This Made My Day

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Roger and Rafa: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal embrace at the net after a hard fought five set match in their first grand slam final in six years with Federer prevailing to win his record 18th major at what was a memorable Australian Open. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Australian Open.

On a wonderful day to be alive where two great champions renewed the rivalry down under and went the distance with the King, Roger Federer prevailing in five sets over Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to capture a record 18th grand slam for his first major in five years, this made my day.

A nice tweet exchange between moi and one of my favorite American tennis players, James Blake! 😀

Blake will always be an overachiever who overcame a career threatening injury to make a great run in the 2005 U.S. Open. He went all the way to the quarterfinals before losing in an epic five set showdown against American legend Andre Agassi. One played before a raucous atmosphere at Ashe Stadium in a night session in the city that never sleeps. The memorable highlights:

There are some matches you remember more than others. The same applies to any sport. Games that stand out. Plays that do. Or magical points in tennis lure that make it such an underappreciated sport. Whether it was Nadal prevailing over Federer in their third Wimbledon final in a five set epic winning it for the first time 9-7 in the fifth. Or it was Blake and Agassi going toe to toe from the baseline slugging it out shot for shot. Or the memorable Jimmy Connors ’91 run where he was in a similar predicament against Aaron Krickstein.  The astonishing Novak Djokovic return winner in which he went for broke on championship point to eventually stun Federer at the U.S. Open. Any classic point played between Agassi and Pete Sampras in what will always be my favorite rivalry. Roger and Rafa are right behind even though they’ve given us even more moments.

These are the moments that make sport great. Today in Melbourne, two legends battled it out for over three and a half hours in their first major final since 2011. One is the record holder for majors. Federer is now up to 18. A remarkable achievement considering he missed the last six months due to a knee injury. One in which he needed five sets to win three matches. Nadal, who had been written off at 30 due to the wear and tear- overcoming his own injuries to make a terrific run in beating quality opponents to reach his first slam final in a few years.

Of course, it would go five. Why wouldn’t it? I only wish I could’ve stayed up and watched. But I was tired and will put a few hours in at work later. Just seeing the winning Federer forehand that just edged the line with a challenge review determining that he had finally won again was enough. Seeing the sheer joy and tears at age 35 said it all. The respect each paid to each other during the on court ceremony. Wonderful stuff. Nadal with 14 majors looking like he still might have something left. Maybe he adds to his trophy case in early June at the French Open. Wouldn’t that be something?

Two players in the twilight of their Hall of Fame careers playing in their 30’s and still proving that they have it. Even if it took monumental upsets of co-favorites Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for it to happen, tennis won. Nadal still had to go through emerging German sensation Alex Zverev, flying Frenchman Gael Monfils, big serving Canadian Milos Raonic and reemerging Bulgarian Gregor Dimitrov in nearly five hours. Federer had to beat pesky Japan star Kei Nishikori in five sets. He did catch a break with Zverev’s older brother Mischa pulling the upset of Murray in the Round of 16. One he took advantage of prevailing in straight sets to set up an All-Swiss battle against Stan Wawrinka. I gotta be honest. I picked Stan in five. I also took Dimitrov in five. I was glad to be proven wrong by both Roger and Rafa.

It says a lot about their character and desire that each needed to go five twice just to make the final. And for Federer to overcome his nemesis after Nadal took set four and was up a break 3-1 in the final set, that tells you how much he wanted it. He had lost the previous four meetings in major finals to Nadal, who got him last time in 2011 at Roland Garros. This was extra special.

I wish I could’ve seen Serena beat Venus the previous night. The Williams sisters have been a symbol of American tennis for the last decade. They have carried the torch. Serena Williams finally passing Steffi Graf for the most grand slam titles (23) in the Open Era with a 6-4, 6-4 win over elder sister Venus Williams. Two women playing great tennis in their mid-30’s. Serena at age 35 with only Margaret Court (24 majors) to catch. Venus, who couldn’t quite win that first Australian Open against her younger sister with the best serve in women’s history. Venus, who has overcome Sjogren’s Syndrome to still play the game she loves and do it competitively by making deep runs. So inspiring.

When it comes down to it, even though I couldn’t see as much of what’s become my favorite tournament as I would’ve liked due to the time difference and my schedule, tennis won. They got two epic finals with four of the greatest players who are all in their 30’s. Something that never happened before.

It’s a huge motivator to anyone out there who feels they can’t do it anymore. You can do whatever you want. Age is just a number. Work at it. Have fun. Live.

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Stan the Man: Wawrinka bests Djokovic to win U.S. Open

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Stan the Man: New U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka celebrates during his big four set win over world number one Novak Djokovic in what was a fantastic and grueling men’s final. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Tennis.com on Twitter.

Just call him Stan the Man. The hard working third seeded 31-year old Swiss who’s played in the shadow of Roger Federer won his first ever U.S. Open. In a captivating match that had plenty of mental and physical battles, Stan Wawrinka came back to defeat top ranked Novak Djokovic in four sets, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 at a boisterous Ashe Stadium.

In winning his third major, Wawrinka has now captured the Australian, French and U.S. Open. Two have come after turning 30 including Roland Garros in ’15 and Flushing Meadows on Sunday. Aside from going three-for-three in his first three major finals, he’s won an astonishing 11 consecutive finals on the ATP Tour. A streak he continued by getting the better of the game’s best player.

Despite an odd road to another final in Queens that included a walkover, two retirements and a bizarre four set semifinal win over the perplexing Gael Monfils, Djokovic had a chance to win three of four slams a second straight year, which would’ve further cemented his place as one of the game’s all-time best. He still owns 12 slams including this year’s Australian and French- his first which completed a career grand slam. It wasn’t meant to be for the weary world number one ranked Serbian who had two treatments for blisters in the fourth set. He clearly was hobbled but showed plenty of heart forcing Wawrinka to earn it.

“This is amazing,” an emotional Wawrinka told the crowd during the on court presentation on a special day which commemorated the 15-year Anniversary of September 11, 2001. “I came here without expecting to win it. When I stepped on the court, I tried to win every match. I did everything today against Novak. The crowd and atmosphere was something I’ve never had before. It’s an amazing night.”

On this night, it was Wawrinka who was the better player. As a classy Djokovic said during his runner-up interview, he was the ‘more courageous player.’ Indeed, Wawrinka was better on the big points, saving an incredible 14 of 17 break points against the game’s best returner. He also was more opportunistic, converting on six of ten break chances.

The difference was actually his defense. Normally a huge edge to the gritty Djokovic, it went to Wawrinka, who found ways to stay in points when he was pinned behind the baseline. He also went bigger crushing 46 winners compared to Djokovic’s 30. Both committed their share of unforced errors with Wawrinka having 51 while Djokovic made 46. A lot of the mistakes were due to some grueling rallies where each player never gave up on points or the other’s serve. It had that kind of feel. No wonder the four set match took three hours and 54 minutes to complete. Imagine if there was a fifth set. What would they have had left?

A much sharper Djokovic came out firing on all cylinders by quickly breaking a flat Wawrinka in the second game. He then held for a 3-0 lead. Wawrinka was misfiring wildly from the baseline. His normally unflappable and clutch one-handed backhand- the best in the sport- was missing. It was that clutch shot he made on a match point in a third round win over Daniel Evans that kept him alive long enough to win a tiebreak and pull out a five set win. He then needed four sets in the next two rounds including an emotional quarterfinal victory over former ’09 Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro in a Davis Cup atmosphere. He also fought back from a set down to overpower Kei Nishikori in the semis.

To his credit, Wawrinka regained his composure. Finding the form that has always made him a “big match player” according to Djokovic, he worked his way back in the first set eventually breaking back. Even with momentum entering the tiebreak, he dropped the breaker 7-1. There were two incredible points back-to-back. The first, Wawrinka won with both players scrambling from baseline to net with him able to knock off a volley into an open court. The next point saw Djokovic at his defensive best, going on the full run to hit a perfect backhand up the line for a huge winner. He would then cruise to take a one set lead.

Despite falling behind, Wawrinka started the second set by going up an early break on Djokovic, jumping out to a 4-1 lead. His bigger ground game seemed to be getting to Djokovic. But the resilient two-time Open winner valiantly fought back with a break of his own, eventually squaring the set at 4-all. Knowing he needed to hold, Wawrinka gamely held for 5-4. In the 10th game, he was able to break Djokovic to square the match.

The third set was wild and unpredictable. There were three breaks of serve, speaking to just how competitive each service game was. It was again Wawrinka early in the set who jumped in front due to unconscious winners from both sides. Whether it be his lethal one-handed backhand either cross court or down the line or his forehand also down the line, he was the more brave player. Something Djokovic referenced afterwards.

“I lost my nerves in the important moments. He kept his cool. I think that’s what decided the match. I just didn’t capitalize at all on my opportunities. I had plenty of them. It was a terrible conversion of the break points. Just terrible from my side,” the always honest world number one assessed.

“In matches like these, if you don’t use the opportunities, the other guy comes and takes it. And that’s what he did. That’s why I said he was more courageous, because he stepped in and played aggressive where I was waiting for things to happen.”

Despite Wawrinka outslugging him 18-8 in winners during a long third set that needed over an hour, a determined Djokovic began pushing Wawrinka wide. The change in strategy helped him claw back in the set with a break of serve. It also put his opponent more on the defensive, drawing 19 unforced errors. After fighting off two break points in a momentum shifting service game late in the third set, Wawrinka seized the moment in the 12th game. With Djokovic trailing 5-6 and trying to force a tiebreak, it was a persistent Wawrinka who took the game to deuce. He played two strong points by changing the pace. Instead of hitting full out, he threw change ups at Djokovic which drew errors to take the set. As is his trademark, he pointed to the temple after going up a set.
When he went up an early break and jumped out to 3-0 in the fourth, it looked like the end. It was in Djokovic’s first service game that during an extended point, he pulled up and felt a twinge. Clearly hurting, he struggled and dropped serve. Despite trailing 0-3, he didn’t call for the trainer for a medical timeout. With it apparent that he was cramping, ESPN’s Patrick McEnroe noted that a player cannot use a timeout for cramps. Following a brave hold for 1-3, it was then that a limping Djokovic approached the chair umpire and asked for a timeout to treat another injury.
During the stoppage which came with Wawrinka about to serve, he protested. The rules say an injured player should wait until their serve for a medical timeout. So, he was right. Something both McEnroe and Brad Gilbert reemphasized as did John McEnroe. The injury turned out to be legit. Djokovic was suffering from blisters, which from the ESPN camera were quite ugly. They didn’t need to give a close up on the second treatment with it visibly showing a bloody toe. Curt Schilling would’ve been proud.
When play resumed, it was Djokovic who applied the pressure. He earned two more break chances to get back on serve. But a feisty Wawrinka fought both off and eventually held in a game that took about seven minutes to lead 4-1. Despite not showing much wear and tear despite being on the court double of Djokovic for the tournament, he later admitted the obvious.

“Today I was trying to stay with him,” Wawrinka told reporters in a press conference. “I was trying to be tough with myself, trying not to show anything, not to show any pain, not to show any cramps, not to show anything. I was suffering on the court, but I’m happy and proud with what I have achieved today.”

His persistence paid off. He really earned it. After a comfortable hold for 5-2, Wawrinka was forced to serve it out by a courageous Djokovic, who held for 3-5. Consecutive tight points allowed the packed stadium to believe Djokovic had a chance of forcing a fifth set. But after trailing Love-30, it was Wawrinka who won the final four points to win his third slam.

At the net, the two embraced. Djokovic, who apologized to Wawrinka during his first medical treatment, had some kind words for Stan. When asked about it by ESPN on court presenter Tom Rinaldi, he sarcastically didn’t reveal it to chuckles. The respect and warmth the two displayed was great. Wawrinka paid homage to Djokovic calling him a “great champion,” while also receiving his winner’s check of $3.5 million and the trophy.

Wawrinka made sure to thank his coach Magnus Norman, parents and girlfriend Donna Vekic. The pretty 20-year old WTA player smiled and hugged her man when he climbed up to celebrate the big win in his players’ box.

Despite seeing a wounded Djokovic at less than peak form, he showed tremendous heart. That’s what makes him so tough to beat. He still made it a thriller which almost went four hours.

In the end, Wawrinka was the better and more deserving player. One who joined legends Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi as players who have won multiple slams after turning 30. Agassi won five of his eight after 30 including three Australians.

It’s good for tennis to see Wawrinka reemerge after a tough year at the slams. He reached the semis at the French but was ousted before the quarters at the Australian and Wimbledon. Next year, he’ll turn 32 on March 28. He’s still getting better. A scary aspect for the rest of the field. He’s a Wimbledon shy of a career grand slam. Figure him to fare better than the second round when a returning Del Potro got him in four sets.

In what was a great tournament, you had a top four player win. Our pick Andy Murray disappointed by losing in five sets to the pesky Nishikori, who rallied from two sets to one down. The 2014 runner-up put everyone on notice that he’s still a factor. As for 14-time slam champion Rafael Nadal, it’s hard to say if he can win another one. Health will be the key. Don’t forget Roger Federer, who will return next season fresh after realizing his knee wasn’t fully recovered. Milos Raonic was a finalist at Wimbledon.

The men’s field remains as competitive as ever. With the talented Monfils, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga having never won a major and up and coming 22-year old Frenchman Lucas Pouille looking like a threat, it should only become tougher.

The game is in great shape for the present and future.

New number one Kerber wins U.S. Open over Pliskova

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U.S. Open champion Angelique Kerber holds the trophy after edging Karolina Pliskova in three sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 to back up her number one ranking. AP Photo via Getty Images by Self Magazine on Twitter.

Angelique Kerber followed up becoming the number one ranked player in the world by winning her first U.S. Open to put a bow on her magical season. The 28-year old German needed to be at her best to outlast first-time slam finalist Karolina Pliskova in three thrilling sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

The Open Final lasted two hours and seven minutes. It was a second consecutive year that American Serena Williams wasn’t playing for the title. After being shocked by Roberta Vinci in three sets during last year’s semifinal, she was eliminated by the powerful 24-year old rising Czech Pliskova, who out-served and outhit her to win in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6 (5). Pliskova had also previously taken out Venus Williams in a breathtaking three sets, saving a match point. She also beat 18-year old future star Ana Konjuh in the quarters.

Entering today’s women’s final, much of the talk was about Kerber finally reaching number one on the WTA Tour. In what’s been a career year that’s included an Australian Open victory over Serena, a Wimbledon runner-up losing to Serena and an Olympic silver medal in Rio losing to surprising gold medalist Monica Puig (first round exit at Open), a determined Kerber wouldn’t let the powerful Pliskova break through with her first major.

After dropping the first set 6-4 to a much sharper Kerber, who wouldn’t let her break serve, Pliskova turned up the heat in a better second. Ratcheting up her serve, she was tougher to break for the pesky Kerber, who preferred longer rallies. The taller Pliskova went bigger slugging 17 winners from the baseline. The more she imposed her will, the harder it became for Kerber to offset the relentless pressure. Eventually, Pliskova finally broke Kerber in the seventh game. She then held for 5-3. Following a Kerber hold, Pliskova served out the set. An errant Kerber forehand forced the final set.

Early on, it was the more aggressive Pliskova who went up a break for 4-3 with plenty of support from the capacity Ashe Stadium. With special guest Devils hockey star Patrik Elias supporting her in her players’ box, things were looking good. But even after Kerber finally showed frustration slamming her racket during the break, the feisty German broke back easily for 4-all. Pliskova showed both nerves and sluggishness misfiring on three shots to donate the break back.

In her next service game, Kerber rallied from Love-30 down to hold. They key shot was a running forehand down the line during an extended rally to set up game point. Following a hold for 5-4, the pressure was squarely on the younger Pliskova. Four years Kerber’s junior, she had never been on this stage before. However, she beat Kerber a month ago in Cincinnati 3 and 1. This was a different set of circumstances.

Under the spotlight, it was a more weary Pliskova who didn’t have enough left in the tank. Despite being so close to a winner take all tiebreaker, she was broken at love by a resilient Kerber. More misses were her undoing. Love-30 down, she set up the next point beautifully. She had a short backhand with an open court, but netted it setting up triple match point.

Three championship points for Kerber. She cashed in on another Pliskova unforced error. Her 18th and final error gave an emotional Kerber her first U.S. Open championship- confirming that she was a legit world number one. After a nice exchange at the net with Pliskova who congratulated her, Kerber climbed into the stands to celebrate with her coach, family and friends.

A nice trophy presentation on ESPN showed the present and future of women’s tennis. Kerber is the best player in the world. She earned it. As for whether or not Williams will regain number one and finally win a record 23rd major, time will tell. She probably will. However, the amount of excuses Chrissie Evert made for her for losing to Pliskova was sad. Not enough credit was given to Pliskova, who served big and was better than Serena in their semifinal. One in which Williams was clearly hobbled by the end on one leg, which explains her rare double fault on match point. She had two in the breaker.

One thing is clear. Pliskova has the look of a future slam winner. With the big serve and huge game with some natural instincts and touch at the net, she doesn’t look like a fluke. Expect more from her in 2017. As for Kerber, the German became the first lefty since Monica Seles to win the U.S. Open (’92). She’s also the first German world number one since tennis legend Steffi Graf, who still shares the modern day record of 22 slams with Serena.

In a year where Maria Sharapova was suspended for use of a banned substance and Victoria Azarenka became pregnant, the future of women’s tennis stepped up. It’s no longer just Serena anymore. Kerber is number one. Pliskova should be heard from. Garbine Muguruza broke through at the French Open.

Hopefully, next year Petra Kvitova will rediscover what made her a two-time Wimbledon champ. She battled Kerber in the fourth round but lost in straight sets. American Madison Keys remains the future for American tennis. Will she finally improve the rest of her game enough to break through. We’ll see.

The French Revolution at US Open: Relentless Pouille upsets Nadal in epic five sets

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The French Revolution: For the first time in the Open Era, three Frenchmen are in the quarterfinals of a grand slam. The biggest surprise is 22-year old Lucas Pouille, who courageously withstood former two-time champ Rafael Nadal in a five set epic that needed a topsy turvy tiebreaker which took over four hours at Ashe Stadium. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy ESPN Tennis

Never before in the Open Era has France placed three men in the quarterfinals before at a grand slam. History was made Sunday thanks to Lucas Pouille’s big upset of Rafael Nadal in a memorable five set epic at Ashe Stadium. The Flying Frenchman showed nerves of steel to pull out the biggest win of his career by defeating Nadal 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in a great fourth round match that lasted over four hours.

The 22-year old withstood a strong fight from the always relentless Nadal, who had strong support from the capacity crowd in Flushing Meadows. However, Pouille also had some support from appreciative fans who enjoyed the energy and similar never say die attitude he played with. He easily could’ve lost after dropping serve a second straight time, allowing Nadal to finally close out the fourth set and square the match. When Nadal secured an early break in the opening game and held for 2-0, it looked like the 14-time grand slam winner would prevail.

But one thing that was noteworthy was Pouille’s attitude. He never gave up. There was no quit from the rising 25th ranked Frenchman. When Nadal pressed for a double break in the third game, he stood up to the test and got a huge hold of serve to get his footing in the final set. Possessing a stronger serve and a potent forehand and all around game that saw the athletic Pouille not afraid to finish points at the net, he hung around long enough for Nadal to crack.

It came in the eighth game. Pouille was able to take advantage of some errors. He also was very aggressive and earned the break back with some strong hitting to level the match with a huge, “Come on!” The crowd cheered. They knew what they were seeing was special. Especially against a crowd favorite like Nadal, who’s won this tournament twice (2010, 2013).

Neither player budged with Nadal bravely holding serve twice to force the dramatic fifth set tiebreaker. It was 25 years ago during an amazing run by then 39-year old American legend Jimmy Connors that he looked into the camera and echoed those famous words:

“This is what they came for. This is what they want.”

Indeed, it was. Early in the breaker, it looked like the younger underdog would run away with it. Two key Nadal misses from the baseline and two clutch serves gave Pouille a 4-1 mini break lead. After he held his nerve winning both points on serve for 3-4, Pouille showed no anxiety winning the next two points to set up triple match point. With the crowd screaming, Nadal bravely saved the first two with some bold play. He also drew a forehand miss from Pouille into the net.

Now, it was on Pouille’s racket. A third chance to advance to his second straight quarterfinal, following up his first at Wimbledon. During another entertaining rally that had the crowd into it, he finally showed some nerves missing a forehand way long due to some outstanding defense and hustle from a determined Nadal. What followed was the biggest point that Rafa will be thinking about for quite a while.

Pushing Pouille around the back of the baseline, Nadal had it all set up for what would’ve been his first match point. He got a short reply and had a gimme forehand with an open court. But somehow, he missed netting it. The shocking result gave Pouille a 7-6 lead and fourth match point. He earned it with the kind of bravery that can be admired. During a lengthy rally, Pouille went big crushing a forehand winner down the line to earn the victory. In the end, the player who was more daring in the biggest moment won.

For Nadal, he’ll look back on what could’ve been had he made that forehand at 6-all. He doesn’t always make his shots now. Part of it is timing which will come back with more match play. After withdrawing from Roland Garros due to injury and pulling out of Wimbledon, the likable 30-year old fourth ranked Spaniard returned for the Olympics in Rio. He made a nice run advancing to the semifinals before falling in three sets to a resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro. He lost the bronze medal to Kei Nishikori but teamed up with Marc Lopez to win gold in men’s doubles. For the season, Nadal is still 37-12 with two titles. So, all is not lost. He still has some good tennis left. But unless he improves a predictable serve that produced just one ace compared to Pouille’s 11 and stays aggressive, it’s hard to see him winning another major. His health will be a key factor.

As for Pouille, he has the look of a future slam winner. The tremendous heart he plays with along with the weapons he possesses- particularly the big forehand- make him a threat. He has proven that his run at Wimbledon wasn’t a fluke. Now, he’ll face countryman Gael Monfils next. The always electrifying Monfils easily ousted Marcos Baghdatis in straight sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.  The 10th seed made the quarters here in 2014 and had Roger Federer on the ropes but blew a two sets to none lead. He can be unpredictable. His serve is certainly strong enough as his forehand and defense to take him to a first U.S. Open semifinal. But Pouille’s game might be too good if he doesn’t get overwhelmed by the occasion.

One thing is guaranteed. There will be a French player in the semis. It’s expected to be for Novak Djokovic, who first must win tonight’s late match following Angelique Kerber/Petra Kvitova. He’ll take on Brit Kyle Edmund, who knocked out John Isner. Assuming Djokovic gets through that, he’ll face the other talented Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga– a four set winner over Jack Sock. Tsonga has the distinction has the most gifted player without a major. He’s always a threat. We’ll see what he has in store for us.

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It won’t be a happy tournament for Madison Keys, who dropped her fourth round match to two-time U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy WTA Twitter account.

Farewell Madison: In what amounted to a disappointment, American Madison Keys lost her fourth round match to Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 6-4. I did boldly take her to finally break through and win her first slam. But it’s not to be. The powerful Keys with the big serve and big game still makes too many errors. She committed 33 unforced errors compared to Wozniacki’s seven. Of course, she also had 18 more winners with a 30-12 edge to the more defensive and consistent Wozniacki, who loves playing here.

The problem for Keys is she is either hit or miss. She easily could’ve lost to American Alison Riske in the first round. But pulled it out in three. Keys also needed to dig deep in the third round just to sneak out a three set win over Japan’s Naomi Osaka. All that work makes it harder to win a major. Until she becomes more consistent and develops another strategy, Keys will probably fall short of reaching her full potential.

Wozniacki knows who she is. The 26-year old popular Dane is a two-time runner-up in New York City. She’s fallen out of the top 50 due to an injury plagued and inconsistent season. She entered play 13-14. Her four straight wins will guarantee her a higher ranking. She’ll next face 26-year old Latvian Anastasija Sevastova, who was a 6-4, 7-5 upset winner over promising Brit Johanna Konta. If Wozniacki can prevail, she’d get the winner between Roberta Vinci and Kerber/Kvitova. Kerber currently leads Kvitova 6-3, 3-2. If Kerber prevails, she’d be on track to possibly become number one. A U.S. Open win guarantees it.

U.S. Open 2016: McEnroe blasts Kyrgios

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An injured Nick Kyrgios is treated by a trainer during a disappointing third round exit at the U.S. Open. He withdrew losing to Illya Marchenko 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. AP Photo courtesy Live Tennis via Getty Images

During ESPN’s telecast of a men’s third round match won by 28-year old Ukrainian Illya Marchenko in a shortened three sets due to frustrating but talented Aussie Nick Kyrgios retiring due to a hip injury at Ashe Stadium, John McEnroe blasted the 16th seed.

With both John and younger brother Patrick McEnroe referencing Kyrgios’ lack of a coach or trainer, each questioned his commitment. The 21-year old remains a polarizing enigma with the potential to be a top 5 player capable of winning a major. They also made sure to mention a recent hard court tournament in Washington he was forced to pull out of due to the same injury. However, it didn’t stop Johnny Mac from some big criticism of Australia’s top ranked player.

“If you don’t want to be out there, don’t do it anymore,” McEnroe stated following Kyrgios’ injury that forced him to withdraw trailing the 63rd ranked Marchenko two sets to one 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Kyrgios received two treatments by a trainer including one between sets. His lateral movement was definitely an issue in the final two sets. The injury limited his mobility during extended rallies. He tried to go for broke, hitting harder from the baseline to keep points short. But Marchenko was able to extend rallies and hit winners or draw errors from a wounded Kyrgios. He had never before been past the second round in any grand slam before this year’s U.S. Open. Now, he’ll play Stan Wawrinka in the Round of 16. The third seed needed five sets and saved two match points to overcome unseeded Brit Daniel Evans.

 “I feel sorry for Nick,” a pleased Marchenko said during an on court post match interview.

“But it’s a dream come true. A win is a win and a win here on Ashe is a very special feeling for me. … I cannot explain how happy I am.”

While Marchenko has the chance of a lifetime to make his first ever slam quarterfinal, a frustrated Kyrgios explained to reporters that he felt the hip injury and got through his first two matches. He didn’t drop a set entering last night. He served 11 aces to win the first set 6-4. Altogether, he had 18 and only four double faults. However, a crucial drop of serve on some poor shots allowed Marchenko to break and then hold serve to level the match.

By then, Kyrgios wasn’t always able to give his all every point. It’s easy to critique due to his history. He has a reputation for sometimes retiring due to injuries. There have also been moments during big matches where tennis analysts have questioned his tactics.

The biggest takeaway from Kyrgios’ disappointment was that both McEnroes wondered if he’s training as hard as the other remaining 16 men in the Round of 16. Without a coach or trainer, it’s easy to question his commitment. However, you can’t deny his talent. He has the capability to beat almost anyone.

It was in 2014 at Wimbledon when a young teenage phenom upset Rafael Nadal with relative ease, advancing to his first ever major quarterfinal. It was during that same tournament where as a wildcard he rallied from two sets down to stun Richard Gasquet by saving nine match points. Kyrgios was eliminated in four sets by Milos Raonic. The following year, he also made the quarters at the Australian Open, becoming the first male teenager to make two slam quarters since Roger Federer. Andy Murray ousted him in straights. It was also Murray who took out Kyrgios in the fourth round at this year’s Wimbledon en route to winning his second trophy at the All England Club.

For the year, Kyrgios has had his most successful season. He’s 33-13 and will move up to a career high number 15 in the ATP rankings despite the loss to Marchenko. He won his first two ATP titles including Atlanta where he bested hometown hero John Isner in two tiebreaks. Kyrgios also won in France sweeping Gasquet, Tomas Berdych and former 2014 U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic in straights.

Looking back, Andre Agassi had all the talent in the world when he first came up. At a similar age, one of America’s best players was making deep runs at the French Open and U.S. Open. Even though he fell short losing a pair of grand slam finals as a teenager, Agassi was also criticized for not always giving his best effort. Back then, he was known for tanking sets. He also lost to opponents he was favored to beat. Most notably Andres Gomez in the 1990 French Open Final. Then underdog Pete Sampras swept him in three sets at the ’90 U.S. Open. A year later, he fell short against rising American star Jim Courier. Another final at Roland Garros he was expected to win.

Shockingly, Agassi’s first slam came at Wimbledon in ’92. It took until he was 22 to finally break through. In only his second appearance on grass, he went through a tough draw that included John McEnroe, Boris Becker and then needed five sets to beat Goran Ivanisevic for the title. Interestingly, he again took a downturn before rising up to win his second major in ’94 at the U.S. Open. At the time, he was unseeded. Agassi became the first unseeded man to win the Open, defeating Michael Stich in the final.

The difference for Agassi was hiring Brad Gilbert as coach. Their partnership resulted in him reaching number one in 1995. He won more slams eventually completing the career grand slam by capturing the French Open in ’99, rallying from two sets down to beat Andrei Medvedev. His career had peaks and valleys due to a bad wrist and the later reveal in his book that he used crystal meth.

Not everyone is cut out of the same cloth. With Kyrgios, he shows emotion and sometimes curses. He’s very moody. At times, he makes the game look easy with scintillating shots like the unreal backhand slice drop shot winner around the net on the full run against Marchenko. Unfortunately, there are times where he leaves you wanting more. With maturity, he can reach his full potential. The ball’s in his court.

Djokovic is the best in the world

On Sunday night, an exciting US Open men’s final took place between the world’s best and the world’s greatest player. Once again, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were on center stage. For a second consecutive slam, the world number one Djokovic prevailed over the number two ranked Federer in four entertaining sets 6-4, 5-7. 6-4, 6-4. It was the 28-year old Serbian’s second US Open championship and third major of a fantastic season. He actually came closer than Serena Williams to winning a grand slam barely missing out in Roland Garros by losing to French Open winner Stan Wawrinka.

The championship match at a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing was delayed over three hours due to rain. However, they were still able to play with the first ball struck at 7:18 in the evening on a classic autumn night in New York City. Under cooler and breezy conditions, Djokovic and Federer went toe to toe like two prize fighters. Unlike the end of Floyd Mayweather’s career a night before that ripped off paying customers, this was worth the wait. While it wasn’t a classic match due to each player feeling the pressure, they still battled for four intense sets over three hours in front of a wild atmosphere.

It was a rematch of Wimbledon where Djokovic also triumphed in four sets. This one had great theatre. Federer again aiming for a record 18th slam while Djokovic was seeking number 10. Clearly, each were unnerved in a oddly played first set. After Djokovic broke Federer for 2-1, he fell on a point in the next game and quickly was broken back at love to the delight of a pro-Federer crowd who wanted to see history. But even after Djoker fell and scraped his elbow, he bounced back by winning four of the final five games to claim the opening set. His strong return of serve and ridiculous ground strokes on the run giving a listless Federer fits. Feds made 14 errors and didn’t serve well.

The second set was a different story. Even after Djokovic got out of an early service game by fighting off multiple break points, Federer rose to the occasion by serving better and getting into Nole’s games. Unlike previous matches, it was the elder 34-year old Swiss Maestro who mixed up his strategy with sneak attacks on second serves while finishing points at the net and using a strong one-handed backhand up for key winners. Eventually, the strategy paid dividends allowing him to break Djokovic in the 12th game to level the match to a thunderous ovation. If we didn’t know any better, Federer may as well have been American. An adopted New Yorker loved and revered similarly to one of the city’s own star athletes in Swedish Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

But what makes Djokovic so admirable is his strong will. Despite not having many staunch supporters even though he’s accomplished plenty, the fiery world number one showed the resilience of Rocky by winning over fans with his remarkable play from behind the baseline. The amazing aspect is he can be a few feet behind on the full run and come up with great shots that psyche out opponents. Something he’s consistently done to Federer, who didn’t have enough mental fortitude to take more chances when it was necessary. In a match where Djokovic wasn’t his sharpest committing two more errors (37) than winners (35), he saved 19 of 23 break points. Despite only hitting three aces, Novak came up with the big serves when he needed it going to Federer’s body to offset his more aggressive strategy. Even when he converted a break chance and went up a set and pumped his fist, it wasn’t done with the usual confidence. The body language told a different story.

It was still there for Federer. But when he failed to convert on five early chances in the fourth set, doubt finally crept in. The steadier player from the baseline won the longer rallies. Djokovic had the mental edge breaking Federer two consecutive times to lead comfortably 5-2. A game away from putting it away, it felt over. But on a night where he got tremendous support, Federer didn’t give in. He delivered a couple of his trademark winners and broke Djokovic for 3-5 to loud cheers. After holding for 4-5, the 17-time slam record holder upped the ante by winning three of the first four points in the 10th game to get to double break point. But when push came to shove, Djokovic did what he always does delivering the goods to get back to Deuce. With Federer threatening to break again, he saved one more. Then won the next two points with a long Federer forehand clinching an emotional win.

A relieved Djokovic didn’t do his usual celebration instead pointing to his chest as if to ask his box which included coach Boris Becker and beautiful wife Jelena Ristic, ‘Am I still the best?’ Indeed, he was. After meeting Federer at the net for congrats, he then ran up to his box and celebrated by hugging his wife. It was a great scene.

On the other end was a stoic Federer still at his chair thinking about all the missed chances. He knew he’d let this one slip away. How many more chances will he get? He’s still right there as the clear cut number two after destroying countryman Wawrinka in the semis. The desire is still there with him talking about how these moments with the crowd give him so much motivation to continue. He’ll be back next year.

For Djokovic, he was so close to a single calendar grand slam. A feat Rod Laver twice pulled off including once in the Open Era. The Australian legend remains the only male player to win all four majors in a single season accomplishing it in 1969. Laver won 11 slams and is still considered by many as the best of all-time. Though Federer has laid claim with a record 17. Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal each have 14 followed by Roy Emerson (12) and Bjorn Borg (11), who’s tied with Laver.

With more prime years left, the Djoker could be on his way to second. With Nadal declining and Federer having not won a slam since 2012 Wimbledon, the world number one is at the top. He’ll also get competition from Andy Murray and Wawrinka. The question is who else can challenge. At the moment, Djokovic has already clinched the number one ranking easily outdistancing Federer. He’s in a class by himself.

US Open 2015: An exciting Week 1

Amazingly, the US Open 2015 is already a week through after some exciting Round of 16 matches on a sizzling Labor Day. For the most part, the favorites are still around on both sides. Even though some of our faves were hit by the upset bug including the fading Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the tennis certainly has been electric.

One of many adjectives to describe Roger Federer, who took out a game John Isner in straights winning two tiebreaks and finally breaking him in the final game for a 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 triumph. Feds is just remarkable. At 34, he shows no signs of slowing down. He’ll next meet Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals. The rejuvenated Frenchman took out Tomas Berdych in four to earn it. Nice to see the flashy Frenchman with the sweet one-handed backhand back doing damage at a second straight major. At Wimbledon, he took out French Open champ Stan Wawrinka to reach the semis before falling to eventual All England Club champion Novak Djokovic. The world number one remains the man to beat. He’ll take on serve and volley Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Assuming he prevails, it could be defending Open winner Marin Cilic standing in his path. Cilic will have to overcome a ankle sprain and powerful Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

As disappointing as it is that Nadal lost in excruciating fashion to Italian grinder Fabio Fognini, it’s probably for the best. At 29, Rafa needs to go back to the drawing board. He plays too defensive on the hard court and allows opponents to dictate. It was still shocking to see him blow a two sets to love lead for the first time in his illustrious career. He’d been a perfect 152-0 prior. That he blew a break lead in both the third and fourth sets points to how predictable his serve has become. He is capable of ratcheting it up by going down the tee. However, he still leans heavily on spinning it in especially in the ad court which allows opponents to anticipate it. Is it time for Nadal to make a coaching change from Uncle Toni? He definitely could be more aggressive by stepping in more from the baseline and using his athleticism to finish points at the net. That along with a better serve can lengthen his career. Let’s face it. His grinding style has taken a toll. He’s an old 29. Will the 14-time grand slam winner be able to adjust? Hopefully, he’ll be back in 2016.

As for Murray, he lost in four sets to South African Kevin Anderson. Anderson had never been past the fourth round in any slam and was winless against the top 10 at majors. However, the big and powerful 6-8 Anderson flipped the script by taking the first two sets to put Murray in a hole. Unbelievably, Murray nearly rallied from double break down in set two before Anderson delivered the goods sealing it with an ace that clipped the line. The fiery Scot was none too pleased breaking his racket after handing back a break in the third set. As usual, he was chirping away talking to himself and his box. He found a way to pull out the third set tiebreak giving himself a puncher’s chance. However, Anderson wouldn’t budge. Eventually, the two held serve for a dozen games and needed another breaker. In this one, Anderson was bolder winning all seven points to finally pull the upset. Kudos to him. He next faces Wawrinka, who needed four sets before disposing of entertaining 26-year old American Donald Young. It was nice to see Young make his second Round of 16 in Flushing. He admitted that he’s more mature and improved fitness has helped. It might explain his two thrilling comebacks from two sets down including a great triumph over Victor Troicki. He also admitted that he didn’t always fight in the past. Hopefully, an improved attitude will finally boost Young’s performance in the future.

Later tonight, it all comes down to this for Serena Williams. After playing her best in a straight sets win over future star Madison Keys, the 21-time grand slam winner faces older sister Venus Williams in prime time. She also beat her at Wimbledon en route to a fourth consecutive slam inching closer to Steffi Graf. Graf holds the modern day record with 22 slams in the Open Era. When she was 19, Graf won all four slams in a single season doing it in 1988. Here is Serena needing three wins to match Steffi. She’s still the best the sport has to offer. She’s having fun too. She seems more relaxed with all the pressure surrounding her. However, once the lights are on, the intensity is up. How will it go against Venus, who at 35 remains a graceful champion who last won a slam in ’08 when she claimed her fifth Wimbledon. Venus has had a fine career winning seven majors including back-to-back US Opens in ’00 and ’01. Of course, she pales in comparison to Serena who is going for history. No one gives her a chance later today. But you know she’ll put up a great fight. It’s sure to be emotional at Ashe Stadium on Day 9.

The winner of the Williams quarter will face either Roberta Vinci or Kristina Mladenovic. With a walkover over injured Genie Bouchard due to a concussion, Vinci matched her best result reaching the quarters for the third time in the Big Apple. The 32-year old Italian veteran can better it if she bests her younger opponent. Mladenovic is only 22 and has had a good year at singles. She’s a pretty accomplished doubles player finishing as a runner-up and semifinalist the last two years at Wimbledon. The elegant blonde Frenchwoman mixes a strong forehand with variety. She hits well from both sides and can finish points at the net. Not the fleetest of foot, she does get there with good reach and does damage. Mladenovic is in her first ever slam quarter after defeating accomplished Russian Ekaterina Makarova in three sets. Does she have what it takes to beat Vinci and face a Williams in major semifinal?

While the top half favors either Williams, the bottom shows familiar faces in Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova. Each are playing their best tennis. Azarenka had to dig deep in the match of the Open on the women’s side edging German Angelique Kerber in the third round before dismissing American Varvara Lepchenko in straights to reach this point. She’ll next see second seeded Romanian Simona Halep. In an emotional come from behind three set win over German Sabine Lasicki, she overcame seven breaks of serve and a injury that limited her movement. Astonishingly, she forced a third set after limping during a game. Lisicki just couldn’t take advantage struggling with her normally reliable serve and spraying balls. She played too tentatively. Halep played on guts and wore down Lisicki in a three set win. Halep is the number two ranked player on the WTA Tour. She is very good. But against Azarenka, she’ll be the underdog. Vika is a two-time Australian Open champion and two-time runner up here. She’s only seeded 20 due to injuries. How much does Halep have left?

The other women’s quarterfinal pits Kvitova against Italian Flavia Pennetta. Pennetta is a entertaining player with a few tricks up her sleeve. Unconventional, she can mix it up and delivers a fun brand of tennis. She beat former Open champ Samantha Stosur in straights. Kvitova has won Wimbledon twice but never fared well at the United States Tennis Center. After defeating qualifier Johanna Konta in straights, she’s in her first Open quarter. The talented 25-year old Czech lefty hits a heavy ball and is streaky. When she’s on, she can beat anyone. She won New Haven for a second consecutive year. Kvitova will be the favorite against Pennetta. How will she handle expectation? That’s what makes this event so great.

Even without some headliners including last year’s runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, who flamed out in the second round to Petra Cetkovska in a three hour marathon, it’s still been a good tournament. Especially when you have Vika against Halep for one spot in the semis. Kvitova is still playing. Plus you have new blood in Mladenovic going up against experience in Vinci. Mladenovic also pulled off the shot of the Open with the always entertaining ‘tweener which was made better when she won the point. All in all, another pleasant week of tennis in the city that never sleeps. One more big week ahead!