NEW YORK—On the second Saturday of the U.S. Open, at about 7:30 p.m., two great semifinal matches are unfolding on the courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In Arthur Ashe Stadium, Andy Murray is trying to fight his way out of a two-sets-to-love deficit against Rafael Nadal. On the Grandstand, unseeded Angelique Kerber is attempting her own comeback, pushing herself into a third set against No. 9 Samantha Stosur.
I am at neither match. My cameras aren’t even with me—they’re secured in my locker, three rooms away. Instead, I’m sitting at my desk in the media center, a cup of iced coffee on one side of me, a square of carrot cake on the other. But I’m not here for idleness. I’m here for surveillance.
At this point in the tournament, I have shot triple the amount of forehands, backhands and serves I require, so I don’t really need to be on court for every point of a night match in stadium light. What I do need is photos of great moments. So I tarry at my desk, watching both matches on closed-circuit television, waiting to see which might end first.
Naturally, both matches enter the potential decisive set at almost exactly the same minute. Now I have to choose.
Every Grand Slam tournament features scores of great moments, and most of them happen in the second week. That’s when longtime, top-ranked foes face each other in epic matches, when two teenagers win their first Grand Slam title by pairing together for doubles, when juniors from around the world make the best memories of their young lives in New York City, when an unseeded player who had never advanced past the second round reaches the semis with a fortnight of inspiring play.
Photographing these moments and others like them becomes my primary goal during the second half of the tournament. I’m pursuing images of victory and frustration, looking for smiles and scowls, fist-pumps and smashed racquets. Though you see many great images of diving volleys and lunging backhands, the best tennis photos happen between and after the action.
A lucrative spot for hunting these moments is in the juniors’ tournament. The younger players are here not for a supersize paycheck—yet—but for pure competition and personal achievement. The emotion is raw and sincere, whether they fail or succeed.
So I spend some time watching the courtyard scoreboard, looking for matches that are about to end. Court 10 has a 4-4 in the third set? I’m on my way to photograph the winner win. Twenty minutes later I see that Court 7 has a 5-3 in the third? I’ll be there before they’re done.
Another hunting ground for this kind of photographic gold is any match involving a player whose name no one knew two weeks ago, but who’s now a daily headline. (Think Kerber and Donald Young, at this year’s U.S. Open.) If a player’s own mother didn’t give him or her a chance to make the quarterfinals, then that player ought to give you a good photo in just about every game. It’s a lifetime of preparation finally percolating. All the accumulated emotion from all those years of hitting millions of serves, volleys and ground strokes begin to culminate in every point. These players don’t just celebrate the end of a set or match, they celebrate every break and every tough point won.
Of course, those aren’t usually the photographs people remember years later. Watching juniors win is a lot of fun, and almost every fan loves to cheer on the underdogs. But those players usually aren’t the ones winning Grand Slam titles. It’s the stars who make the history. So I need to shoot in Ashe, too.
The ultimate prize in U.S. Open photos is often the championship point. The moment of victory. The last man or woman standing.
But championship points are easier to write about than to shoot.
First, you don’t know which player will win. You can’t aim your camera in two directions, and you can’t sit on two sides of the court. So you start with only a 50 percent chance of even being in the vicinity of the winning player.
You also don’t know which direction the player will be facing—he or she could be toward you (which gives you a nice photo) or away (which gives you a photo of hair). Now the success rate is down to 25 percent.
To prepare for the moment, you need to choose a lens. Should you pick a short lens or long? Choose wrong and you won’t get the shot. The percentage is now down to 12.5.
When victory occurs, you don’t know exactly what the player will do, but you know it will happen fast—so fast that you won’t have time to rotate your camera between horizontal and vertical. So again, you need to choose ahead of time. Choose wrong, you miss the shot. The percentage is now 6.25.
Even after all of this, you don’t actually know if the player will do anything photogenic. Maybe there will be a photo-worthy celebration, maybe not. The percentage is down to 3.125.
Ancillary variables factor into the formula, too. Just because the player shows some excitement doesn’t mean the photo’s composition is sound. Is the light nice? Is the background cluttered? Are ball people or line judges blocking your view? If we group all these together into one big yes or no, we’re down to a 1.5 percent chance that you’re set up for a good shot. Those aren’t good odds.
And that’s not considering the effect of photographer error. Bad focus? Bad aim? Bad timing? All of these result in a bad photo, and you don’t get a second chance.
Of course, that poor percentage of success is really just a starting point. You use your experience to nudge those odds back toward a better bet.
For instance, staying aware of the score helps. Tight matches tend to yield more emotion and more animated reactions. Also, knowing where the friends and family are sitting helps you predict what direction the player will look. Understanding the player’s tendencies helps, as well; Pete Sampras had no fear of coming to net on match point, whereas Andre Agassi almost always stayed at the baseline.
All this info helps you choose your lens, your framing, your position, and so on. As match point approaches, you gather this mental data, load your camera with a fresh battery and empty memory card, and then hope you’ve narrowed the odds enough to record a historic scene.
That’s why I sit at my desk during the simultaneous Saturday semifinals—to give myself a better chance of shooting a good match-point celebration. Unfortunately, Nadal and Stosur are paced to win at about the same time. So I gamble. I decide to head for the Grandstand, hoping that Murray can summon the fortitude to delay his defeat just long enough for me to return to Ashe.
Yet when I arrive at the Grandstand, Kerber starts to win games. She’s making the match longer—diminishing my chances to shoot Nadal and Murray—but at least she’s having fun and showing it, providing great photo opportunities after every point she wins.
Alas, the comeback doesn’t last long. Stosur wins and gives a quick but nice moment, raising her hands to her head and smiling, pure and honest joy in her eyes and in her smile. Unfortunately, I can’t see it. From my angle, she’s standing behind the umpire chair.
I rush to Ashe, where Murray promptly wins the third set and extends the match. For 51 more minutes I shoot the extra forehands and backhands I don’t need, then Nadal wins, turns right toward my camera and yells and pumps his fist. I have the correct lens on, no one is blocking me, and I get the shot.
Later in the evening, Serena wins her semifinal right in front of me. Again, I have the right lens on, but she leaps out of my composition.
So I’m two out of four in the semifinals. That’s a pretty good night, considering the odds I started with.
On Sunday I shoot the junior finals. Underpuppy Grace Min wins the championship in two close sets, but reacts with little more than a smile and a fist-clench. Oliver Golding wins the boys’ event; he raises his arms in triumph, giving me very tight framing with my telephoto lens, but he holds the pose so long that I could paint the picture.
Stosur, however, just doesn’t want me taking her photo in Queens. She wins the title a dozen feet away from me. Right lens, clean background, no ballkids. And she turns the other direction.
For the men’s final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, my odds are as good as can be. Both players are animated and emotive. They’re generally generous, photographically. My assigned seat in the photo pit is in front of Djokovic’s box, and he doesn’t disappoint—he looks right toward me for the entire celebration.
So in the final weekend of the 2011 U.S. Open, I soundly beat that 1.5 percent chance of success. But I know how odds work. We’ll see what happens next year.
Chris Nicholson is a former editor for TENNIS magazine and author of the upcoming book Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches & Fans (www.PhotographingTennis.com).