Midnight madness struck again at the U.S. Open.
Early this morning two-time champion Patrick Rafter succumbed in five sets to the inspired and uncanny brilliance of Galo Blanco, a 5-foot-8 Spaniard who had lost in the first round of every other Grand Slam event this year.
With several thousand wildly cheering fans still in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Blanco rallied back from a minibreak in the final tiebreaker, winning five of the last six points, to beat Rafter 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (5). The 3-hour, 2-minute match ended at 12:07 a.m.
“We both fought very hard out there,” Rafter said. “I’m happy with the way I fought, and I tried to win. Some days it just doesn’t go your way. Tonight was one of those. He put in a good performance there. Just too good on the night.”
Rafter, the runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon last month, came into the U.S. Open unseeded because he had been out most of the year while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Tale of Two Players
But the 27-year-old Australian, the U.S. Open champion in 1997 and 1998, had no problems with his shoulder lately and was considered the most dangerous floater in the men’s draw, a player who was nearly as much of a favorite to win the title as Sampras or Andre Agassi.
Blanco was the exact opposite, a 23-year-old ranked No. 114 who had lost in the first round of 13 of his 16 previous Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. His best performance in a major came at the 1997 French Open, where he reached the quarterfinals before losing to Rafter in straight sets in their only other meeting.
“That was my most important match in my life,” Blanco said. “So I beat him here in this tournament, and he beat me there in my tournament. That’s life.”
Rafter drilled 24 aces past him and kept charging the net as always, but Blanco stood his ground on the baseline and pummeled Rafter with passing shots. Blanco’s particular splendor on this cool and breezy night was his ability to limit his unforced errors, committing only two in the first set and 38 overall, while the more aggressive Rafter made 52.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, Blanco managed to ace Rafter 17 times, seven of those in the final set.
Rafter said his shoulder was fine and he had no excuses.
“When the match gets tight, I generally am pretty solid,” Rafter said. “Tonight, just far too many errors. I just wasn’t hitting the ball well. My chip-charging wasn’t working, my groundstrokes trying to get into play weren’t really working. I just missed a lot of the fundamentals, a lot of high volleys. My game was off.
“It’s going to be hard to sleep tonight. It is disappointing.”
Curtains for Kuerten
It was the second big upset on the second day of the tournament. Early in the afternoon, lanky Australian qualifier Wayne Arthurs’ 26 aces helped bring him a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) victory over French Open champion and No. 2 seed Gustavo Kuerten.
There would be no such upset in the women’s draw.
Never shy, Serena Williams arrived in defense of her U.S. Open title resplendent in tie-dyed lilac and black, and flashing a pert smile that bespoke the confidence of a champion.
If the fans thought the Kuerten upset would be a prelude to another right away, Williams quickly set out to disabuse them of that notion and any thought that her recent heel injury might hinder her.