Swedish encounter greets New York homecoming
On a still New York night almost a year ago, the US Open in Flushing Meadows was getting through business as usual.
The evening session on Arthur Ashe stadium had just ended with Justine Henin and Novak Djokovic waltzing through to the next round in straight sets.
There was no surprise upset throughout the day; everything was as expected.
Which is why nobody there saw it coming.
As the hour approached 10pm, two men took to the Grandstand court. One was Tommy Robredo from Spain, the tournament’s eighth seed. The other was a little-known player from Latvia, a small Baltic country hardly glorified for its tennis tradition. He was ranked 88th in the world and his best performance coming into the tournament was defeating a fading Tim Henman in the first round of Roland Garros.
Robredo and the audience, no doubt, expected a fairly routine match. A straight sets win for Robredo, with perhaps a tiebreak to enliven things up.
The ensuing match took only 91 minutes to complete, but it left the spectators and Robredo shellshocked. The unrated young Latvian blitzed through the world No. 8′s game, producing textbook shots from every corner of the court, all the while looking as unperturbed as if he were on a Sunday morning walk in Riga. He produced 39 winners to Robredo’s seven, and even the 34 unforced errors he committed failed to dilute his dominance.
When he stepped onto the court, barely anyone in the stands knew who he was. By the time he was finished, they were all on their feet, chanting his name in unison. Fans who were baptised at that match still speak of it in reverent tones, as if referring to a holy experience.
That was 2007. This year, Ernests Gulbis is back to prove that he is no one-upset wonder.
His first opponent in his bid to improve on last year’s fourth-round run will be Thomas Johansson of Sweden. ToJo, as he is affectionately referred to by fans, is a former Australian Open champion and a relative dinosaur at the age of 33. He is a very accomplished singles player with nine career titles to his name, and only last week added a silver medal to his collection after reaching the doubles final of the Olympic Games with Simon Aspelin. Ernests and Johansson have only faced each other once, in a one-sided 6-2 6-1 win for Ernests on the slick courts of St Petersburg in 2007.
If Ernests makes it to Round 2, he should expect a tricky match from either one of his potential opponents. American Andy Roddick may be seeded eighth, but has to be in a tumultuous state of mind after a string of losses in minor events. More troubling than his straight sets defeat to del Potro in the Los Angeles final would be his quarterfinal implosion against Serbia’s overshadowed Viktor Troicki in Washington DC, where he lost despite winning the first set 6-0.
However, Roddick’s fighting spirit cannot be underestimated. A winner here back in 2003 and the highest-ranked American man in the draw, he can count on the crowd support and his vast reserve of big-match experience.
Looking to crash the party, however, is Roddick’s first-round opponent, Fabrice Santoro. ‘The Magician’ is a wily player, possessing every single trick shot in the book and capable of changing the pace of play at will. He is a nightmare to face in the first round of any tournament. Should Santoro pull off the upset, Ernests can look forward to reversing the outcome of his quarterfinal loss to the Frenchman in the Bergamo Challenger last year.
Elsewhere, change is in the air as Rafael Nadal is now annointed as the top seed, bumping Roger Federer to the bottom of the draw for the first time in almost five years. Nadal will open against a qualifier, while Federer will play Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina.
The US Open is the final Grand Slam of the year, and main draw play would begin this Monday.