AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

U.S. Open: Keys escapes, Sock thumps Cilic, Isner flames out again

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Oftentimes Americans grab the headlines at the U.S. Open for for reasons that aren’t entirely deserved. For example, Ryan Harrison got more attention than the typical player ranked outside the top 100 would for beating a cramping contender, as he did against Milos Raonic. Did Harrison deserve credit for splitting a pair of very even sets? Absolutely, the story just lingered more because he was an American at his home Slam.

On Friday, Americans were the lead stories with very good reason.

First, and most simply, was Jack Sock delivering the first impactful upset of the men’s tournament by easily ousting 2014 champion Marin Cilic, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 (Raonic is the better player but was always unlikely to reach the semis). Sock has already talked about how winning Olympic medals and the overall Rio experience has given him a boost, and combined with coming from two sets down to beat Cilic in Davis Cup in Beaverton a couple months ago, Sock’s confidence was fully evident, right down to the celebration, an homage to the Team USA fencer in the crowd:

Over on Ashe, Madison Keys was in a commanding position…until she wasn’t. Keys looked poised to handle future star Naomi Osaka in a competitive straight set affair, but then the worst version of Keys showed up. Completely unraveling at 40-0 at 4-4, Keys found herself as the less composed player against an 18 year old. Osaka harnessed her power better than the American and marched to a seemingly insurmountable 5-1 lead, especially considering that Osaka has a strong serve that would seem to negate the inevitable nerves.

Except those nerves were strong. A complete implosion from a commanding position is seemingly a rite of passage for young players (see: Sascha Zverev in Indian Wells) and this was that match for Osaka, who melted down. Keys did her part though to avoid the damaging upset, improving her body language and giving the Ashe crowd something to get fired up about. With all the blowouts, the crowd there has been lackluster all week, yet once Keys held for merely 2-5, her renewed energy got the fans behind her again, which surely contributed to rattling the teenager.

Keys broke twice to stay in the match and eventually won a deciding tiebreaker over an emotional Osaka, almost powerless to stop the train that had careened off the tracks.

She absolutely has work to do in regards to contending at this tournament (at this point, Jo Konta is the favorite in that quarter), but the macro concerns with Keys (other than staying healthy) are mental fortitude and learning to put safety into her groundstrokes. While the latter may never come, the fact that she’s showing the fight to weather those bad patches, as well as the smarts to know at least some of why her game isn’t working (afterwards, she said the match turned around once she got back to working to create forehands rather than settle for hitting backhands) portends good things for the most powerful player in women’s tennis.

Not all the top Americans got through to the second week, as the home team once again lost John Isner a round or two too early. Despite an easy draw, Isner required nine sets to get through his first two opponents and it was clear he wasn’t at full capacity against Kyle Edmund. Isner’s downfall this year has largely been about bad luck with tiebreakers, but he found himself down two sets to one without even playing a breaker. Edmund outplayed him in the fourth set tiebreaker that officially decided the match, except the match really was decided well before that considering Isner’s legs looked zapped.

Isner was quite frustrated in press, saying “Nothing felt just right today, it hasn’t all tournament. It hasn’t all year. Need to go back to drawing board, watch some football.” New coach David Macpherson has his work cut out for him.

Other Friday storylines

-Novak Djokovic returned a three day break, courtesy a second round walkover from Jiri Vesely, and was taxed into playing…six games. That’s all veteran and 2-time U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny could muster before throwing in the towel with a hamstring problem. Djokovic advances to the second week having not really played since Monday night, a development heavily debated as to whether it’s beneficial or not.

The most likely outcome? Fair or not, the verdict will be decided after the fact: if he wins the tournament or at least reaches the final, then these days off did his ailing body a world of good, and if he’s knocked out before the weekend, then the layoff hurt his ability to get in a rhythm. He gets Edmund on Sunday.

-If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence (which he doesn’t believe in) and three times is a pattern, then Rafael Nadal has added another routine to his list of rituals. For the third time in three matches, Nadal had stellar first and third sets sandwiched around a spotty second.

Facing the most dangerous opponent he’ll see before the quarterfinals, the two-time champion raced out to a 5-0 lead on Andrey Kuznetsov, who pushed Nadal in a thrilling three-setter to start this season in Doha. Overall, Kuznetsov proved to be too erratic to push Nadal, though he did his part in contributing to the point of the tournament thus far, the penultimate one of their match. Note Nadal losing his racquet midpoint:

Nadal next faces 22 year old Lucas Pouille, who notched a slight upset over Roberto Bautista Agut in impressive fashion, beating the veteran in 3 hours and 27 minutes, coming from two sets to one down to prevail in five sets. Pouille pulled off a tweener of his against RBA:

-Angie Kerber was unrelenting in a 6-1, 6-1 showing over 17 year old CiCi Bellis to finish out the night session. Bellis had chances in nearly every game early on, but it was Kerber who took all the important points, forcing the teenager to continually have to hit one more ball in a rally. Bellis did well to hang in those rallies, she just struggled mightily to end them against Kerber’s amazing defensive skills.

-Other men’s winners: Gael Monfils was cranky over frustration with his racquets, but had no trouble with dispatching Nicolas Almagro, who had an awful day. Though it was in straight sets, Jo-Willy Tsonga had his hands full in a 2 hour and 45 minute win over Kevin Anderson. Marcos Baghdatis ended Ryan Harrison’s run with a well-played four-setter.

-Other women’s winners: Roberta Vinci nearly saw a commanding lead crumble, but she rebounded to beat Carina Witthoeft in the third. Jo Konta ended Belinda Bencic’s week with ease, dropping only three games. Petra Kvitova had her patch of nightmare play, though she otherwise had a great performance over Elina Svitolina. Kvitova led 6-3, 4-0, which turned into 4-all before Kvitova won the next two games for the match. Lesia Tsurenko upset Domiika Cibulkova in a tight three-setter. Caroline Wozniacki beat Monica Niculescu without issue and Anastasija Sevastova backed up her upset of Garbine Muguruza by advancing to the fourth round.

-Nike, you’ve gone far enough:

-Finally, the USTA announced that Friday set a couple attendance records for the U.S. Open:

U.S. Open: Keys escapes, Sock thumps Cilic, Isner flames out again

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