Arthur Ashe ticket holders didn’t get to see a superstar on Thursday afternoon at the US Open but, instead, they got a rattling good tennis match played out by two incredible athletes that lasted 4 hours and 31 minutes.
David Ferrer, the oft-overlooked Spaniard who will be trying to fill Rafael Nadal’s shoes in Davis Cup play for Spain against the US in just eight days, ended up the victor, somehow outlasting Serbia’s second player, Janko Tipsarevic 6-3, 6-7(5), 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(5).
Tipsarevic, the Serb who lives in Novak Djokovic’s shadow just as Ferrer lives in Nadal’s, played some of the best tennis of his life and seemed to be heading toward his first Grand Slam semifinal when he led 4-1 in the fifth set. Then his foot went from under him and he fell heavily on the hard surface. He appeared to be all right but, a game later he needed to have his right thigh taped.
"I don’t want to blame the fall, the fact that I got broken at 4-2," said Tipsarevic who looked like a very tired tennis player when he dragged himself into the press conference. "When I rewind the game in my head, I think I played a really good game at 4-2. He was defensive but able to pass me every single time I went to the net. Even though it’s really painful, I don’t want to blame that on the loss today."
Ferrer, a quiet but highly popular figure on the tour, was fulsome in his praise of Tipsarevic. "The match was very emotional," he said. "My opponent, he deserves also to win this match, no? In one tiebreak it’s a lottery and I was lucky in important moments."
Tipsarevic felt he was only lucky at one crucial moment. It came when Ferrer went 0-30 down on his serve at 1-4 in that fifth set. "Love-30, second serve, I challenge the serve and it was, by two millimeters, touching the line. I remember his ball toss was terrible for that second serve and the ball just slid into my body. I could see that he was feeling the pressure. I felt like if I won that point, the match would really go in my favor."
As it was, Ferrer was able to hold for 4-2 and break in the next game. The momentum, which had been fully with Tipsarevic as he darted into the net at every opportunity – winning 33 of 50 points on the volley – suddenly switched back to the indomitable Spaniard whose ability to chase down the widest, deepest, hardest hit shots drew gasps from the crowd. The tennis was consistently spectacular; the quality high; the stroke play amazing and it was only fitting that both players got a standing ovation as the fifth set tie-break began.
It suggested that this is the sort of match the crowd prefers. A superstar winning 6-0, 6-1 or a high class contest between two fully committed and evenly matched players? I think, for most people, the second choice wins.
After John McEnroe, Jim Courier and a couple of comedians had cut short their strangely scheduled exhibition to make way for the main event, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro offered another awesome demonstration of how the modern game is played.
Hitting the ball even harder than Ferrer and Tipsarevic, the defending champion and the Argentine who beat him for the bronze medal at the Olympics slugged it out for three hours, six minutes but covered only three sets.
Del Potro played some high-velocity tennis, particularly in the second set, but still lost, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4, such was the champion’s ability to return serve with relentless accuracy and defend from all corners of the court.
"I had a chance in the second set, and in the tiebreak, he got a little lucky hitting lines," del Potro said. "But he served very well and played better than me at the end. We played at a very high level for three hours, and I had only a little chance to change the way of the match. If you don’t take those chances, you lose."
Del Potro, the champion here in 2009, had plenty of support from the crowd and, right at the end, scored with a brilliant cross-court shot on the run, ending up standing, arms upstretched, on the little ballustrade. It was a mock gesture of definance, and the spectators roared their approval. But it was never going to be enough to stop Djokovic in this mood.