More players had retired, 12 of them, than in any round of any Grand Slam before.
Yet with the temperatures topping 90 and the humidity just as punishing, one other record was standing up to the punishing test of Flushing Meadows—and standing the test of time in one more US Open record.
For this year’s men’s draw contained more over-30s than ever before, 40 of them, and although men were dropping like flies, a quick glance at the Round 2 line-up showed that age and experience had come into their own with a vengeance.
In the bottom half of the draw, the age-defying 34-year-old Federer flashed through his opening match, and now meets the 31-year-old Steve Darcis. In the same segment, 31-year-old Philipp Kohlschreiber outlasted the teenage Alexander Zverev over five sets, and 30-year-old Lukas Rosol beat youngster Jared Donaldson in three.
Indeed in a quarter packed with over-30s, barely one of them failed to advance. Of the eight seeds, five are over 30, with 37-year-old Ivo Karlovic, 30-year-old John Isner and 32-year-old Guillermo Garcia-Lopez all advancing with Federer and Kohlschreiber—and two more, it might be added, are 29: Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet.
By Wednesday, though, the race was on for Round 3, and the top half of the draw could boast just as many high-achieving over-30s in contention: Seeds Andreas Seppi, Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had not dropped a set between them in winning their openers, but one particular eight-man section, slotted midway between No1 Djokovic and No8 Rafael Nadal, would draw more attention on this particular day than any other.
The oldest man in the draw, a 37-year-old Tommy Haas making a return to competition after the latest in a catalogue of injuries, had pressed fellow over-30 Fernando Verdasco to the limit through five sets, but it would be the Spaniard who had to take on the younger, taller and higher-ranked No10 Milos Raonic.
Verdasco would ultimately fail in a gruelling 6-2, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(1) win for the Canadian, who needed treatment during the almost-three-hour contest. However, the Spaniard’s compatriot, the indefatigable 33-year-old David Ferrer at the bottom of the half, did reach the third round—despite playing here for the first time since becoming injured at Nottingham in June—in straight sets.
Had Verdasco won, he would have set up another all-30-plus contest with the survivor of the most emotional matches of the day. It featured the ever-popular Spaniard, 33-year-old Feliciano Lopez, who has improved in recent years like fine wine to reach a career-high ranking of No12 just this March.
Three times the statuesque Lopez has reached a Grand Slam quarter-final, every time at Wimbledon, and the reason is writ large in his big left-handed serve-and-volley game. But his durability and longevity has also been impressive: This year’s US Open is his 55th Major in a row, second only to Federer’s 64 among active players.
However the story of his opponent, different in some ways, similar in others, was the chief reason for the interest. Mardy Fish was on borrowed time in tennis: this would be his last tournament.
The popular 33-year-old Fish announced that he would retire after the Open following a brief, brave return to the US hard courts this summer. It was at New York, in 2012, with Fish about to take on Federer in the fourth round, that the American withdrew with illness, later diagnosed as a heart condition and followed by a serious anxiety disorder.
It was a painful decision after a late-blossoming career had taken him into the top-eight and to the World Tour Finals for the first time in 2011. But after that US Open departure, he managed just eight tournaments, all of them in North America, and yielding just five match-wins.
His appearance here thus became part of a personal campaign to combat the stigma attached mental health problems such as his, and backed up by some intelligent articles in the media.
His tally of wins rose to six with a four-set victory in the fourth round, and with a 5-3 head-to-head advantage over Lopez, there were hopes of a glorious swan-song—all the more so when he broke Lopez twice in the first set to take it, 6-2.
The Grandstand arena gradually filled to overflowing even after Lopez lifted his game, his serving, and his forehand to win the second set, striding through with 10 straight points to close it out, 6-3.
The quality of the tennis continued to rise, Lopez serving beautifully, time and again snuffing out a break chance with an ace. But Fish has a nimbler version of the serve-and-volley game, and his accuracy, depth and placement were text-book, his overheads as solid as Lopez’.
Fish seemed to have Lopez on a string in the third set, weaving a web before striking for the kill—even faced with 135mph serves, even with both men squinting beneath caps in the baking sun. He again broke twice to take the third set, 6-1, and broke in the opening game of the fourth.
Lopez did level at 2-2, but Fish broke again in the ninth game to serve for victory. But now those fatal nerves took a hold: His serving deserted him and he handed the decisive break back to Lopez with a double fault. Lopez broke again to level the match, 7-5.
And that would mark the beginning of the end. With so little match-play in his body, such a demanding opponent and conditions—and of course the stress of a cheering public—Fish succumbed to cramp and faded quickly. Still he smiled, and played it out, and Lopez helped to make it a dignified exit. No drop shots, no long rallies, just the Spanish serve doing its business. Despite some outrageous one-strike return winners from Fish, the match was concluded, 6-3.
Lopez embraced his fellow 33-year-old and headed to his seat: No salute from him—the stage belonged to Fish.
The American said in The Players Tribune: “This isn’t a sports movie, of course, and there won’t be a sports movie ending. I won’t be riding off into the sunset, lifting a trophy. I’m not going to win the tournament. But that’s fine by me… This is a story about how a mental health problem took my job away from me. And about how, three years later, I am doing that job again—and doing it well. I am playing in the US Open again.
“I want to be a success story, in my own way. And I think that retiring on my own terms, in the tournament I love the most, is part of my being able to do that.”
He left as he would have wanted, one half of a fine match played out to the bitter end. It proved to be a battle lost, but with a bigger battle won.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge