Youzhny beats Wawrinka in battle of the backhands
It was the quarter of the draw that threatened to produce the winner of the US Open should the towering duo -Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer -fail to fulfil their top seedings. For it contained world No4 Andy Murray and No7 Tomas Berdych.
But tennis can be a fickle mistress. Neither man made it beyond the third round and, instead, the Arthur Ashe crowd was treated to something rather different in the figures of Stanislas Wawrinka and Mikhail Youzhny. And these two brought a spectacle of shot-making intermixed with all-court tactics worthy of a chess match.
The Russian Youzhny had the easier route to the quarters, finding his toughest challenge against the dangerous American, John Isner. He was enjoying his greatest success at Flushing since reaching the semi-finals in 2006.
There is no question that Youzhny has the game at Flushing Meadows. He had won both his previous matches against the Swiss on hard courts, including the Miami Masters this year. He likes to use slice as often as topspin, angles as well as drives, and he transitions from baseline to net better than most men in the game.
Wawrinka, however, came into the match with his best form in over two years. This summer, in an attempt to turn around his sliding fortunes, he took on the astute brain of Peter Lundgren as his new coach. The result is a fitter, more determined, and more confident player.
This, together with some very fine accurate tennis, knocked out first Murray and then Sam Querrey in two long and mentally challenging matches. Even heavy strapping to his thigh seemed to inhibit Wawrinka not a jot, and won him a place in his first Slam quarter-final.
The match began like a lyrical poem. Both possess the most elegant of single-handed backhands, and both exploited that shot in all its variety. They exchanged deep, angled, sliced drives and strong topspin swipes down the line. The rarity factor -two men exchanging such a rich variety of that one-armed weapon -meant two immediate breaks of serve went almost unnoticed.
Only in the third game did Wawrinka hold, and they stayed on serve through a tactical game of cat and mouse. It was high quality tennis, Wawrinka in particular showing patience and guile in shots of different spin, length, and pace. It won him a further break and eventually the first set, 6-3.
The second set began in similar vein, with breaks of serve as each teased and attacked in turn. First the Swiss and then the Russian slid into the net to take an early volley, or rifled a backhand passing shot down the line.
Youzhny is a natural net player with great footwork, forward movement, and a compactness that helps him pick off low shots with some deft touch. But Wawrinka has clearly been learning some attacking moves of his own and was not at all phased by playing at the front of the court.
Despite the demanding conditions -the wind whistled around the stands and the flagpoles yet again -the match settled into a fascinating battle of wits and athleticism.
As the set reached a tie-break, Wawrinka looked for all the world as though he would dominate after delivering a couple of his biggest serves of the match: 137mph. But Youzhny played a patient game, chipping and charging one moment, playing a baseline game the next. It took him four break point chances, but he sealed the set with a huge off-forehand.
He then suffered a let-down at the start of the third, while Wawrinka converted his frustration into some aggressive play. The Swiss rushed to a quick lead, and continued to force the pace right through to the 135mph serve that took the set 6-3.
In a mirror image of the third set, Wawrinka lost some form in the opening games of the fourth, and it was Youzhny’s turn to take a lead. Receiving at 5-3, the Swiss slipped and fell heavily and then made a succession of errors. He looked weary and worn, and not too keen to handle yet another five-set match, but that’s what he had to do.
The newly-strapped Wawrinka was clearly fatigued and was playing into the wind. It was like watching death by a thousand slices, as the Russian played skimming, skidding backhands one after the other, and it won him an immediate lead.
But Wawrinka summoned up a little more energy and defended the onslaught from the Russian. He turned the defence into attack, began roaring like a tiger, and broke back.
Now it was Youzhny’s turn to take a medical time-out. The wind started to blow a gale, and Wawrinka sat wrapped in towels to keep warm and to keep his focus. He, after all, had the momentum. Sadly, that momentum was lost and a very weary Wawrinka eventually buckled under the pressure of the Russian. After precisely four hours, Youzhny took the match, 6-3.
The win takes Youzhny back into the top ten for the first time in two-and-a-half years, having drifted to 76 just over a year ago. It also takes him into a semi-final with Nadal on Saturday.
Youzhny will therefore need every ounce of energy that Wawrinka has left him.