Nadal Sweeps Himself Into The Third Round

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The ball gleamed like a yellow splotch of paint popping off a blue canvas as Denis Istomin streaked forward, his eyes riveted on the ball. Skidding into a sliding split, Istomin somehow dug out a winner, popped up from the court like a jack-in-the box and pumped his fist furiously seizing a 5-1 strong hold in the second-set tie breaker against Rafael Nadal tonight.

It was one of the most eye-popping points of this Flushing Meadows fortnight. Istomin left a long black skid mark across the court and Nadal applauded in appreciation for his opponent’s efforts.

Then the top-seeded Spaniard took off the gloves, elevated his intensity even higher and reeled off six straight points to post a highly-entertaining 6-2, 7-6(5), 7-5 victory to roll into the US Open third round.

There’s the physical demands of playing Nadal compounded by the sheer demoralizing fact that even after you give all you can give and hurl your body around the court with abandon, Nadal responds with even great intensity and concentration.

“He fought a good point. He played a great point,” Nadal said of Istomin’s efforts. “I had to win that point three times before, but he did well. Finally, he ws fast going for the drop shot and he pass me. Just a tough point for me…But I think I stayed very well mentally in that moment. I was playing with big calm and big concentration. And finally, I was a little bit lucky for sure. (It) is impossible to come back from 5-1, I had a little bit lucky. It was a very important moment of the match.”

It was Nadal’s 16th consecutive Grand Slam victory and sets up a third-round meeting with Gilles Simon, who topped 29th-seeded German Philipp Kohlschreiber, 4-6, 6-3, 1-6, 6-1, 6-3.

Nadal has beaten the 42nd-ranked Frenchman in three of their four meetings, including a 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 win in the 2009 Australian Open quarterfinals.

The Nadal serve was a key stroke tonight. He struggled at times on serve in Cincinnati, but saved all seven break points he faced tonight and smacked a 134 mph serve, the fastest serve he’s hit at the US Open.

Asked how he’s found his service rhythm, Nadal replied: “Well, (Uncle) Toni arrives and everything under control.”

“Seriously, I don’t know,” Nadal added. “That’s pretty strange because I wasn’t serving very well the previous days. I started to serve well one or two days before the competition. But the week of practice, I wasn’t serving well, no?”

A slight grip change seems to have remedied that issue.

“I changed a little bit the grip, like five or six days ago, because I felt when I played against the wind I didn’t have free points,” Nadal said. “So I needed that. So I tried to play the serve a little more aggressive. For the moment, it’s working really well so I am going to try to keep playing like this. And sure, serve is like big confidence for my game.”

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Like A Fish In Water, Mardy Rules

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The morning after Mardy Fish’s good friend and former high school basketball teammate Andy Roddick was bounced out of the US Open in four sets of sound and fury, Fish took the court and pressed the mute button on Pablo Cuevas. The 19th-seeded Fish, who may well be America’s best hope of going deep in the draw, crushed Cuevas, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2, to reach the Flushing Meadows third round for just the second time in 10 appearances.

Next up for Fish is the a third-round meeting with 32-year-old Arnaud Clement, the oldest man still standing in the singles draw. Clement held a 6-3, 5-5 lead when Eduardo Schwank retired from their second-round match. Should Fish prevail, he could get a shot at third-seeded Novak Djokovic with a trip to the quarters on the line.

Forgoing the typical tennis cliche of “playing one match at a time,” Fish said  he wants a shot at a top 10 player.

“I’d like another crack at a top 5 player, top 10 player in a Slam,” Fish said. “I think I’ve beaten a couple of them in Slams, but never deep into a tournament. Sort of getting yourself into winning maybe another match and getting myself into the situation of playing, you know, a Djokovic or a Davydenko or one of these guys that has been there quite a few times   you know, slam in, slam out, they’re going deep  so to put myself in a position to play them.  I certainly feel like I can hang with them.”

Fish has scored shutouts in three of the eight sets he’s played. The Fish story — he shed 30 pounds in the offseason by hiring a nutritionist and eliminating pizza, french fries and junk food — has been almost as well publicized as a Jenny Craig commercial.

The physical transformation has helped Fish reinvent himself as a competitor.

Clawing his way back from a break down in the first set, he pulled out the opening set then glanced over at Cuevas on the changeover to see 24-year-old Uruguayan sucking deep gasps of air with an ice towel wrapped around his neck.

“I kind of fought hard to stay just a break down, to be honest, in that first set.  I figured that hopefully I could weather this as long as I can, and eventually, you know, he’ll maybe come down to earth a little bit,” Fish said. “He gave me a few points there in that 5-4 game and the 6-5 game to allow me to win that first set, which was huge, because the weather, it was pretty hot. The first set is huge in this type of weather.”

The sight of a tormented opponent looking like a man in dire need of an air-conditioned exit strategy prompted Fish, who grew up playing in the heat and humidity of Vero Beach, Florida, to put the hammer down. He won 12 of the final 14 games in dispensing some commanding closure as well as physical punishment.

The byproduct of his improved fitness means Fish can practice longer and harder and player smarter tennis on pivotal points because he no longer has to pull the trigger prematurely on low percentage shots.

“It got fun to practice.  It’s fun to, you know, try to outlast guys, and it’s fun to see when, you know, you play a match like today and you’re in the heat and you sort of crawl back and win that first set,” Fish said.

There was a time when an out of shape Fish sometimes showed the competitive backbone of the Michilen Man running through a row of thumb tacks. Three years ago, Fish seemingly had the fifth set of a US Open second round match in hand before wilting and essentially donating the match to eighth-ranked Tommy Robredo.

Contrast that player to the man who has not only beat opponents, he’s beat up on them in the latter stages of matches this week and you have to give Fish a serious shot of extending his run here.

Fish said he did not stay up to watch Roddick play periods of passive tennis in bowing to Janko Tipsarevic, but he played the type of assertive tennis that eluded his friend and frequent practice partner. Fish hit 14 aces, won 21 of 25 trips to net and often exploited Cuevas’ deep court positioning with touch volleys and sharp-angled shots.

Fish, who won Newport and Atlanta back-to-back in posting a career-best 11-match winning streak earlier this summer, beat Roddick in the Cincinnati semifinals.  Fish said Roddick is not as aggressive as he was when he captured the 2003 US Open, but believes the former No. 1 sticks to the script he devises for each opponent with coach Larry Stefanki.

“I’ve watched some tape of him when he won the US Open in 2003.  He’s certainly played a more aggressive style,” Fish said. “But I think he’s fitter now than he was back then, so he can rely on his legs a little bit more now. He’s no dummy.  You know, he’s gonna play how he feels best suits him.  You know, he’s got a great team behind him that (coach) Larry Stefanki,they put together a game plan, and I guarantee you that’s how it’s gonna play…But with his serve, he can be on you like lightning.”

The departure of Roddick combined with the fact Djokovic staggered through his first-round match and has not looked close to the form he displayed in advancing to the 2007 final gives Fish every incentive to perhaps put together a quarterfinal run as he did two years ago.

Continuing his trip through the Open is Fish’s priority and the bigger picture is his pursuit of a place in the top 10. With no ranking points to defend between now and the end of the season, Fish has a legitimate shot to get to where he wants to go.

“I have played well here the past couple times that I’ve come.  I’ve got a really good opportunity from the 12 month calendar year from Newport…maybe a 12 month run that I can try to get myself into the top 10,” Fish said.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

No Oudin Run In 2010

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Melanie Oudin turned her back to the court, faced the blue back wall and stared at her Wilson racquet as if searching the strings for solutions to the problems posed by Alona Bondarenko. Oudin mastered the art of the comeback during her rousing run to the 2009 US Open quarterfinals, but the resignation on her face in the final game today revealed a woman well aware Cinderella stories only come once in a career.

This time, the ferocious forehand was weighted with worry, the “courage” emblazoned on her shoes contrasted with the concern on her face and the crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium waited for a moment that never came.

The 29th-seeded Bondarenko ran off 10 consecutive points to send Oudin out of the US Open second round, 6-2, 7-5.

Oudin conceded she felt a bit overwhelmed by the occasion.

“I think the nerves got the best of me today a little bit, especially in the first set,” Oudin said.  “Second set I started playing a lot better, making the points a little bit longer. But, yeah, the first set definitely like the crowd was like really, really loud.  It was just like a lot. The second I got out there, I guess it kind of overwhelmed me a little bit, so.”

On match point, Oudin pushed a running backhand down the line wide, looked down with vacant eyes then walked to the net to shake hands as the crowd, which was nearly mute during the final two games, offered appreciative applause.

The 18-year-old Oudin, who made “believe” her personal mantra in etching the word on her adidas in playing with resolve and resilience at the ’09 Open, snapped a four-match losing streak in her first-round win over 143rd-ranked qualifier Olga Savchuk. But she has not beaten a top-30 ranked opponent since scoring three consecutive comeback wins over Russians Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova at the Open last year and could not hold off the 33rd-ranked Bondarenko today.

A nervous Oudin could not find her first serve at 5-all in the second set. She slapped her forehand into the net, netted a backhand down the line and missed another forehand before lofting a running lob long to drop serve at love.

Oudin won just eight of 25 points played on her second serve. Unable to break Bondarenko down in baseline rallies, Oudin began to play closer to the lines.

“I mean, it’s tough coming back, especially after like the US Open I had last year, coming back and expecting to do that well again,” Oudin said. “And, yes, the expectations for me I think from like the fans were extremely high.  You could tell by the crowd.  Even the second I walked out there, people like expected me to win again like last year.”

Tennis is all about adjustments and opponents have learned that Oudin thrives off pace, particularly to her forehand. She has worked with coach Brian de Villiers to move forward in the court on her terms, but at 5-feet-6 Oudin does not have a lot of sting on her serve and her reach can be exposed when opponents draw her into net with short slices.

Oudin is at her best when she’s running around her backhand and hammering her favored forehand, but Bondarenko refused to let Oudin find her comfort zone in the final stages of the match.

The match showed Oudin’s game is still very much a work in progress and she views every match as another credit course on the learning curve that is the pro circuit.

Five minutes after her post-match press conference concluded, a relieved Oudin was on the receiving end of a hug from her younger brother as they walked down the hallway inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“I guess I’m a little tiny bit relieved now,” Ouudin said. “I can kind of start over, I guess like start over from all the expectations from like last year.  And now I can just go out and hopefully do really well the rest of the year and keep working hard.”

Her US Open dream may be over for this year, but Oudin is still part of the tournament, playing mixed doubles with Ryan Harrison.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.

Rafa Adjusts To Life at No. 1

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The US Open is the only Grand Slam title trophy missing from Rafael Nadal’s major trophy collection and the two-time semifinalist is trying to make necessary adjustments to acquire it. The top-seeded Spaniard didn’t completely find his comfort zone in Tuesday night’s 7-6(4), 7-6(4), 6-3 win over Teymuraz Gabashvili, but played the pivotal points with purpose. Nadal is trying to adapt his heavy topspin game to the faster speed and lower bounce of the ball off the blue Deco Turf courts.

“(The US Open) Is the more difficult for me, especially I think because the ball,” Nadal said.  “The ball is the more difficult thing for me because the ball I think is more easy to play that ball for the players when they have the flat shots, no?  That’s much easier for them than for the topspin players.  That’s the only thing. But I won Olympics with this ball.  I won in Beijing in 2005 with this ball.  I can do it.”

Nadal’s history in Flushing Meadows is littered with losses to players who hit flat, including Juan Martin del Potro last year and James Blake, and players with the ability to flatten out the ball, including Andy Murray, who knocked Nadal out of the 2008 semifinals, David Ferrer and Mikhail Youzhny.

The eight-time Grand Slam champion is trying to play a bit flatter when he draws the mid-court ball but said he’s trying to use his topspin to dictate play.

“The thing is play with topspin, but play very aggressive all the time, play with very high rhythm.  That’s the way,” Nadal said.

The Nadal backhand return was an issue in Cincinnati where he seemingly had so little confidence in his two-handed backhand, he resorted to chipping back his return in his matches against Julien Benneteau, where hs saved a match point and his quarterfinal loss to Marcos Baghdatis.

Practicing with his coach, Uncle Toni Nadal, who was not in Cincinnati but made the trip to New York, Nadal has consistently worked on driving through the backhand and finishing that stroke, but concedes it’s still a work in progress.

“The forehand is working well.  The backhand is not that bad that I had last weeks,” Nadal said.  “So improves a little bit.  Just remains a little bit of this confidence to have a little bit more, you know, to improve a little bit that level, to go to the next step.”

The next step could be a slightly tricky one as Denis Istomin awaits. The 39th-ranked Istomin is coming off the New Haven finals and pushed Nadal to three sets on the grass of Queen’s Club, 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4.

“He’s playing well.  He had a very good tournament in New Haven.  Yeah, sure is difficult opponent, good player,” Nadal said. “I played against him in the second round of Queen’s.  I had a very difficult match…He plays a little bit more calm than Gabashvili.  So, I don’t know, I just have to keep playing like I did today, a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more confidence.”

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.