Welcome to the U.S. Open

by: Peter Bodo | August 20, 2014

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Fans take in matches for free during the U.S. Open's qualifying tournament. (Photos by Ed McGrogan and Wikimedia Commons)

NEW YORK—Arriving at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center today, it was difficult to imagine that in just about five days time, the site would be a seething, bubbling, cauldron of humanity—or the version that passes for it here in Gotham. During this qualifying week, the turnout by savvy fans is still so sparse that you risk second-degree burns just by plopping down somewhere on the aluminum bleachers that, absent fannies, have been heating up for hours. Entry is free, and if you’re too star-conscious to enjoy matches between lowly qualifiers, you can always hang around the practice courts.

The first tennis player I saw this year was Serena Williams; she was walking into the practice courts just as I was picking up my credentials. Okay, I didn’t actually see her. I just heard a wave of “Look, there’s Serena” or “Wow, that’s Serena” noise roll toward me from the fans gathered outside the fence. Mind you, these were fans who weren’t even officially inside the grounds; they were kind of like the kids who hang around in the street beyond the exterior walls at certain Major League Baseball stadia, hoping that someone hits one out of the park—literally.

While I was having my bag checked, I did see the first pro I could identify as such—Stan Wawrinka, whacking a giant serve on the renovated P1 practice court. If you’ve ever been to the Open, you know that ogling the practice courts right by the West Gate has become a beloved pastime. It proves that scads of fans really are more happy to just feast their eyes on the stars; they don’t necessarily feel a need to be a party to all that grim, sweaty, deuce-ad business. The habit has also created serious pedestrian traffic problems that even a New York cyclist might not want to take on.

Hence, the biggest change/addition at the tournament for 2014: The new, lengthy gallery that separates the five practice courts (P1 to P5) from the newly repositioned Courts 4, 5, and 6. The gallery is two stories tall, with plenty of open space to let sunlight in. It features entrances to the tournament courts at intervals for its entire length. If you go upstairs, you can sit and watch players practice on the north side, or move over to the south side to watch a tournament match on 4, 5, or 6. The gallery itself offers welcome shade; it even has a two-level water fountain, although I’m not sure how the concessionaires feel about that.

All in all, it’s like someone hauled in and parked a battleship between those courts, a feeling that’s especially strong if you’re on the upper deck looking down at them. This addition is going to be very popular, although I’m not sure how it will bear crowds, for five practice and three tournament courts is a lot of interesting real estate, especially when it’s populated by familiar names.

Because of the ongoing renovations taking place here, at this stage of things, the site always feels like it’s still under construction. The upper floor of the aforementioned gallery isn’t officially open yet; the workers were still installing guardrails—always a good idea, what with the Heineken bar just a short lob distant. Today, you could hear the clean, crisp “pock” of tennis balls being hit against a backing track of circular saws, pneumatic drills, and nail guns.

I had two matches in mind to check out today, the clash between wild-card American qualifier Asia Muhammad and No. 18 seed Ksenia Pervak, and No. 8 seed Ricardas Berankis’ meeting with another American, MacKenzie McDonald. The latter seems like a typical Scottish name on steroids. That said, the 19-year-old from Berkeley, Calif., is just 5’10” and has a slight build, significant handicaps in today’s muscular game.

Muhammad is a leggy, 23-year-old African-American whose brother Shabazz plays in the NBA. Another brother, Rashad, plays college basketball. In Pervak, Muhammad was playing a woman who has seen the land of milk and honey, having once held a world ranking of No. 37. Muhammad is at a career-high ranking of No. 290 at the moment, and given her age, you could almost hear her fingernails squeaking as she hangs onto the face of the game, struggling to keep from dropping into the abyss.

I joined Muhammad’s match early in the first set, Pervak already up a break. The ceremonial “first plane” thundered by overhead, so low I thought I could reach out and grab hold of the landing gear, while the heat from the red-hot bench seat was still ironing the seat of my cargo shorts.

This must be New York, and this must be the U.S. Open.

Watching qualifying is like seeing pro tennis in a slightly warped mirror. The typical things that determine tour-level matches are present in qualifiers, only moreso. You watch a player who’s just a bit short on outright power (say, David Goffin) in a main-tour match and you might feel admiration and sympathy for his ability to survive. You see his equivalent among the qualifiers and you might be tempted to wince and avert your eyes.

Everything in qualifying seems magnified except strengths (alas!), for players who have real, overriding strengths are comfortably on the tour. What you have among qualifiers are more manageable weaknesses. The exceptions are quality players coming back from injury or dealing with other extraneous circumstances, a weak second serve or free-flying backhand not exactly qualifying as the latter.

In qualifying, everything usually seems to unfold at a slower pace. You can study the game in a more leisurely manner. It was hard to tell that Pervak, a southpaw, had once been inside the Top 40. There appeared to be nothing “big” or menacing about her game, and no lefty dividend. She poked at the ball prudently, coloring a little too far inside the lines, and that won’t get the job done on the WTA these days.

Muhammad, by contrast, looks lean and athletic, like a smaller version of Venus Williams (she’s 5’8”). Somehow, she looked more in keeping with the contemporary game, but looks can be deceiving. Often, Muhammad’s swing was big, but the result was not. And she also was finding it hard to get the ball anywhere within five feet of a line—service lines excepted. Muhammad doesn’t move as well as either of the Williams sisters, but that’s a shortcoming shared by many.

After holding for 5-3, Pervak jumped to a 0-40 lead—three set points. Two of the mistakes by Muhammad were near misses, but at least she was aggressively going for the lines rather than lofting back mid-court bloopers. Unfortunately, a miss by an inch is as bad as a miss by a mile, and Muhammad was unable to dig herself out of the hole. She fought off one break point, but then hit a shallow kick serve that Pervak teed off on to take the first set with a clean winner.

Muhammad broke in the first game of the second set, thanks partly to two double faults by Pervak. When Muhammad made it to 40-30 in the next game, it looked as if she would consolidate the break. But she made a forehand error to give Pervak life. Another forehand error wiped away another hold point. And yet another forehand error created a break-back point for Pervak. The pattern was obvious, and Muhammad complied with it, driving a forehand into the net to give up the game and her lead.

I wandered away from that one to check out the Berankis/McDonald match, taking a seat alongside the USTA development honchos, Patrick McEnroe, Jay Berger, and Jose Higueras. McDonald at 19 still has some growing and bulking up to do, and doing so will certainly help alleviate his a shortage of power. All he needed to do is look across the net for inspiration, though. At 5’9” and 24 years of age, Berankis is an inch shorter, but he’s thicker, stores up a lot of kinetic energy in his sizeable quads, and well-developed arms, and produces a heavier, more dangerous ball because of it.

I once thought that Berankis, seeded No. 8, could become the neww David Nalbandian. He’s similarly built, with a low center of gravity—he seems to roll as much as run across the court. And like Nalbandian, he has a killer, versatile two-handed backhand. Berankis was a junior world No. 1, and at the end of 2010 the 20-year-old was the youngest player in the Top 100. In all fairness, he’s suffered some serious injuries. He’s just one of those guys who seemingly got lost in the shuffle.

Berankis won the first set, 6-3, showing some impressive touch around the net to go with his superior power. McDonald hits a similar, relatively flat ball, just not as well. In the second set, with McDonald serving at 1-all, Berankis got to 30-all. During the ensuing, furious rally, Berankis changed the pace with a heavily sliced backhand and McDonald swallowed the ploy hook, line, and sinker—mashing a mis-timed forehand into the net. At break point, Berankis stepped in and insolently clobbered an inside-out forehand winner. With that break in hand, he cruised to the relatively easy win, 6-3, 6-3.

This was just the second day of qualifying (and still the first round) but Berankis looked to me like a sure qualifier. When I left the match, I checked some scores and was surprised to see that Muhammad had battled back and fought off a few match points to win the second-set tiebreaker from Pervak.

That one would go on for three hours and 16 minutes—a typical, bitter struggle to qualify, one featuring two players lacking enough power or consistency to make a clean kill. In the end, though, Pervak prevailed by 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-3.

So what’s missing from Pervak’s game, that the former main-draw mainstay would meet such stiff resistance from a woman who hasn’t yet cracked the Top 200? Confidence is the most obvious answer. She lacks the sure grip that would enable her to collar and dismiss a player like Muhammad with a minimum of spilled blood and guts. Pervak had 29 break points today, but converted only nine. Muhammad saw 10, and made five, but a lot of good that success rate did her.

Welcome to qualifying. Welcome to the U.S. Open. Welcome to New York.

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