Old Surprises, New Surprises, and a Few Questions at the US Open

Andy Roddick and Sam Querrey are looking good, Andy Murray looks transformed – for better or worse, and I don’t know what’s up with David Nalbandian.,

The planned shutdown of MVN.com has been delayed due to software problems. I’ll keep you up to date, meanwhile keep tuning in because the US Open is smokin’.

I had Andy Roddick on the downside for the US Open because he’s had all kinds of injury problems this summer. He only got to the second round in Toronto and failed to win either of the small hard court events he entered but, he’s looked strong so far. He took out the talented young Latvian Ernests Gulbis to reach the third round and there’s no sign of injury anywhere on him so. Of course, I also ignored Sam Querrey and wrote off Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but they’re still around too.

When I first saw Querrey play in Los Angeles two years ago, I figured we had another Roddick on our hands but with slightly worse movement and that’s not good. He might not be a smooth mover but I did see him lunge for a sweet half-volley crosscourt winner in his third round victory over Ivo Karlovic. After Querrey hit the shot, his legs were churning and his body lurched out over those long legs, but he made the shot and he also came through on the big points.

Querrey hit a fantastic flick lob over his 6’10”(208cm) counterpart in the first set tiebreaker. And Karlovic gave Querrey a set point in the second set tiebreaker with a double fault while Querrey closed the set out with an ace. Querrey won the match in straight sets and is now into the fourth round at a slam for the first time.

Tsonga is the stuff of dreams. He’s everything many players are not: lithe, smooth, aggressive, strong, charismatic – in short, one of those artist types we’ve been arguing about with regard to the Roger FedererRafael Nadal divide. Leaving charisma out of it for the moment, Federer is the artist and Nadal is the grinder. Some people view this as a slap at Nadal and an unwarranted appreciation of Mr. Federer but I can’t help it, I’m an unabashed artistry lover and it pained me to see Roger unable to pull the trigger on a simple forehand passing shot against Thiago Alves in the third round because there isn’t a lot of artistry to take his place. A magician is not the same thing. I cringe when I watch Fabrice Santoro hit slice two-handers off both sides. I get mad when he beats more stylish players. I’m superficial, what can I say.

But it’s not quite that simple. I love stylish players but only when they come with transcendent power. Federer’s looseness allows him to unload that fearsome forehand and Tsonga just slams the ball. That could be part of Tsonga’s problem. As stylish as he is, if you watch his forehand you can see a possible cause of the disc problem he suffered and, by extension, his recent knee injury. Tsonga’s arm looks like it’s stuck to his body when he hits his forehand.

Think of it like this: some players hit with too much arm and not enough trunk rotation (Filippo Volandri is the best example of that, he’s all arm), and others twist their trunk but fail to let the racket fly freely on the follow-through. If you’re arm doesn’t fly freely at the end of the shot, your spine will over-rotate and you’ll get disc problems. Further down the kinetic chain, the extra trunk rotation will put pressure on your knees. Tsonga’s got style and artistry, especially around the net, but that style might be causing his recurring injury problems.

I haven’t made the mistake of discounting Andy Murray but I’m also expecting him to take a bit longer to develop. His conditioning has improved but he’s still behind other players. He didn’t pop out of the womb running as I’m sure Rafael Nadal did. Murray was probably a couch potato baby and even now he’s a video game addict – Brad Gilbert recently claimed that Murray plays video games seven hours a day but maybe he was exaggerating. Anyway, Murray’s conditioning almost cost him his place in the fourth round.

Jurgen Melzer was up two sets to none and leading in the third set tiebreaker, 5-4, and Murray looked tired. Murray managed to win the next two points – the second with a 138mph(222kph) ace, wow, where’d that come from? – then played the following magnificent point to close out the set.

Melzer hit a sharp crosscourt shot to run Murray wide to one direction then hit another to the opposite corner. Melzer followed the second shot to the net and hit a sweet drop shot. And this is what makes the slouchy Murray so interesting: most players would have been spinning their wheels like mad to get to that shot, but Murray’s length and anticipation got him there in time to decelerate and hit a pretty easy winner down the line. Melzer took the fourth set off and finally ran out of gas at the end of the fifth, and in that sense Murray was lucky. But even if Murray does well here – and he could end next week at number four in the world – his conditioning still has to improve.

On another note, while I’m happy to see fewer self-lacerating outbursts from Murray, I’m not so sure about the alternative that has emerged in its place. Melzer stayed even with Murray in the fifth set until Murray broke him to go up 4-3. In the next game, Murray made a great lunge save of a hard Melzer backhand down the line then followed it up with a passing shot to win the point. Murray immediately put his hands on his hips, turned to his box, and mouthed what I think were the following words to his box: “It’s too strong! You’re too strong!” No doubt he was referring to himself.

I loved Murray’s crowd stirring antics at Wimbledon against Gasquet as he came back from two sets down to win the match because that was designed to pump up the crowd. But here, Murray was belittling Melzer’s game and I don’t like that. A few points later, Murray hit a fantastic return winner off a wide serve and he posed again, this time throwing up his hands as if he could barely stand his own greatness

I exaggerate slightly but Melzer deserved better because he played great tennis to get up two sets in the match. It looks like Murray is overcompensating for his inner hater. Instead of trashing himself verbally he’s now clowning his opponents. I hope Murray keeps developing until he can find a balance between those two parts of himself. I’m assuming it’ll come with the years.

One quick comment about David Nalbandian. I was surprised to see that he’s still ranked number seven given his mediocre results this year and he looked awful against Gael Monfils. He lost his second match in a row to Monfils on Saturday and he looked like he didn’t want to be out there. He was down 4-1 in the third set when he sauntered casually to the net and let a soft passing shot float over him and land at least a foot inside the baseline. Nalbandian looked all the worse given the number of times Monfils slipped and dove and tumbled to get to wide and short balls.

The journalists at the US Open are holding up release of player interviews for 24 hours to keep us bloggers from advertising the sport too heavily, but soon as it comes out, I’d be very interested to know what Nalbandian has to say for himself. Stay tuned, lots more to come.