Cracking the Whip

by: Steve Tignor | September 08, 2011

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Ar NEW YORK—The sun was out, the courts were dry, and, a day after they’d been dragged, grudgingly, into a misty Louis Armstrong Stadium, Andy Roddick and David Ferrer showed up bright and early and ready to go. At 10:59, they were even one minute early. The forecast the night before had called for more rain today, but it appeared that the USTA had finally caught a break.

They should have known better. Two games in, Roddick noticed a crack in the court right behind the north baseline, with “nickel-sized” water spots on it. He, Ferrer, and chair umpire Carlos Bernardes inspected it for a few minutes. After patting it, stepping on it, and eyeballing it, it was clear that the surface, after two days of rain, had a water-filled bubble in it. A tournament official was called, and after some more poking and prodding and hemming and hawing, Roddick finally made a decision for everyone: “You’re not going to get that fixed any time soon,” he said, so the players might as well go back to the locker room, and they could call them when they had it ready.

If yesterday was the revolt, was this the new order, one in which the inmates had taken over the asylum? It was pretty clear who was in charge. Before he left, Roddick told the grounds crew that dabbing the bubble with a towel wouldn't do any good, because the water would just rise up again. Then he picked up his bags and led Ferrer off the court.

With Roddick gone, there was a power vacuum inside Armstrong. Tournament officials and grounds staff stared at the bubble, stepped on the bubble, toweled the bubble off; the best idea anyone seemed to have was to “get something really heavy” that could squeeze the bubble dry, presumably like a giant asphalt zit. The heavy thing never materialized, which was probably a good thing for the rest of the court. But after half an hour or so of pushing and prodding, and a long session with a vacuum cleaner, one Open official reported that the situation had “improved dramatically,” that the area was drying out, and that the players could be back on court in 15 minutes. It appeared, perhaps, finally, that the USTA really had caught a break this time, and that things weren’t as bad as they might have seemed at first.

But this is the 2011 U.S. Open, which means things really are that bad. Roddick reappeared on Armstrong, and tournament referee Brian Earley showed him the hard work his staff had done on the bubble. Roddick wasn’t impressed. He pushed down on a spot nearby; water appeared beneath the surface.

“What are we doing out here, Brian?” Roddick asked, lifting his arms up in disbelief, like a teacher disappointed in his students' behavior while he was away. “I told you, you can’t just dab a towel on it. There’s water coming up from underneath.”

“It wasn’t there 10 minutes ago,” Earley pleaded.

Roddick didn’t need to hear any more. Saying he was “pissed off” and “baffled,” he walked back off the court, again followed dutifully by Ferrer. “Can you believe that?” he asked his opponent.

Earley, befuddled, followed behind. Roddick told him he wanted to play now, that there were too many matches lined up after this fourth-rounder for them to wait. “You don’t have to play three matches in three days,” he said to Earley. The ref grunted and got on the phone. A minute later, he was back, hemming and hawing and finally saying they could move to Court 13, a tiny side court, if they wanted it. Roddick picked up his bag and was gone virtually before the sentence was out of Earley’s mouth. Ferrer, as always today, trailed a few steps behind.

It didn’t take a genius prognosticator to figure out that Court 13 was going to be a nice place for Andy Roddick to play this afternoon. He and Ferrer were out there in a matter of minutes, so fast that most fans had no idea what was going on. It took a set for the area around the court to fill up. From the start, though, they were with Roddick—when he missed, a man next to me never failed to yell, “Nice try, Andy!” More important, Roddick had his best, calmest game with him. Compared to his match against Ferrer in Davis Cup last month, when he came out hot but ended up tight, Roddick instinctively found the right balance today. He was a step closer to the baseline than usual, he worked points intelligently, and, as always, he had his serve. Up a break in the second set, he faced 30-30 points in two straight service games. He hit aces on both of them.

“I enjoyed it,” Roddick said afterward. “I like playing the smaller, more intimate stuff when I can.” But it wasn’t the venue that Roddick credited as much as it was the attitude that he’s tried to take into this tournament. “I know it sounds simple,” he said, “but I’m just going out and playing. I’m having fun.”

Ferrer? Not so much. He was off from the start. He didn't pummel Roddick's backhand the way you would have expected, and didn’t make him pay for hanging shots in the midcourt—I was surprised at how easily the American pushed him around. But it wasn’t Ferrer’s scene. Yesterday it took him all of a game before he was kicking a sidewall in anger, and today he complained about the extraneous activity going on around the court, especially the two cameras that ESPN had set up near the net.

Ferrer was right, they were intrusive, but as he said later, what could he do? Still, the Spaniard said he didn’t think the situation was unfair, and that he would have been just as vocal in his outrage as Roddick, if his English were better.

Roddick, meanwhile, lapped it all up. “It was a little bit of everything,” he said of the scene on 13. “We had some Van Morrison wannabe playing music. There was a guy scaling a fence. A couple people wanted to do commentary on the service line. There was screaming from the courtyard. It sounded like someone was getting hurt.”

He was master of it all today, of the crowd, of the match, seemingly of the Open itself—if the game needs a commissioner, Andy Roddick would certainly be decisive enough for the job. He told the officials how to handle a water bubble, decided which court he would move to when they didn't handle it, beat a higher-ranked player once he got there, and finished by doing a Todd Martin-style, hand-slapping victory lap.

Roddick was even willing to do the chair umpire’s job for him. When a return of his landed near the baseline and was called out, Roddick looked at Bernardes and said, “It was in.” Case closed.

A little later, two journalists snuck onto the court and sat on a bench reserved for photographers. Ferrer gave them a funny look. The soft-spoken Bernardes waved in their direction, trying to tell them to leave, but they couldn’t hear him. Finally, Roddick got up and said, “We can’t have you out here, guys.” They put their heads down and left.

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