Nate Chura is senior tennis pro at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and covers the U.S. Open for WNYC.
The 2010 U.S. Open came within a whisker of losing two of its top players in the first round of the men’s singles draw this afternoon. The fifth-seeded Robin Soderling was almost bounced by Austrian qualifier Andreas Haider-Maurer and French rebel-rouser Gael Monfils nearly succumbed to New York Sportime Robert Kendrick.
In the final analysis, however, the favorites proved that their challengers were playing with house money. Soderling got off to a routine start, rather easily taking a two-sets-to-love lead. But in the third, the Swede seemed to run into a mirror image of himself. Haider-Maurer stole the third-set breaker and the momentum going into the fourth. Even in the fifth, the young qualifier brought his big-time game. Aces were flying the whole match, but one break is all it takes. Soderling seized the moment when, at last, it arrived. “It was really a tough match and tough conditions,” said Soderling after the match. “I think it was pretty hot. Of course I wanted to finish it in three when I had the match point, but I'm very pleased with the win.”
Once Soderling got the break, he mustered every ounce of strength to hold serve and advance to the next round, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4. To be sure, the win was not his prettiest. The world No. 5 managed to butcher 74 unforced errors compared to Haider-Maurer’s 65. But the story of tennis is more than just errors, and players at Soderling’s level tend not to dwell on rough performances. “I think I can play better, of course,” he confessed, “but, you know, I played worse. It's okay. I've been working hard now and still working hard, so hopefully I will play better already in my next match.”
While the Monfils-Kendrick rollercoaster featured far fewer unforced errors, missed opportunities were plentiful. Kendrick struggled with his serve most of the match, but Monfils was more than happy to lend a helping hand. Monfils won only six of 16 break point chances. Under ordinary circumstances one would assume Kendrick was serving like a maniac. However, this was not the case. The American’s percentage of second-serve points won was under 50, and he hit nearly twice as many second-serves as the Frenchman. Monfils’s return sprung a leak, to say the least, but he was pleased, nonetheless, with the 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 win.
“I know I can win five‑set match,” said Monfils, “I think I'm tough to play in five sets, but today was not a good day for me. I mean, it was like I was fighting against myself, so tried to be like more aggressive, tried to play my game. I think today I was pretty flat. But I'm happy, you know, I come through, and I just give myself second chance to practice hard tomorrow and to be better on Wednesday. I'm quite happy for that.”
At the end of the day, the players that pull out thrilling matches like those on display in Flushing today time and time again, in the face of brutal adversity, tend to exude an unflinching self-belief. At times, it can border on delusion, but there is never any doubt. They compartmentalize their losses and celebrate their victories. The best players know, deep down, that the toughest part of the game is closing the door. And after they do it once, they know they can do it again and again, so long as they stay healthy.
Not surprisingly in that area, Monfils feels fresh as a daisy. “I think physically I'm good,” he said about his state of being after the match. “But when the mind is not working that good—as you can see—I was, like, slow on the court and bad judgment sometime and also tried to change a bit my game. [That] wasn't the real Gaël Monfils on the court. You know, I fight, compete, and I come through, so it was ‑‑ I mean, I made my job pretty simple. Not good but, pretty simple.”
A win is a win, just the same. And in tennis, the top dogs usually prevail. Other notable seeds to pull through today included: Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Jurgen Melzer, and Albert Montanes.