Scenes from Queens: Night Matches

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 /by

The U.S. Open is more than just the matches, it's an experience. Each day, we'll highlight one part of what makes the Open the Open.


In 1990, Jimmy Connors’ fairytale U.S. Open run at age 38 began with a come-from-behind first-round victory over Patrick McEnroe. Down two sets and 0-3, the aging warrior (he’d turn 39 before eventually reaching the semifinals) rallied himself and the crowd, as he scrapped his way to an improbable, five-set win. Among the many remarkable things about that match was the time at which it ended: 1:36 a.m.

For my money, that might be the most significant detail, the one that explains what made Jimbo’s iconic run possible in the first place.

There are any number of clichés one can employ to explain what makes night tennis at the Open so compelling: “It’s like going to a show.” “The celebrities come out.” “The alcohol riles up the crowd.” “There’s an electricity in the air.”

Those things are all true, but nocturnal tennis at the Open produces something less easy to pinpoint or explain, an alchemy that’s perhaps best summed up by the immortal line from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Thunder Road:” “Have a little faith, there’s magic in the night.”

That’s right, magic.

If there’s such a thing as magic in tennis, it’s conjured when the sun sets and the lights come on over the courts at Flushing Meadows. Oh sure, there’s no shortage of human drama on display by day at the year’s final major. But night sessions have produced so many superhuman dramas and improbable victories that the phenomenon might be worthy of its own X-File.

How else but magic to explain Todd Martin’s two legendary Houdini acts, in consecutive years, both from two sets down, against Greg Rusedski in 1999 and Carlos Moya in 2000? (The second one ended with Martin running around the perimeter of the court, high-fiving fans.) Or the five-set classic in 2005 in which James Blake, back from a career-threatening neck injury, and 35-year-old Andre Agassi somehow produced one of the all-time U.S. Open matches? Or the time, 12 months later, when Agassi, a fresh dose of cortisone soothing his spine, managed to upend Marcos Baghdatis, an Australian Open finalist that year, in the second round and extend his career to Labor Day? (Read the intro to Agassi's autobiography, Open, for more details.)

Did Pete Sampras really throw up on the court and then beat Alex Corretja in 1996? And what of the four-tiebreak quarterfinal Sampras and Agassi put on in 2001, neither player broken for the entire contest?

The Williams sisters faced off against each other several times before overcoming their emotions and staging a contest commensurate with their talents. That was in 2008, in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. At night. (Serena won, the match and the tournament.)

It’s as if, for players, heading out into the New York night evokes the same sense of possibility it does for anybody else. Oppressive by day, the city can be among the world’s most romantic in the evening. There’s a feeling that anything’s possible, that this could be my lucky night. That if I just put it all out there and try—

Oops, there we go with the clichés again. Best to forget all those and just know that one night, before this Open is done, it’s likely that something utterly magical and unexplainable will transpire. It’ll keep us all up late, but we won’t question our judgment. Instead, we’ll all walk around bleary-eyed the next morning, seeking out others who were present, in person or via television, and asking, “Did you see that?”

Moments like those are priceless. It’s best to not overanalyze. Just accept that there’s magic in the night, and enjoy.


More Scenes from Queens:

Monday, August 27: Getting to the Open
Tuesday, August 28: Night Matches
Wednesday, August 29: Photography
Thursday, August 30: Autographs
Friday, August 31: Food at the Open
Saturday, September 1: Practice Courts
Sunday, September 2: Getting In
Monday, September 3: Staying Connected
Tuesday, September 4: Ball Kids
Wednesday, September 5: The Corporate Connection
Thursday, September 6: The Outer Courts
Friday, September 7: Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Saturday, September 8: Arthur Ashe
Sunday, September 9: Empty Corridors

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