I, Witness: AmyLu and JJ at the US Open Final
Posted by gauloises1 on September 17, 2009
As many of you probably know, our very own AmyLu and Juan Jose were present to witness history in the making at the US Open final on Monday. I certainly thought about them at various times during the match, and given the pivotal role that JMDP himself acknowledged the crowd’s support played in their victory and the accounts of just how much and with what tenacity JJ was cheering, I don’t think it would be exaggerating too much to say they basically are responsible for the Elf victory which I for one still haven’t got over.
Anyway, they were kind enough to send me a written account of their experiences which I have read like a zillion times already and am still loving. (I’ve popped the bulk of it under a cut, but it is so worth reading, please do.) So enjoy! There may even be photos and video to come …
AmyLu: It would be an understatement to say that JJ and I were excited to see the Elf play in his first Grand Slam Final. In fact, JJ was singing “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Delpo, Delpo! so loudly when he took a shower Monday morning that I heard him in the next room. I panicked Monday morning because I realized that my clothes were the wrong color. I’d packed a red shirt, as I had hopes that a certain Spaniard may just surprise me and make the final. But now, I was going to be wearing Swiss colors, which I found somewhat unpalatable. Since we were staying a day longer than we expected, thanks to the rain, I didn’t really have any other options. And, it seemed nuts, even to me, to go buy a different shirt. Plus, red is one of my lucky colors so I decided that the shirt would bring luck to the Elf – although it took quite a bit of persuasion on my part to convince JJ that the red would not bring about the Elf’s downfall. Once we sorted out my attire, we made the hour-long trek on the subway to Flushing Meadows and arrived very early so that we could soak in the whole experience of seeing the men’s final of the US Open. It was clear from the beginning that we were going to be in the minority on the cheering front. A parade of fans in RF gear made their way past us as we sat in the shade outside the stadium. We did see a smattering of Argentinean soccer jerseys, though, so we knew that Elf would have other support beyond the two of us.
Before the match started, I started to get a sinking feeling that it was going to be a tough match for an Elf fan. And, Del Potro’s first service game, in which he couldn’t find his first serve, didn’t help at all. He seemed so nervous, and I was just hoping he’d relax so that he’d have no regrets about his play in the final.
JJ: DelPo just needed to play his game. The night before the match, and the morning before it, I kept thinking the same thing: if Felpo does his thing, he has a chance. Before the match, Pete Bodo would tell me that DelPo would find it hard to get looks, since Federer’s idea would probably be to take his time away by attacking constantly. Which I already knew, since it’s been abundantly clear that Federer is DelPo’s worst match-up among the Big 3 Featuring Delicate Flower. If you want to beat the tall guy, you gotta make him move, and you gotta attack. Just two years ago, Delicate Flower (then he was actually Novak Djokovic) put on a clinic and dispatched a hapless DelPo in straights. Still, even though I knew all these things, I still felt like all Juan Martín needed was to play his game.
The other thing I also felt was that I was going to a soccer match. The giddiness was there. I was practically bouncing off the walls way before we got on the subway. I knew full well that Jacket was the favorite, but I knew there was a chance, and I just hoped DelPo would believe the same thing.
DelPo’s first service game of the match did not bode well. First, I couldn’t understand why he chose to return when he won the toss. I know Connors, Agassi and Nadal like to return first to let the other guy face pressure immediately, but I’ve always thought more along the lines of Sampras and Jacket: you want to dictate from the start, pressuring with your own serve. Plus, as the set goes on, you get the chance to break for the set, putting loads of pressure on the other guy for at least two service games. Anyway, DelPo served second, and he couldn’t find a first serve. By my count, he hit all of two first serves in that long, endless game. He played as well as he could, but you’re always handicapped against someone like Jacket if you’re starting things off with your second delivery. Every time DelPo saved a break point, I told Amy all I wanted was a first serve. It never came on those deuce points. Eventually, Federer played that superb point to break. Which I’ve seen many times on TV, and I still don’t get how he did it.
Now, let’s talk a little bit about Jacket. During the build-up to the final, I was wondering about how I would feel about seeing him live. I mean, I became a tennis junkie because of him. Watched every match of his I could, until the infamous maitre d’ blazer at Wimbledon appeared (and Delicate Flower, of course). I was also aware that I was going to see someone who had won 15 Grand Slams. Which is pretty ridiculous. I thought that maybe it would be a transcendent experience to see the guy do all the things that made people call him the GOAT long before Slams no. 14 and 15.
Turns out, I didn’t feel a thing. It was like having to see an old girlfriend, wondering if you’d feel something, seeing her, and feeling nothing (AmyLu: you better feel nothing if you see an old girlfriend!). However, there are three things that really impressed me, two in a good way, and one in a not so good way.
1. Watching Jacket play defense is incredible. You really don’t understand how he gets to some of the balls he rescues. But that’s only the beginning. Once there, he actually manages to get a very decent shot off it, something that will give him enough time to get back to the middle of the court. The ball just floats very low, and manages to fall some place close to the baseline. As a fan of DelPo, this was incredibly frustrating. I remember finally cracking when DelPo crushed a forehand return at 5-all, break point in the fourth, only to watch Federer somehow get the ball deep enough to confuse DelPo into finding the net. I just started cursing. How the EFF does he do it? Even though my Serena-esque tirade was in Spanish, Amy thought it might offend someone and told me to stop. Sadly, I didn’t pull a Federer and tell her that when I want to talk, I talk. Or in this case, I curse.
2. It’s mindbending to see Federer absorb pace and re-direct it. It’s like the harder you hit the ball, the happier he is. He’s like the ultimate counter-puncher. This was frustrating to see during the first set and a half, but when DelPo started to loosen up and let the ball fly, it was unbelievable to see Federer go toe to toe with DelPo’s power. However, when Juan Martín showed his Ultimate Forehand, the one that seemed to almost knock the racket out of Federer’s hand, you knew that however mighty Jacket’s ability to deal with pace is, this was just too much.
3. Being in the stadium, the first thing that stood out to me about Federer’s game is how different the sound of the ball was coming off his backhand than off his forehand. Off the world-famous, best-in-the-sport forehand, it’s a heavy thud, almost like a gunshot. Off the backhand, it sometimes reaches that level, but for the most part, it’s a few notches below. It’s as if the forehand is a Desert Eagle .50, and his backhand is a .22.
Anyway, let’s get back to the match: so DelPo gets broken on that amazing point, and the match was looking a lot like the early matches between these two. DelPo seemed slow, lethargic and tight, unable to let his game loose, and Federer was in full flight, attacking from the back of the court, coming to net, showing the droppers. And everything was working. Here we come to the first crucial instance of the match. At 2-5, serving, DelPo plays a very loose game, and suddenly finds himself down 0-40. Three set points for Jacket, and there was no indication that the set would not end 6-2. The problem was, I thought at the time, that getting broken once again sends you into the second set with a terrible feeling, and Jacket would serve first once again. It’s a very subtle disadvantage, but when you’re down a set already, it becomes a little bigger. And here DelPo turned it on, played five great points, and made Federer serve for it. This was huge, and very few people, if anyone have mentioned it.
Basically because of what happened at the beginning of the second set: another loose game by DelPo, ending with a double fault, sees him hand Jacket an immediate break. If Federer breaks at the end of the first, he would have been up 3-0 to start the second, and I think that would have been too much to overcome. As it was, DelPo was down only 1-2 at the changeover, and in the next couple of games he had his first break points of the match. And slowly, as it always is with Juan Martín (he really is an Ent), he started to loosen up, and his game started to appear.
By the middle of the second set, I thought that if DelPo somehow found a way to get back on serve, the match would be in his favor. At 30-all, 5-4, when he hits that laser down the line that was called out, I immediately jumped. He had to challenge. I was sure that touched the line. Amy was laughing, because I had previously been extremely confident about a ball that I thought was out and was well in. Our neighbors were amused, too. But the ball did clip the line, and DelPo hit another laser down the line in the next point, and the stadium erupted with the break.
I honestly felt like I was celebrating a game-clinching goal at a soccer game. The tide had turned (even though the set was wide open, and DelPo was down a set). He found a way to get back on serve. It didn’t surprise me when he played such a composed start of the tiebreak. Even when he botched that tricky smash at 6-3, I told Amy (fatalist that she is), that no, that was not “it.” He would be fine. And at 6-5, with momentum in Jacket’s corner, he hits a good serve, and a wonderful, safe, calculated inside-out forehand for a clean winner and the set. This was a match, and DelPo had a chance.
I felt like during the second set, the match turned into a heavy-weight bout. Two giants were arm-wrestling now, and it was pretty even. I read that DelPo said that after winning that second set, his nerves went away and that he felt very calm. I felt the same thing. This was possible. Even when he broke and got broken back, I knew, this was possible. And even when he hit those terrible double faults to give away the set (which I blame on a gust of wind that appeared *just* then), I still felt it was possible. Amy thought he was done, and under normal circumstances, I would have agreed that someone who serves two DFs to hand a crucial 2 sets to 1 lead to none other than Jacket is doomed. But I still thought that victory was possible. Simply because DelPo was playing his game. He was letting the ball fly. And by then, he had forced Federer to limit his game to the baseline.
At the beginning of the match, Federer was attacking the net, and showed the famous, once-neglected dropper. DelPo didn’t seem to be able to pass Federer, who put away some nice volleys, as well as some ridiculous ones. DelPo even tried to lob frequently. Then, in the second set, Federer attacked, DelPo lobbed very well, Federer got it back, and for once, DelPo passed him. Two points later, Jacket attacks again, and DelPo hits a bullet pass straight at him that Jacket sends long. Federer got passed a few more times before taking that element out of his game.
Jacket also won almost all the points in which he used the dropper at the beginning. But at the end of the first set, DelPo read a mediocre dropper well, and put it away. Soon afterwards, a repeat. No more droppers.
DelPo had set the terms for this match: a slugfest from the baseline. And setting the terms for a match, imposing your conditions and your game, is the first step to winning a tennis match. So even if the third set ended in the worst possible way, DelPo just needed to “stay the course,” keep believing, and somehow, force a fifth.
I knew, deep down, that if DelPo forced a fifth, the match was his. Federer had a later semi, and a tougher one at that. He’s 28. He’s played over 800 matches. And more importantly, he had been chasing rockets for two solid hours. Thinking back, I think Federer was like one of those good (American) football teams that gets derailed because they have to keep their defense on the field for way longer than expected. At the end of the game, the defense is worn out, and gets overrun. By making the match a violent trading of baseline blows, and by stretching Federer wide repeatedly, DelPo was keeping Federer’s defense out on the field, without a chance to catch its breath.
When DelPo was up in that fourth set tiebreaker, and the loudest Olé, Olé Olé Olé…DelPo…DelPo!!! chant was heard, I couldn’t have been any happier. This was going to a fifth. And I had no doubt who the winner of that set would be. Amy said that if the fifth set went to a tiebreaker, she fancied DelPo’s chances. I guaranteed that the fifth would not go that far.
When DelPo blasted that passing shot to break Federer at the start of the fifth, I jumped, I screamed, and I knew: not only could it happen, but it was really happening. It was close. When DelPo went down a break point in the next game, and Amy nervously said “He has to hold here,” I thought that even if he didn’t he would be fine. The damage was done. As it happened, he did hold. And he held again, and he broke again. He did it. He played his game, in the biggest stage, against his idol (who happens to be his worst match-up). He fought. The Juggernaut was finally here.
As an afterword, I’d like to add the one thing that no one has mentioned: this match was won with return of serve. DelPo has to be the most underrated returner of serve on the tour. And he keeps improving. In the final, he started off slowly, but little by little, he started to put most of Jacket’s serves in play. He was getting second serve returns routinely deep. He was doing this weird semi-blocking thing on first serves. He was giving Federer different looks on returns, sometimes stepping way back, sometimes stepping up to the baseline, and in the end, routinely stepping in past the baseline on second serves. The pressure you put on the other guy by letting him know that his serves won’t win him easy points, and that more often than not he’ll have to defend right after coming down from the service motion, cannot be underestimated.
We’ve watched the final three straight times, now. Live on Monday, on ESPN2 on Tuesday, on the Tennis Channel on Wednesday. I’ve seen the trophy ceremony and match point endless times. And yet, I still haven’t fully assimilated that yes, it happened. We saw DelPo win his first Slam, and he beat Federer in five sets. It actually happened.
AmyLu: I wish I could claim that I had JJ’s supreme belief throughout the match, but I didn’t. I’ve always said that I’m an optimist in life and a pessimist in sports, and well, I truly thought this match was over when the Elf lost the third. JJ yelled continual encouragement to the Elf throughout the match, and he kept yelling, “no pasa nada, Juan” after that third. Well, I’ve determined I need to keep that motto in mind while watching the Elf play because he truly did act as if nothing happened. More than the forehand, more than the serve, more than his height: the aspect of the Elf’s game that left me most awe-struck was how his belief grew as the match went on.
And, truly, the whole experience was magical. I’m not going to lie: my dream was to see Rafa win the US Open, but after Monday, I would never trade our experience for any other. These tickets were a wedding present, and I can’t imagine a greater gift than to watch one of the few players that JJ and I both love win his first Grand Slam, against Federer, in five sets.
… How awesome is that?! Thank you so much to AmyLu and JJ for that, which has struck me wth another case of perma-smile (I thought I’d finally got rid of it yesterday, but no, here my abused facial muscles go again.)
Um, and, blogging advisory note: linz sent me some brilliant stuff from her time at the US Open which I never got around to blogging due to a combination of technical issues and having no time. I’m still going to put it up soon and I hope she’ll forgive me.
But anyway. AmyLu and JJ, ladies and gentlemen!