NEW YORK—When the skies opened up over Arthur Ashe Stadium around 1 p.m. yesterday afternoon, someone in press room called out, “Okay, time to close the roof.”
Alas, it will be some time before that becomes an option—three years from now, if all goes well. Until then, we’ll have to settle for the sight of wet fans huddled under overhangs, delays of four or more hours, matches that end eight or more hours after they begin, endless confusion over USTA ticket policies, and long, lingering close-ups on television of Grand Slam supervisors and chair umpires huddling at the net, or scuffing at the lines with their tennis shoes in an attempt to judge the degree of moisture—and danger—to the players sitting nearby, staring abstractedly into space.
Actually, some fans who had to endure the four-plus hour rain delay, and a few other work stoppages in the early evening, might want to shoot me for saying this, but these days of disruption have always had a certain dramatic appeal. At least they do for those lucky enough to experience them in the comfort of the living room or some other dry place.
On days like yesterday, when the familiar, lab-like conditions of a tennis tournament are ruined, all bets are off. It’s every man for himself, and that puts the elite players, so accustomed to routine and pampering, on terra incognita. As the tournament is transformed from a day event into a night spectacle, matches hurtle on toward uncertain conclusions, and somehow the crowd that has sucked it up and remained on hand becomes something. . . beautiful.
The fans exhibit a degree of bonhomie that can only be traced to shared hardship. These fans have shown their true colors; they’ve endured. It’s a re-make of “The Longest Day,” a spectator marathon under rough conditions. They loosen up, indulge in a little grim or even black humor. They grow dazed and giddy, which isn’t a bad combination for what is so often a downright louche audience.
Okay, I’m not suggesting we pray for rain each time a tournament day begins with sunny skies and a dry atmosphere. But at some point a festival spirit takes over during these exhausting and difficult days, and the end result is often a day that lives on in memory, as well as tennis history when the backlog leads to a 2 or 3 a.m. conclusion to the program. Weren’t the most famous pictures at the Woodstock festival those of the mud-caked revelers dancing in Max Yasgur’s hayfield?
Until the rain became the dominant theme at the U.S. Open yesterday, the day belonged to a wide-eyed, somewhat overwhelmed 17-year-old who wasn’t even scheduled to play. I’m talking about the Haitian American youngster Victoria Duval.
Here was ESPN’s Pam Shriver, doing an interview with Duval’s parents and two brothers. There was Jim Courier, doing a deep feature on the same for Tennis Channel, while networks by the scores and media outlets of every description scrambled to churn out features on this ingénue who, on Tuesday night, shocked the tennis world by taking down No. 11 seed and former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur. Including us:
You could hardly blame the media; Duval’s story is a compelling one, and it tends to enforce our collective faith in our better selves. At the same time, the name “Melanie Oudin” popped up frequently enough during the day to give me pause. Oudin was, like Duval, a 17-year-old sensation. She reached the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Open with upsets of four Russians, two of them high seeds, Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova.
But Oudin’s bandwagon picked up speed gradually; she certainly didn’t become the story of the women’s tournament by virtue of one win. And that has really set us all—including Duval—up for a big letdown.
That Duval has triggered such an avalanche of interest is a comment on how much hotter the media climate is today than it was even in 2009, as well as a tribute to what is by any stretch an inspirational family history. But you also have to wonder how the overnight fame will affect her, both in the short and long term.
Duval just might be young enough to sail on blithely, oblivious to what will inevitably be described as distraction or pressure. Others have done it, and I hope she does too. But however you cut it, this single, first-round match has already had a disproportionately huge impact on a youngster who still has a lot of improving and growing up to do.
Massage and Pedicure, Guillermo?
There’s no better example of the dynamics I wrote about at the top of this post than the match we saw yesterday between No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro and the exceedingly tricky—in every sense of the word—Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
The match began at 1:08 p.m. in the afternoon and finished some eight hours later, after a riveting four hours and 21 minutes of on-court time (beefed up a little by delays caused by sporadic sprinkles after the initial four-hour delay was over). It was a bitter struggle during which 6’6” del Potro, who has a well-earned reputation as a gentle giant, grew so incensed at his opponent’s shenanigans that the two men had words in Spanish on the sidelines.
Del Potro’s anger was a response to a number of disruptive medical time-outs taken by Garcia-Lopez with the favorite ahead by two sets to one but down a break in the fourth set. Garcia-Lopez’s ploys were such that in the commentary booth, ESPN2’s John McEnroe suggested that as the 30-year-old Spaniard had already his groin and thigh area massaged by the trainer, he might as well also go for a pedicure next.
There seemed little doubt that Garcia-Lopez took advantage of the rules to try to get into del Potro’s head, for he ran like a gazelle for remainder of the set. But the gamesmanship backfired, as it seemed to light a fire under del Potro, who roared back to win the match in a fourth-set tiebreaker.
Garcia-Lopez isn’t the first to abuse the medical timeout rules, and he surely won’t be the last. The rule must to be changed because the authors didn’t write it in order to give players a chance to get a massage, haircut, and shave during a match.
Now let’s look at some of today’s match-ups. Because of the rain, the schedule is loaded with marquee names and pairings—well over 50 matches are on the docket, including doubles. Here are some of the choice ones:
Daniela Hantuchova vs. Victoria Duval
Apropos of what I wrote above, it will be interesting to see if the hoopla surrounding Duval will have any impact on this second-round match. Duval swung freely and fearlessly against Stosur in the last round; will her arm—and mind—be just as loose against the dangerous Slovak shotmaker? Hantuchova goes hot and cold, though, so a lot of what happens out there will be determined by the state of her own game and mind.
Every player who aspires to go deep in a major usually has at least one gut-check match before the second week, and this is it for Isner. It’s a wonderful match-up, as the head-to-head record amply shows. The men are 3-3, and not a one of those six matches ended in straight sets. Also, all of their meetings have been on hard courts. Monfils has won the last two, but in each case only by a whisker. Isner triumphed in their only Grand Slam clash, a four-setter at the 2010 Australian Open.
The beauty of this bout is the contrast between Isner’s forcing, aggressive style and Monfils’ spectacular defensive skills and athleticism. Monfils plays the role of Muhammad Ali to Isner’s George Foreman, although the Frenchman will not be as beloved as Ali was in Zaire when he goes up against the U.S.’ best hope in New York City.
This is a good opportunity for Sock, who seems to have designs on taking on the role Andy Roddick played for so long among the American men. But even a brash, muscular 20-year-old must feel some trepidation before going toe-to-toe with a guy whose first name is “Maximo” and whose last name reminds us of that recently retired shotmaker, Fernando Gonzalez.
However, this Gonzalez stands just 5’9” and there’s a good chance Sock might be able to overpower him. On the other hand, Gonzalez is in his current position because he knocked off the No. 14 seed, 6’8” Jerzy Janowicz.
Donna Vekic vs. No. 21 Simona Halep
Since there’s been so much emphasis on youth at this U.S. Open, this match merits a good close look. Halep has been on fire lately; she’s up to No. 19 and is coming off a win at New Haven, where she took the title from No. 9 Petra Kvitova—after bouncing No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki in the semis. Vekic is yet another highly touted 17-year-old who appears on the verge of a breakout, but there’s no doubt that this is a much tougher second-rounder than it may appear on paper.
If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket for today, murmur a quick thanks to the rain gods.
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