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US Open diary: Murray brings everyone's spirits down, but then Del Potro lifts them right up

Both Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro lost in the US Open quarters, but the manner of their exits couldn't have been more contrasting.

Andy Murray
Andy Murray

I suppose everyone is just as tired of Andy Murray’s mid-match whining as I am. So when he started on one of his tirades yesterday during the quarterfinal against Kei Nishikori, it was all anyone could do to not throw their hands up in exasperation and bellow at him to get his head straight. He seemed to be spending more energy arguing with the chair umpire than on constructing points, and before you knew it Nishikori had evened the match at two sets all.

For once though, Murray was partly justified with his tantrum. We didn’t know it at the time, but the gong-like sound that forced umpire Marija Cicak to call a let at 1-1 in the fourth set, with the Scot facing break point and seemingly in control of the rally, was the turning point of the match. Murray proceeded to lose seven straight games after that, and was always playing catch-up till the end.

It later transpired that the sound was heard in varying decibels four times during the match, so Murray was right in pointing out that the play should have been stopped at every such instance. And the reason for it was fairly frustrating for the players too – the USTA released a statement after the match saying that “one of the three digital audio sound processors in Arthur Ashe Stadium malfunctioned early in the fourth set”, and that “the malfunctioning unit could not be taken off-line without interrupting play.”

That didn’t exactly warrant Murray’s long-winding rants that seemed to suck the energy out of the entire stadium, but at least you could see where he was coming from. In any case though, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference even if the Wimbledon champion had kept his head towards the home stretch. Nishikori took his game to another level in the fourth and fifth sets, and there was very little Murray could have done to alter the result.

I watched Nishikori play in Melbourne earlier this year, and I remember thinking that he plays in a different division of the men’s game – the lightweight division. It was his match against Novak Djokovic that I had caught, and everything that the Japanese did (apart from the return of serve), Djokovic seemed to do stronger and better. Nishikori could match Djokovic with his foot speed, but he seemed to be going for too much with his groundstrokes all the time. And without the Serb’s consistency, it looked like a perennial losing cause.

But that’s why making snaping judgments based on one off-day is so wrong. Yesterday, Nishikori seemed to be going for too much on the groundstrokes too – especially in the first couple of sets. But towards the end he started connecting with all of his quick strikes, and the result was stunning.

Nishikori takes the ball earlier than most players – definitely earlier than Murray – and can change the direction at will. What he lacks in height and serving potency, he makes up for in timing and precision. And those hands...if he hadn’t been a tennis player, he would probably have been able to make a good living as a sculptor.

Kei Nishikori
Kei Nishikori’s volleying was a revelation

He was, to put it mildly, sensational at the net yesterday. Murray had no clue how to counter Nishikori’s net forays, which included a few serve-and-volley plays, and some of the volleys that the Japanese pulled off looked almost too good to be true. After the match I asked him whether he had made a conscious decision to approach the net more against Murray, but he neither affirmed nor denied that.

“Well, I see some opportunity to come in today so I tried to be aggressive. I saw that's what I had to do. Especially against Andy. He has great defense. I don't know why I did and serve and volley many today, but I was felt like and it was working. I think it was great mix-up serve and volley and come to the net a lot today,” he said.

As I watched Nishikori’s aggressive play yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder why he hasn’t won a Slam yet. But then I remembered that match against Djokovic in Melbourne, and it hit me how hard it must be for Nishikori to make this kind of risky game work day-in and day-out. The diminutive shot-maker is not blessed with a lot of power and height, as you’ve probably heard, so it’s always an uphill battle for him to take on the big guys.

Fortunately for those in Arthur Ashe, and unfortunately for Murray and his fans, it all came together perfectly for Nishikori yesterday. We’ll take that trade-off for now, even if we have to suffer Murray’s (justified) whining in the process.

Juan Martin del Potro
No picture can ever do full justice to the sheer violence of Del Potro’s forehand

A few hours after the Scot’s downer of a display, Juan Martin del Potro and Stan Wawrinka turned up on the court in their bid to perk up the spectators. Not that pleasing the audience was what they were after; for them, it was a semifinal place that was at stake. But considering the reputations that both men brought with them, their battle was the one most likely to produce the brightest fireworks of the fortnight.

And fireworks there were, at least in the first couple of sets. While Wawrinka took a bit of time to get going, Del Potro’s forehand was enough to keep everyone on their toes in the early stages. He was hitting the monster shot well, and that could only mean one thing – the stadium sounded like a mining site, with explosions going off at intermittent intervals.

Did the sound of Del Potro’s forehand rival the volume of the ‘gong’ noise that interrupted the Murray-Nishikori match? I can’t be sure, but it certainly must have felt more terrifying to anyone at the receiving end of it. Except that Wawrinka is not just ‘anyone’; he can trade bullets with the best of them. And if there’s one shot that can make the spectators ooh and aah as much as they do at Del Potro’s forehand, it is the Swiss’ backhand.

This was a proper hitting contest throughout its duration, and each player looked hell-bent on trying to outmuscle the other. At first Wawrinka didn’t seem to think it was a good idea to target the Del Potro backhand – probably because he still remembered how often he was burned by the Argentine’s slice at Wimbledon. But once he realized that this wasn’t grass and the ball wasn’t keeping as low, he abandoned all bravado and went to the simple-yet-effective strategy of avoiding the Del Potro forehand.

The Argentine had the lion’s share of the crowd support right from the start. He’s a popular player wherever he goes, but probably more so in New York than anywhere else. This is the site where he won his only Major, and as he kept winding up to hit his titanic forehand over and over again, he brought back memories of that momentous evening from 2009.

Juan Martin del Potro
It was a night that ended in tears for Juan Martin del Potro, but these were good tears

It didn’t take long for the crowd to realize that Del Potro’s fitness still isn’t up to scratch, and that losing the first set was too big a setback for him. When he served for the second set at 5-4, and struggled mightily to get the job done, many sensed that this was his last stand. That 10th game of the second set had plenty of nerves, power, determination and some puzzling line-calling, and the crowd did their best to add to the drama with their throaty yells. When the Argentine finally won the game off a backhand error by Wawrinka, the noise reached its peak.

Or so we thought. The crowd kept thinning as the night wore on, but the support for Del Potro only got louder. Wawrinka served for the match at 5-2 in the fourth set, and that’s when the day reached its highest point. Everyone stood up to get behind their man, singing and cheering him on, which brought the gentle giant to tears.

You got the feeling that this was the kind of moment for which Del Potro lives. All those comebacks from debilitating injuries, all that time spent on the sidelines wondering whether he’d ever play again, all the heartbreaking losses he’s suffered in this career – with the payout this beautiful, everything made sense.

“Well, something difficult to describe with words. I mean, I can lose the match, but I will never forget this. You know, it's bigger than win any match. I'm so proud to get that from the crowd, because I have been doing a big effort to play tennis again. They made me so happy tonight, and I don't mind the score,” Del Potro said when asked to describe that moment.

We don’t mind the score either. We’re just lucky to watch him hitting those earth-shattering forehands and making those inspiring comebacks, and doing it all with a smile.

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