NEW YORK—“I had a lot of crowd support,” John Isner said with a wry smile last night after beating Gael Monfils at the U.S. Open. “I had a college buddy of mine I noticed in the crowd, and in the opening point he was hammered.”
Playing a Frenchman at Flushing Meadows, Isner probably expected a little more love than one drunken friend. Isner is the No. 1 American at the moment, and this is the only Grand Slam held in his home country. Yet there he was, at the Open, with the booming chants of “Monfils! Monfils!” ringing in his ears. “It was a little disappointing,” Isner said afterward, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it.” Frankly, it must have come as a shock to him, considering that he had been cheered all summer in places like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati.
But that’s the thing, or at least the first thing, to remember about what happened in Louis Armstrong Stadium last night: New York is part of the United States, but it’s not exactly like the rest of the country. Its population is more diverse, and it draws far more tourists from overseas. That’s doubly true at the U.S. Open. To take another, less-controversial example from Thursday: A few hours before Isner and Monfils walked on court, England’s Dan Evans talked about how surprised he was that there so many British people in the stands supporting him on Court 17. Even players from Luxembourg have their face-painted cheering sections here.
U.S. players are embraced in New York, of course, but so is charisma and drama and guts, no matter where it comes from—Jimmy Connors wasn’t the King of the Big Apple just because he grew up in Missouri; New Yorkers loved him because he brought a little Broadway, and a lot of grit, to the court. Last night the fans in Armstrong got plenty of showmanship from Monfils. What they were begging for was the drama. The chants of his name grew louder after he fell behind and began to mount a comeback. This match had promised to be an epic—I had written that they should have just started with the fifth-set tiebreaker—and that’s what the audience was determined to have.
What the fans were rooting for more than anything else was the Night Session. This is the great myth of the Open, to be able to say that you were there, in the wee hours, for Agassi-Baghdatis, or a Todd Martin comeback, or a magical surprise like Vicky Duval's upset of Sam Stosur. The fans on Thursday night wanted a taste of that magic, too, and after the first two sets, the only way to get it was to cheer on Monfils. As Isner himself said, “I know the New York fans, they like to see long matches and five setters.”
Of course, when Americans like Agassi and Martin and Duval and Andy Roddick won their epics, the crowd wasn’t bellowing for their foreign opponents. Isner has a right to be disappointed. He has probably dreamed of playing his own mythic night session match a million times; now he gets to be in one, and the crowd is chanting the French guy’s name! But Isner isn’t alone in his disappointment. Before he became Broadway Jimbo, Connors was run off the court after the 1977 Open final at Forest Hills by a mob of fans who picked up his Argentine opponent, Guillermo Vilas, and carried him around in triumph. When John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in the finals in 1980 and ’81, the audience in Armstrong shuffled out with a surly grumble. Venus Williams said it took her 15 years to feel at home at the Open. Even Roddick and Agassi didn’t get all the love in the building when they played finals against Roger Federer.
I wouldn’t expect Isner to agree, but personally I thought the chants for Monfils in New York were an example of what makes tennis great, and maybe unique. People who follow the sport closely can’t just be fans of players from their home countries. It’s a game of individual stars who cross national boundaries. Even if you're from the U.S., you're not going to be much of a tennis fan if you don't care about Federer or Nadal or Djokovic or Murray or del Potro (another New York favorite) or anyone else in the Top 10. That includes Monfils, the era’s great showman. Like the Big 4, La Monf belongs to the world. And that’s the beauty of rooting for international athletes: When fans from other countries identify with them, we get to leave our narrow, nationalistic conception of ourselves and, in a small way, revel in a different culture, in a different way of competing and expressing yourself. The chants for Monfils last night weren’t, as some said, anti-American. They were pro-tennis, and pro-personality.
I’m not saying the fans in Armstrong on Thursday night were all high-minded, worldly sophisticates. They had paid to be there, they had waited for the match all day, they might have had, as John McEnroe would say, a couple of pops, and they wanted a show. Monfils was giving it to them. Isner says he was disappointed, but he had his supporters as well, and they weren’t just drunken college buddies. Open crowds, unlike Parisian crowds, don’t tend to be uniform or monolithic in their support, though last night they did remind me of the French in one way: Their fickleness. When Isner went up 6-4 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, and possibility of a fifth set suddenly became remote, the fans jumped the sinking Monfils ship and began to chant “USA!” Isner took what he could get: “That was pretty cool,” he said.
Whether or not Isner was disappointed by the crowd doesn’t matter; what matters was how he responded. In that sense, he came through with flying colors. Isner, who typically wilts without home-country support, may have even learned something from the night, and from the crowd’s fair-weather switchover at the end. At match point, the normally undemonstrative Isner told the crowd to get up, and they obeyed. In that, he reminded me of two other recent New York favorites, Roddick and del Potro. As those former champs can attest, the Open loves showmen, it loves fighters, and it loves winners. By the end, Isner seemed to have learned those lessons. If he can remember them for the next two weeks, the audience in New York will be chanting his name, too.