Day 1 Tripping

Tuesday, August 29, 2006 /by

2006_08_29 The first day of the Open went from a dud to a blast in the space of about 12 hours, and ended with one of the best curtain-raisers this tournament has seen in years, thanks to the Dre and Drei show. Here’s an hourly report (times, places, and some observations may be wildly estimated).

1:30 P.M.: Muddy field behind National Tennis Center
It had been raining in the morning, so I went to the office—and dressed for it, too, in long sleeves and hard black shoes. Now it’s turned bitingly humid and I’ve got to track down my press credential somewhere in Flushing Meadows. At the Open, this inevitably means walking long distances only to be turned away at various gates for not ALREADY having your credential (kind of a chicken and egg game they like to play here in Queens, I guess; I’ll never understand this borough). But everyone is polite about sending me off in different directions. It’s the first day, so they still do it with a smile.

2:00 P.M.: Arthur Ashe Stadium
I’ve hustled to get my press pass, my locker, my desk, my bearings, and my free Pepsi, and now I’m sitting in an absolutely barren media section, in a deadly quiet Ashe Stadium to watch Andy Roddick. He’s cruising, so I think about trying to finish my book—"Brideshead Revisited," despite the advice of commenters here (sorry, I liked it; whatever you think of his politics, if you want to remember how to make a sentence, go to old Evelyn). As I’m pulling the book out, though, my eyes wander upward and catch a green sweater-vest in the first row directly across the stadium from me. Could it be? Actually, it pretty much has to be—no one else on earth wears green sweater vests except Jimmy Connors. Hunched forward, he looks surprisingly wide; I guess he really was a jock. The only notice he gets is from a drunk in the upper deck who keeps telling Roddick to “make Jimmy proud.” It’s the only noise in the stadium.

As for Roddick, he’s serving well, and in the first baseline rally I see, he steps into a forehand from behind the baseline and uses it to transition forward. This seems like a new, Connors-like wrinkle, but it never happens again. For the most part, Roddick is on the defensive during the rallies, chipping his backhand (even on passing shots) and using an odd open-stance, down-the-line topspin forehand that I haven’t seen from him in the past. Most notable is his attitude. Perhaps trying to impress Uncle Jimmy, he begins by letting out a harsh, throaty “yeah!” after winning a point—it sounds a little forced coming out of his mouth—and by the end he’s up in arms with the chair umpire despite having the match well in hand. That’s one part of the Connors legacy we don’t need to bring back just yet, but I’ll take the good with the bad for now if it helps get Roddick into the second week of the tournament.

3:00 P.M.: Court 7 (I think)
Every year at the Open I’m reminded of why tennis isn’t as popular as it should be. It’s because most people don’t get to see it live. It doesn’t need to be Federer-Nadal, either: Two minutes of sitting up close and personal as Paradorn Srichaphan and Jose Acasuso hit shots out of a cannon at each other on a side court is enough. The heat is stifling by now, but the low lasers they send across the net are dead solid perfect. There isn’t a wasted motion between them.

3:30 P.M.: Outside Court 7
As a press person, my experience of the Open is somewhat different than a fan’s. Frankly, it’s better. First of all, I don’t have to wait in lines, which the typical ticket-holder can spend perhaps 20 percent of his or her day doing. Walking between courts, I see one family leave a long line and join another, the end of which isn’t even in sight. The son moans, “Where does this one go?" His dad snaps back, “I have no idea, but we’re in it.”

4:30 P.M.: Court 4
Justin Gimelstob may be the least physically prepossessing pro around. In other words, he’s skinny, particularly in the lower legs. This wasn’t as noticeable when he first came up, years before the soccer-player build migrated to tennis. The nothing-fancy approach works best for Gimel—just move forward and end points quickly. It’s getting the job done today: After hitting a big serve to finish a game, he begins to strut a little as he walks off for the changeover, pointing back with a cool, lazy wrist at the ball boy, who runs to fetch his towel.

5:00 P.M.: Grandstand
This is where tennis looks and sounds the best, the Grandstand. Cyprus’ Marcos Baghdatis is playing Germany’s Alexander Waske, and the place is pretty much packed. Sitting near me is Darren Cahill, Andre Agassi’s coach, a mystery man as always behind his sunglasses. The winner of this match will play Agassi, so Cahill, diligent to the end, is doing a little scouting. I try to put myself in his mindset for a minute and scout Baghdatis. First point: Waske drills a serve wide to MB’s forehand; MB catches it perfectly and drills it back with ease. OK, don’t go big to the forehand. Two points later: Waske drills another serve to MB’s forehand; MB hits the ball into the tarp behind the court on a fly while the racquet flies out of his hand and almost goes into the stands.

My scouting report to Andre: “Hmmm, maybe serve to the forehand, sometimes, if you think his grip is slippery?” Andre: “You’re fired.”

There seem to be people here to watch the Waske, too. Typical of New York sports fans, they need to take sides and root audibly, even if it’s for someone they’ve never heard of. Before a big point, a thick NY accent comes from deep in the stands: “Let’s go Wazkey, right here. Do it Alex, you got this guy!” Waske looks a little confused by the support and loses all the important points.

5:30 P.M.: Armstrong Stadium
Feliciano Lopez is playing Ivan Ljubicic, though to say Ljuby is “playing” may be the overstatement of the year. He looks like he’s packed it in from point one, and Lopez goes on to win in straights. Which is fine for the three girls—translation: Lopez fans—in the front row along the sideline. As my TENNIS colleague Chris Chung points out (one thing Chris knows: women), they only have eyes for F-Lo. They don’t look at Ljubicic once, even when he’s serving! No wonder he doesn’t feel like playing today. His feelings must be hurt.

12:00 A.M.: Brooklyn
Watching Agassi crack winner after winner, it seems a shame that a guy who can hit a tennis ball that well has to stop playing the sport. The senior tour is unlikely for him, I know, but I’ll miss seeing him when he’s dialed in. Nobody strikes a ball quite that cleanly. Give Pavel credit, though—the fellow old-timer can hit a backhand. And while he gets a little testy at times, he’s a good sport about the evening. Highlight: Seeing Andre’s father figures, Mike Agassi and Nick Bollettieri, in the stands. Andre battled and eventually split with both of them, but they’re the reason he’s out there tonight.

Can Agassi make it happen against Baghdatis in the next round? I’m more of a believer after tonight, but I’ll still take Bags. As I said, he doesn’t seem like he’ll let the moment get the best of him. But, as much as I like the kid, I hope he does.

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