First Ball In, 8/25: New Courts, Old Troubles

Monday, August 25, 2014 /by

NEW YORK—“This has literally been the greatest experience of my life.”

What could have inspired a teenage tennis fan to say these excited words to a TV reporter at 11:30 A.M. on Monday, half an hour after the tournament had begun?

No, the girl in the pink basketball sneakers hadn’t just caught one of Nick Kyrgios’s sweatbands. And no, she hadn’t tracked down a passing Venus Williams for an autograph. 

Instead, she was telling the reporter what she thought of the new bleachers that have been installed on the grounds here this year. They overlook both the practice courts and a set of newly created side courts, Nos. 4, 5, and 6. It’s doubtful, if you visit, that you’ll be quite as enthusiastic as she was, but there’s no doubt that the Open has made a significant improvement to its infrastructure. And little has been lost in the process—this area of the grounds had always been something of a wasteland.

More important, after upping the players’ prize money in recent years, the tournament has given fans, and especially grounds-pass holders, a little more for their money. At least on Monday morning, there was plenty of room to move and circulate on the concrete islands between courts. Call it one more reason, if tennis fans needed any, not to wander into Ashe Stadium during the day.

In some ways, the Open is playing catch-up with other North American events, like Indian Wells and Toronto, that have gone out of their way to showcase practice sessions. In the past, fans here had to peer through a chain-link fence at one end of a set of five courts—Serena Williams was famous for practicing as far from the madding crowd as she could. The new stands, which allow you to see all of the courts from above, are also an acknowledgement of the way tennis, like everything else, has been annexed by our celebrity culture. These days, the Open is as much about star sightings as it is sports watching.

One set of seats in the new bleachers should be especially popular. If you walk to the top of the stands on the north side, you can face forward and see the stars—today on the practice courts, Roger Federer, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Marin Cilic were all out hitting at the same time. And those two guys in sunglasses, feeding balls? Michael Chang and Goran Ivanisevic.

If seeing them work on their backhands gets old, you can turn around and watch real competition on the three courts behind you. But for most people on Monday, turning around wasn’t necessary. 

“Hey, that’s Roger Federer, right there,” one fan said to his girlfriend, as he pointed at Federer, who was in the middle of an easy warm-up. "Right there,” he repeated, as if to convince himself of what he was seeing. 

It probably wasn’t the greatest experience of his life, but it didn’t sound like it was all that far off.

*****

“Who is this guy?”

“Mah...” the man squinted into the sun as he read the scoreboard, “...gee. McGee”

James McGee was the player’s name, and quite a few people knew it well out on Court 13 today. Fans in the Big Apple don’t get many chances to root for an Irishman, so they made the most of it on Monday. The low sun was blinding, the late-day humidity was blistering, and the smell in the crowd was an all-powerful mix of sunscreen and sweat. But there wasn’t an empty seat, or a place to stand, for most of McGee’s four-set loss to Aleksandr Nedovyesov.

If the chance to cheer for an Irish player is rare at the top levels of tennis, McGee’s chances to play at those levels have been even rarer. Last week, after a decade traveling the tour’s minor leagues, the 27-year-old fought off cramps in his final qualifying match to make the main draw at the Open for the first time. “I sat in my chair and started crying like a baby,” McGee said of his joyful reaction afterward.

A year ago at this time, McGee was sick in bed with a parasite he had picked after winning a tournament in Gabon. Today he flew his family over to watch his Open debut. It ended with him cramping again, and with the crowd going quiet with disappointment for him. But McGee walked away with $35,000 more dollars in his pocket, a lot of newfound fans in New York, and a hard-earned dream fulfilled.

*****

“When it starts to go everywhere, you don’t know where it’s going to creep up next.”

That was Andy Murray talking about the cramps that nearly ended his U.S. Open on its first day against Robin Haase.

Murray was back in Louis Armstrong Stadium, where he has famously struggled. A few years ago on this court, he lost in what one British journalist called a “horror show” to Stan Wawrinka. In 2011, he had to come back from two sets down to beat Haase. And in 2012, the year he won the title, Murray was nearly down two sets to love to Marin Cilic before rallying again.

There was drama again today, as Murray, after playing for just an hour and a half, in moderately hot weather, began to seize up. Everywhere. He said it took him by surprise, and that he had felt fine starting the match. In the end he was lucky that, soon after his body went, Haase’s brain followed. Up 3-0 in the fourth, with Murray barely able to move, Haase double faulted, missed an easy overhead, and netted a backhand to give the break back, and eventually the match. 

*****

“See, I told you you could do it!”

This was the shout of a spectator in the direction of Angelique Kerber, after her win on the Grandstand on Monday. New York fans like to give advice; this one seemed to believe his support had put Kerber over the top.

Kerber, the No. 6 seed, didn’t acknowledge him one way or the other, but she did need all the help she could get in beating Ksenia Pervak in a defensive war of attrition, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. The Russian, despite being ranked 121 spots below the German, had beaten her in three sets in their only other meeting. It was easy to see why she gives Kerber trouble: The two are virtually the same player. Each is left-handed, each is consistent, each can defend, and neither has the power to hurt the other—it’s a death march waiting to happen.

It appeared, with Pervak a point from 5-3 in the third, that this march was going to end up in a major upset. But Kerber, who had been tight, chose that point to let her frustration out. As her forehand cleared the net and went for a down-the-line winner, she extended her grunt into a long, triumphal groan—Novak Djokovic often does the same thing to punctuate an important winner. It still wasn’t easy the rest of the way, but Kerber had gained the upper hand in this duel of doppelgangers.

Three years ago, Kerber made her breakthrough when she reached the semifinals here. With this nervy first-rounder out of the way, she could go deep again. All she needs, it seems, is her No. 1 fan to tell her she can do it.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Tuesday’s Order of Play here.

Ana Ivanovic vs. Alison Riske

The opener on Ashe could be interesting. Riske lost to Ivanovic in two close sets at the start of the season in Auckland, and the Pittsburgh native has done well at the Open before. Ana has had a very good season, but she’s gone out early at the last two majors. Winner: Ivanovic

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Olga Govortsova

Bouchard, as she said this weekend, has struggled before Slams and been OK before. She’ll test that theory again on Armstrong on Tuesday. In their only previous meeting, in 2012, she beat the 120th-ranked Govortsova in three sets. Winner: Bouchard

Jack Sock vs. Pablo Andujar

For a few minutes, Sock threatened to be the American tennis story of the summer, but he couldn’t quite get past Milos Raonic in D.C. or Toronto. Hard-hitting and sometimes hot-headed, he has saved his best for the Open in the past. Winner: Sock

Noah Rubin vs. Federico Delbonis

Expect a good, loud, home crowd for Rubin on Court 13. A student at the McEnroe Academy in New York, and winner at both Kalamazoo and junior Wimbledon, the 18-year-old is the next U.S. hopeful. We’ll see if he can stay with the heavier-hitting Delbonis, or if he was right to choose to play at Wake Forest this fall. Winner: Delbonis

Dustin Brown vs. Bernard Tomic

Talk about a contrast in styles. On the one side, you have the acrobatic, charismatic, inconsistent Brown; on the other, the low-key (no-key?), willfully strange and occasionally clever Tomic. Should be quite an unpredictable brew. Winner: Brown

Madison Keys vs. Jarmila Gajdosova

Another U.S. teen gets started tomorrow. Keys had a good grass-court season, but she’s 2-3 on the hard courts since Wimbledon. Still, she’s ranked 27th, and Gajdosova is 102nd. Winner: Keys

Petra Kvitova vs. Kristina Mladenovic

Kvitova is the biggest question mark/wild card/mystery, whatever you want to call her, in the women’s draw. Just when you thought she was going into another post-Wimbledon tailspin in the States, she cruised to the title in New Haven last week without dropping a set—and she even had a little of her focused “Wimbledon look” about her as she did it. But Mladenovic is no pushover. She beat Kvitova in their only meeting, indoors in 2013, and she upset another 2014 Slam champ, Li Na, in the first round at the French Open. Winner: Kvitova

Roger Federer vs. Marinko Matosevic

Federer sounded confident about this one in his pre-tourmament presser, and why not? They’ve played once, in Brisbane in January, and Federer won 6-1, 6-1. Winner: Federer

Serena Williams vs. Taylor Townsend

How will the teenager react to a night session in Ashe against Serena? If she can settle down after a few games and ride the crowd wave, rather than let it ride over her, she has talent to show off. But the world No. 1 has too many things going to her in this one. Winner: Williams


Photos by Anita Aguilar.

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