By Brian Cleary
As the 2007 US Open comes to a close, the following players, either by producing breakthrough performances or by simply making a name for themselves for the first time, will be remembered long after the lights fall here in New York this year.
John Isner, 6-foot-9 and fearless, came to New York a curiosity, a guy who somehow made it to the final of a tour event in Washington by hitting 144 aces—a tour record. But he won his first two rounds in New York, including a clobbering of Jarkko Nieminen, the No. 26 seed, who said after the match of Isner’s humongous delivery, “This is the best serve I have seen.’’ But what really landed Isner on the map was his match against Roger Federer, in which Isner put the scare in the world No. 1 by taking the first set. He fell in four sets to Federer, but considering this was the 22-year-old American’s first Grand Slam, he proved himself to be not just the biggest new face in the game, but also perhaps the one with the most potential. Even Federer predicted success for Isner, saying, “That serve is not just going to go away.’’ For his own part, and perhaps what was most appealing about him, was how honest and forthright the recent University of Georgia graduate was about his dream run here at the Open. “I mean, I played lot of good atmosphere this summer, but that obviously by far was the most fun I've had playing a tennis match,’’ he said after losing to Federer. “The feeling of beating Roger Federer in a set, sitting down it was crazy.”
While the 6th seeded Russian had reached the quarters of the Australian and French Opens, she was a relative unkown here in the US—until this summer. The 5-foot-7 but just 128-pound 20-year-old used her all-court game and steely focus to win two summer hard court events in Cincinnati and Stanford, and here at the Open she didn’t drop a set on her way to the quarters. Even in her loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semis she proved her competitive spirit. "I don't have powerful groundstrokes, and I just fight until the end and try to play smart," she said after her loss. “I thought to myself, 'I will die on this court. I have to win.'’’
The 20-year-old Serbian proved time and again that he’s not only good, and not only tough, but he’s got one of the most likeable personalities the game has seen in years. He summarized a four-hour, 44-minute five-set battle with Radek Sepanek with the memorable TV interview: “I am totally exhausted. I have no energy. I just smelled my shoes—they are so stinky.’’ Or his now YouTube-famous impersonations of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova, which he performed for the crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium—not to mention a national TV audience—after beating Carlos Moya. "In the last two days, people are congratulating me more for impressions than for my game," Djokovic said. But Djokovic's tennis has proven even more memorable than his humor, and at the year’s last Grand Slam, the game's most promising up-and-coming star reached his first Grand Slam final. “For me as an individual, it's amazing achievement what I did here in US Open and in general this year in my career.’’
Ahsha Rolle came to the US Open ranked just No. 109 in the world, having just competed in a low-level, $50,000 event called the Bronx Classic, where she retired in the final with a thigh injury. But things improved considerably when she packed her racquets and drove over to the Queens borough of New York. The 22-year-old from Miami Shores, Fla., who got a wild-card into the tournament, upset the No. 17 seed Tatiana Golovin in the first round and went all the way to round three before being stopped by Dinara Safina, the No. 15 seed. Rolle left New York far more confident in her game, $43,000 richer for reaching the third round of this Slam, and with fond memories of not just her success but of the crowd that got behind her unexpected run. “I mean, all those fans were so out there for me, screaming my name. It was amazing. I'll never forget this experience."
Donald Young turned pro three years ago with an albatross around his neck in the form of being known as “The Next Great American Player.’’ He struggled mightily, but he introduced himself to the tennis world as something more than a hope here at the Open this year. Showing a game that has matured dramatically this past summer, he won his first-round match over Chris Guccione, coming back from a set down to score his first Grand Slam singles win. He was looking forward to a battle against No. 13 seed Richard Gasquet but got through on a default when Gasquet came down with an illness and couldn’t play. In the third round, out on Louis Armstrong Stadium, Young proved once and for all that he belongs playing with the men and not the boys (he had been entered in the US Open juniors before pulling out at the last minute), battling Feliciano Lopez in a four-set battle that he eventually lost 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 7-5. Said Young, “Third round of the US Open, a tournament I've watched since I was like little and always wanted to play in. To win matches and rounds in this tournament is awesome.”
You had to be impressed with Agnieszka Radwanska's game when the 18-year-old from Poland, still sporting metal braces on her teeth, went toe-to-toe with Maria Sharapova, the No. 2 seed, in the third round on Arthur Ashe Stadium. But deep in the third set, when she danced around close to the service line while waiting for Sharapova’s shaky second serve, intimidating the Russian into a double fault, she showed that she had plenty of chutzpa to go along with her solid groundstrokes. Radwanska, who is part of a new generation of teenage women players from Eastern Europe, was refreshingly honest about her in-your-face return of serve strategy. “I knew that she doesn't like if somebody is moving if she serving.” She lost in the fourth round to Shahar Peer but not before sending notice that she had the game, and the heart, to take on the game’s top players.
Agnes Szavay of Hungary, another rising 18-year-old from Eastern Europe, reached the fourth round, knocking off No. 7 seed Nadia Petrova along the way, while revealing a huge forehand and impressive court speed. For Szavay, it was her best showing at a Grand Slam, and she seemed to enjoy New York as much as the New York crowd appreciated her heroic efforts. “Shopping. I want to go to shopping,’’ she said about the things she was looking forward to doing while in New York while she wasn't knocking out top seeds. “Also to this Central Park. I never been. And it's really close to our hotel, so I will go there for sure before I leave New York.’’
David Ferrer was refreshingly honest after he reached his first career Grand Slam semifinal. “If you told me a semifinal on a hard court, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Ferrer, seeded No. 15, after beating Juan Ignacio Chela in the quarters. In fact, Ferrer was refreshingly honest thoughout the tournament. The Spaniard beat David Nalbandian in front of a packed crowd on Louis Armstrong Stadium in a five-set thriller but admitted afterward that he didn’t want to even think about playing his next opponent, Rafael Nadal, in the fourth round. “I don't want to think about [playing Nadal] now because I'm tired,” he said. “If I think [about] Nadal, I'm more tired.’’ But he ended up taking out Nadal as well and introduced the world to the fact that he’s a player to watch on all surfaces. “I am very happy for the tournament,’’ he said after falling to Djokovic in the semis. “Maybe, no, sure is my best tournament of my career or my life, no? And now, maybe I was angry, but I am happy for that. I am happy for this week.’’