Opportunity beckons for Youzhny
NEW YORK -- It wasn't Federer-Soderling, Nadal-Verdasco or even Djokovic-Monfils, but the lowest-profile men's quarterfinal here had its sublime moments. Two, solid professionals, both fathers, playing the best tennis of their careers -- on the biggest stage.
Stanislas Wawrinka has been a more-than-serviceable professional. At 25, he's a complete player who cracked the top 50 five years ago, despite winning only one career title. As Switzerland's second-best player -- behind the king, Roger Federer -- Wawrinka operates in a semi-vacuum, riding the slipstream of the greatest player ever.
Mikhail Youzhny, too, has carved out a nice little life for himself in 11 years on the circuit. The 28-year-old Russian had been a top-50 player for the past nine years, and he's won five titles and more than 6 million dollars. One thing he hasn't done is make it to the final of a Grand Slam singles tournament.
On Saturday, for the second time in his career, Youzhny will have that opportunity. He defeated Wawrinka in a grinding, sometimes grim match, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 at wind-chilled Arthur Ashe Stadium. It went exactly four hours, forcing the USTA to switch the Rafael Nadal-Fernando Verdasco quarterfinal -- which would produce Youzhny's opponent -- to the first position in the night session.
Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, an exceedingly attractive doubles pairing, would have to wait until something close to the midnight hour approached.
Both men, appropriately, won 154 points.
Youzhny was asked about the possibility of his being the spoiler of a potential final between Nadal and Federer.
"Yeah, I'm ready to be bad person," Youzhny said, laughing. "I love to be bad person in this case.
"[Rafa is the] No. 1; he won two Grand Slams; he play really, really well. It will be very tough for me. Of course, it's better to play here [rather than] on clay."
Although Youzhny won five matches here in 2006 -- losing to Andy Roddick in the semifinals -- Wawrinka has been a revelation at this U.S. Open. Most people had No. 4 seed Andy Murray coming out of his section of the draw, but Wawrinka stunned Murray in the third round, taking two tiebreak sets and finishing him off in four. And then in the fourth round, he played the second consecutive match of his life, beating American Sam Querrey in a five-set match that went 4 hours, 28 minutes.
This was Wawrinka's 23rd Grand Slam tournament -- and the very first time the No. 25 seed has ever reached the quarterfinals. The No. 12-seeded Youzhny, by contrast, was in his second major quarter in three months.
The match was tempered by the perpetually gusting wind that has afflicted play here more than ever before. In the fourth game of the third set, Youzhny chased down a lob and -- in the tradition of Federer (but not Gael Monfils) -- he ripped off a clean between-the-legs shot, which surprised Wawrinka, who pushed a forehand volley wide.
Youzhny won the fourth set and entered the final frame with some momentum. Although he had been often tentative in the early going, the Russian picked up his serve and started aiming for the lines. In the first game of the last set, with Wawrinka in good position in the middle of the court, Youzhny stroked a strong backhand cross-court shot that Wawrinka could only get a frame on.
Wawrinka, nursing a thigh injury, started to fade, probably a product of the serious mileage on his odometer. Going into the match, Wawrinka had already played for 12 hours, 27 minutes -- 5 hours, 31 minutes more than Federer. He leaves the National Tennis Center with 16½ hours' worth of matches.
In retrospect, the pivotal moment for Youzhny was probably the second-set tiebreaker. Serving at 7-all, Youzhny hit a soft second serve, and Wawrinka responded with a chip and charge. Youzhny ripped a forehand cross-court pass. On set point, he hit the same shot and Wawrinka, on the baseline, framed it.
When Youzhny broke Wawrinka in the first game of the fifth, Wawrinka sagged and the match looked to be over. But in the fourth game, Wawrinka summoned some strength and broke back at 2-all and the fist-pumping and clapping in his personal box (featuring his impressively coiffed coach, Peter Lundgren) reached a crescendo.
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Youzhny broke back in the fifth game. Wawrinka had no visible energy -- except when he hammered a running backhand into the net and smashed his racket. In truth, the match ended with a whimper.
In the end, Youzhny engineered just one more break of serve (six to five) and one fewer mistake when you subtract winners from unforced errors.
Afterward, Youzhny was asked to describe his game.
"Not easy," he said. "[I can't say] I have to serve like [John] Isner or play forehand like Federer. I play like Youzhny. Right now, I'm happy because I just finished the match. So good result, but already you are in semifinal and you still play.
"Of course you want more."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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