Opening Scenes

Sunday, September 01, 2013 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—How do press people know they’re in the middle of a major? It’s the OOPs. Everywhere I go right now, everywhere I look, every newspaper or book or dish I pick up or turn over, I find a sheet of paper with an old Order of Play printed on it. Some are folded in half, to fit into a bag; others are folded in sixths, to fit into a shirt pocket; a couple of them are stained with coffee. It’s an odd experience to look back at the match-ups, all of which were decided days ago. 

When I first picked up these plain white sheets in the press room, each offered a small world of possibility. What would we see tomorrow? Who was facing whom? Now we know what went on between John Isner and Gael Monfils, and that Camila Giorgi was a player to watch. For some reason, though, it takes me until the end of the tournament to gather them up and throw them all out.

Maybe it’s because the OOPs are the perfect residue for a Grand Slam. These two-week tournaments are, at bottom, a parade of seemingly earth-shattering, but ultimately ephemeral events. The important drama of one day is immediately replaced by something new the next. Every afternoon, there’s new white sheet of paper waiting for you, with tomorrow’s OOP on it.

As we reach the halfway point of this year’s final major, I’ll pause to review a few of the first week’s daily dramas, before they slip down the collective tennis memory hole.

*****

Shock of the New

All of us watch tennis to see dramatic matches and great champions. But sometimes I think even those attractions can’t compare to the excitement of seeing someone new surprise us with their personality and play. 

The first week we were treated to two of those moments of discovery. The first came when Vicky Duval, 17, upset Sam Stosur; the second happened on Saturday night, in the match between Camila Giorgi and Caroline Wozniacki. When this third-rounder, between the not-what-she-once-was Wozniacki and a little-known Italian ranked No. 136, was scheduled for the night session, many wondered why. It turned out to be the right move, because the tennis world got its first long look at the 21-year-old Giorgi. 

Many times, a low-ranked night-match rookie will melt under the lights, but the Italian, who came dressed for evening tennis, embraced her turn in the spotlight. You kept waiting for her to come down to earth, to show some nerves, to blow it; but she just kept hitting big and not missing. It was exciting, as one fellow fan on Twitter wrote last night, just watching her move forward and take the ball at the top of the bounce. Giorgi finished with 46 winners and hit a serve 117 M.P.H. And she did it all without a shriek, which should make her popular with many.

That’s what the new does, it shocks (even when doesn’t shriek). We’ll see if Giorgi, who didn’t win a match this year until April, can sustain her level after that shock wears off. 

*****

Right on Schedule

One thing you can count on at every major, and one thing that’s almost always immediately forgotten, is a scheduling brouhaha. In fact, you might say that a player has officially made it when his fans and home media start getting outraged by where and when he’s scheduled to play. Nadal and Federer fans compare notes on how many times their man has been exiled to Court Suzanne Lenglen, the second stadium at Roland Garros. Ditto for Serena’s fans every time she ends up on little Court 2 at Wimbledon—which is surprisingly often, it must be said. 

So it may be a sign of progress for Andy Murray that this year’s controversy revolved around him. When his opening match was left until Wednesday night—it was the last of all the men’s first-rounders—the British press howled that the defending champion was being disgracefully disrespected. There was even talk that, with scheduling decisions like that, the Open couldn’t be a true Grand Slam.

It’s possible, with a little more rain, that Murray may have had to play on Thursday, and his defense of his title may have been compromised. But even in that case, it’s doubtful that he would have had to play two straight days. As it happened, Murray won that first-rounder with ease and has moved through to the fourth round with little trouble. 

That’s usually the way it goes with the Scheduling Controversy: An outrage today; a distant memory tomorrow. 

*****

Like Family

What distinguishes the New York tennis fan from those at the other majors? There’s the yelling in middle of points, yes, and an occasional deficiency in patriotism. There are also the mega-beers and sodas we tote around. But what sets Americans apart most is our familiarity. We yell at the players as if they’re family members.

When Vicky Duval played her second-round match on Court 17, two men near me sounded like pushy stage parents. 

Every time she ran for a drop shot they began to cry, rapid-fire, in unison, “Get it Vick, get it Vick, get it Vick, get it Vick.” 

When Duval lost a point, one of them might say, “Don’t quit on us, now.”

When she would win one, the other would say, “See, you can do it!”

Juan Martin del Potro won here in 2009; apparently some fans believe that he should never lose. When the Argentine played Lleyton Hewitt in the second round, many spectators in Ashe waited patiently for him to make his move and bring his tank-like game—it takes a while to get into position, but when it does, it’s lethal—to bear on the little Aussie. By the middle of the fifth set, though, when Del Potro was still flailing, one fan high in the stands had had enough:

“Come on, quit messing around, Delpo!” he screamed.

Like a lot of family advice, it was ignored. Del Potro didn’t win another game.

*****

Blake and You'll Miss It

Last year, James Blake, contemplating a rapidly vanishing future in the game, said with a touch of astonishment, “It feels like one minute ago that I was the new kid in American tennis.”

This year, Blake retired at the Open. It came in perhaps the most painful and anti-climactic way possible: Late at night, in a mostly empty Armstrong Stadium, to one of the game’s most irritating players to face, Ivo Karlovic, in a match that Blake had led two sets to love. Just to complete the grim scene, the loudest fan there was a possibly-drunken contrarian who was bellowing for Karlovic after every point, and sometimes during them. What kind of home court send-off was this?

Watching, I remembered Blake’s words about how fast time can pass, and remembered watching him on two other, better nights at Flushing: In 2005, when he played his most famous match, a classic five-set quarterfinal loss to Andre Agassi—James led two sets to love that night as well—and the following year, when he went out in a close and well played four-set quarter to Roger Federer. Those matches could have been yesterday. Soon enough, I may be feeling the same nostalgia for Camila Giorgi’s breakthrough win at the Open over Wozniacki. 

Tennis is a cruel sport, everyone says; the cruelest part for the pros may be how quickly they have to stop playing it.

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