable. Making the most of the missed encounter with Bouchard in the fourth round, Vinci came into her semifinal match against Williams as a 300-1 underdog.

Williams came out firing on all cylinders to win the first set 6-2. Vinci, who had never won a single time against Williams in the past, sliced her way into the match literally. She moved the American around the court, using her backhand slice to great effect with the occasional deft drop shots. Rarely giving her opponent the opportunity to gain rhythm, Vinci forced a deciding set.

Though Williams started to cook a bagel in the decider as she did against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Vinci had her own secret recipe in place. From being 2-0 down in the decider, the Italian rallied to level the set at 3-3. At that point of the match when Williams let out a “war cry,” Vinci calmly soaked it all in with a wry smile. She broke Williams in that game and consolidated the break to lead 5-3.

Though the World No. 1 subsequently held her serve and left the match on Vinci’s racquet, pressure got the better of her. While Vinci just focused on keeping the ball in, Williams sprayed unforced errors from every part of the court. Vinci needed just one match point. With Williams stranded in the far end of the court Vinci executed a pick up volley to perfection for a clean winner.

The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, although disappointed at their home player’s loss, celebrated the underdog. As Serena left the court in a hurry with her trademark wave and finger wag, the 32 year old Vinci was in disbelief and awe of what she had accomplished. The crowd seemed to have feigned allegiance to their American Queen as they cheered Vinci on during her hilarious on-court interview. They were as happy, if not more, as she was. Tennis had triumphed.

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Pressure can be a very tricky opponent. Serena Williams wilted under pressure and the burden of expectations of turning 22 as a Grand Slam Champion wreaked havoc on her mind. The same Serena who battled the odds at the French Open and the Wimbledon to put herself in a position to see her tennis career come a full circle at the US Open had failed to get past that finish line.

Some drew it when the winning streak had just begun

Flavia Pennetta created history by becoming the first Italian woman ever to win the US Open

Roberta Vinci’s countrywoman Flavia Penneta reached her maiden Grand Slam Final by taking out some big names and former US Champions in her half of the draw – Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and World No.2 Simona Halep. In the first ever all Italian Women’s Final, Penneta handled the pressure better to beat Vinci in straight sets to win her maiden Grand Slam title in the Singles category.

During the presentation ceremony it was hard to say who won the title. Vinci showed a lot of heart and was all smiles for compatriot Penneta. Both players celebrated as if they had won a Fed Cup. The presentation ceremony was light hearted and fun till Penneta decided to drop the retirement bomb. At 33 she had decided to draw her own finish line and strongly felt that the time was right to move on into her next phase of life.

Penneta, during the presentation ceremony, revealed that she was fighting inner battles from 3 days prior to the French Open this year. Having made the retirement decision a month before the US Open, Penneta had perfectly handled pressure by playing like a potential Champion rather than treating every match in the tournament as potentially the last one.

It is ironic that a 21 time Grand Slam Champion could not tackle pressure but a 33 year old could embrace it to win her first ever Grand Slam title in a match that was her last chance in her career to achieve such a feat.

Mahut (left) and Herbert (right) become the first all French team to win the US Open

In the Men’s Doubles, Pierre Hugues-Herbert and Nicolas Mahut became the first all-French team to win at the US Open. The pair, a mix of youth and experience, reacted in different ways in crucial situations. Mahut, 33 years of age, looked really tight at Match Point while the young Herbert, 24, was flashy and oozed confidence with every shot he made. In the end it was Herbert’s backhand volley into the open space that helped the French team clinch their first ever Doubles Grand Slam title. In his 15- year professional career Mahut won his first ever Grand Slam title.

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Reliving the journey of going past it all over again

Martina Hingis (right) and Leander Paes with their 3rd Grand Slam Mixed Doubles title for the year

Martina Hingis has been on a great winning streak since the beginning of this season. After winning a Mixed Doubles title alongside partner Leander Paes at the Australian Open in January, Hingis had a memorable campaign at Wimbledon. She won both the Women’s Doubles and the Mixed Doubles with Sania Mirza and Leander Paes respectively. Martina Hingis repeated the Doubles sweep at the US Open by winning the Women’s Doubles with Sania Mirza and the Mixed Doubles with Leander Paes.

Martina Hingis retired in 2001 when the Williams sisters had begun to dominate the scene. Though she returned in 2005, her run was not a successful one as she faced a 2 year suspension on account of testing positive for a metabolite of cocaine in 2007.

Her second comeback has already seen her win 5 Grand Slam Doubles titles in 2015. Hingis’ career has been nothing short of stellar this year. Over time, her on-court chemistry with Paes and Mirza has blossomed to help build formidable teams. Her winning streak will be even more impressive as the season goes by.

For some there is just no finish line

At 42 Leander Paes shows no sign of stopping. With his Mixed Doubles title haul at the US Open 2015, he went past countryman Mahesh Bhupathi’s tally of 8 Doubles Grand Slam titles and is just one behind the legendary Martina Navratilova. Ageless and charming, this veteran Indian tennis star has 17 Doubles Grand Slam title under his belt.

Paes has as many Grand Slam titles as the iconic Roger Federer. Federer, at 34, had a phenomenal run at the US Open 2015. Blazing his way through to the Finals without dropping a single set, Federer had yet another opportunity to win the elusive 18th Grand Slam. But the quest for 18 was never going to be easy with the reigning World No.1 Novak Djokovic on the other side of the net.

Roger Federer wears a forlorn look after missing out on yet another opportunity to win his 18th Grand Slam title

Though Federer had a 5-1 record in the US Open Finals, he had fallen short of coming up with the goods against Djokovic in their last two meetings in Grand Slam finals. With a 21-20 head to head in Federer’s favor, he again failed to crack the Djokovic code when it mattered the most. In their much anticipated 42nd meeting the rain delay also played its part by bringing about cooler conditions and slowing down the court that seemed to suit Djokovic more than Federer.

Novak Djokovic with his 2nd US Open trophy and 10th Grand Slam title

Fighting a partisan crowd, Djokovic thrived on a healthy break point conversion and held his nerve to win his 2nd US Open title. Federer looked gutted and rued another wasted opportunity. In the presentation ceremony the Swiss Maestro was all praise for the Serbinator and said that it was always tough while facing Djokovic. Federer added,” I think we both walk away from it knowing more about our games and more about each other. I'm pleased with where my game is at.” The crowd went berserk when Federer finished his speech by saying, “One last thing. I’ll see you guys next year”.

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In his autobiography, Open, Agassi captures the essence of the Finish Line beautifully.

“The finish line at the end of a career is no different from the finish line at the end of a match. The objective is to get within reach of that finish line, because then it gives off a magnetic force. When you’re close, you can feel that force pulling you, and you can use that force to get across. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. It’s inexplicable, mystical, these twin forces, these contradictory energies, but they both exist. I know, because I’ve spent so much of my life seeking the one, fighting the other, and sometimes I’ve been stuck, suspended, bounced like a tennis ball between the two.” – Andre Agassi, Open

While Williams and Federer could not get past the finish line to capture their 22nd and 18th Grand Slams respectively, Italy’s Flavia Penneta drew her finish line after winning her first ever US Open. Herbert and Mahut became the first all French team to win at the US Open. Hingis and Paes became the first pair to win 3 Grand Slam Mixed Double titles in a year since 1969. Winning his 2nd US Open title and 10th overall, Djokovic now ties with Bill Tilden in the list of all-time Greats.

Though history created may not have been along expected lines, it was definitely exhilarating and highlighted the vagaries of the Sport. Keeping the finish line in perspective, the US Open 2015 delivered more than promised and will remain etched in the memories of tennis fans for a long time to come.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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