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Hey Steve,

Sept. 10th, 2001, the day after the end of a US Open in which the singles titles were taken by Lleyton Hewitt and Venus Williams, was an eventful one for me. I’d been working on a profile of Lleyton Hewitt for Tennis Magazine, and Hewitt’s managers invited me along to spend most of the day with the new champ. The invitation—imagine this kind of thing happening in tennis today!—meant interviewing Hewitt and others while we (Lleyton, his parents, Hewitt’s agent Tom Ross) rode from one media obligation to another in a stretch limo. Our stops included an appearance on the Charlie Rose talk show (Ross and I stood listening; I took notes), a reception at the Australian embassy, a visit to the offices of a sponsor, where Lleyton signed autographs for the staff, and a network interview (CNN, if memory serves).

By around 2 p.m., Lleyton, already fatigued from the physical and emotional strain of the previous two weeks, was exhausted. So we adjourned to his Midtown hotel for lunch in his room. We had sandwiches rustled up from a nearby deli by his girlfriend of the time, a pretty fair tennis player herself, Kim Clijsters. I went home that afternoon satisfied with all the behind-the-scenes material I had gathered. In keeping with my habit, I would review all my notes and material from the past two weeks, let it percolate overnight, then write and file my story by Wednesday morning.

Lleyton Hewitt touring New York City on September 10, 2001.

Lleyton Hewitt touring New York City on September 10, 2001.

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On Tuesday, Sept. 11, I took our dogs for their morning walk in Central Park, near 93rd Street. My wife Lisa went to work in Midtown, but I knew she had a meeting downtown that morning. While walking to the reservoir now named for Jacqueline Onassis, I passed a homeless man on a bench. He was listening to a transistor radio and exclaiming, “Oh, no, Oh God! A plane flew into the towers!” I was puzzled but didn’t think too much of it; probably the deluded rantings of an unfortunate soul. But when I reached the reservoir, which afford a fantastic view of the downtown skyline, I saw an enormous plume of black smoke rising from one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Stunned, I quickly returned home and flicked on the TV, just in time for news that a second plane had hit one of the towers.

I immediately began calling my wife’s mobile, hoping that her meeting had been anywhere but at the WTC. Of course, all circuits were jammed, but she finally was able to reach me via land line. She was safe, her downtown meeting had been canceled when news of the terrorist attack broke. We agreed to meet on Madison Avenue, she walking uptown from her office, me crossing to Park Avenue and walking south. I have a vivid memory of walking down Madison, home to all these posh shops and designer boutiques. Because traffic was blocked by police, Madison was littered with vehicles parked helter-skelter. They were mostly chauffeurs and livery drivers in the pre-Uber era. Most of the radios blared 1010 WINS, New York’s beloved all-news, AM radio station.

Lisa and I finally connected. We began to head back uptown, bought coffee in a Greek coffee shop, and sat on “dog hill” in Central Park, near the Metropolitan Museum. We were stunned, we just talked, eventually we headed home. I realized at some point that I still had the Hewitt story to write. My editors would be waiting for it. This turned out to be the most difficult story I would ever write. I had to shut myself up away from the television. I had to try to focus on tennis, of all things, while overwrought voices from the radio and images of the devastation danced in my mind. I saw that column of black smoke, undisturbed on this crisp, sunny windless day, rising as if it was harmless, just coming from some window or other in the otherwise normal looking building that, within hours, would collapse. I did file my story in time. Horrible as the day was, I had no idea of the influence it would have long after the smoke was gone and the rubble cleared. I hoped they would hunt down and kill those who facilitated and were responsible for this gruesome act, and not stop until they get every one of them.

Steve, I know also were writing about that 2001 US Open. What were your circumstances that day, and what do you remember or think about when you look back that horrific event?

The gravity of the situation didn’t hit home for me until the towers actually fell. After that, everyone in the room was either crying or staring at the TV in silence.

Hi Pete,

I was one of the editors at the Tennis Magazine office in Midtown Manhattan waiting for your Hewitt piece on that extremely bright and crystal-clear Tuesday morning. Or at least I was waiting until about 9:15, which is when a colleague of ours walked up to me with what looked to be the beginnings of tears in his eyes, and said, “Something’s happening at the World Trade Center.”

Something was indeed happening, and everyone at the magazine gathered around the closest TV, which was in the office of our late editorial director Gil Rogin. A crusty, at times maniacal, old-school editor—he had run Sports Illustrated during the 1970s glory years—he kept getting calls, picking up the phone, and screaming “What the f*ck is going on!” at whatever poor soul was on the other end of the line. He wasn’t even bothering with a “Hello.”

The gravity of the situation didn’t hit home for me until the towers actually fell. After that, everyone in the room was either crying or staring at the TV in silence. Soon, we looked out the window and saw thousands of people filling the sidewalks, walking uptown on Seventh Ave., toward Central Park—where you were, it turns out—and where there were no buildings that might be hit. It’s that fear that we forget now. For most of that day, everyone in the city was watching the sky. What was coming next?

When I left the office that afternoon, I walked in the other direction and caught the only train working that day, the F, back to where I lived in Brooklyn. It was jammed, of course, and, for once, strangers were talking to strangers on a New York subway train. Strangers were yelling at strangers, actually, and trading fantastical stories about how the White House had just been hit by a plane and the president was dead. Back in my neighborhood, I went for a walk in a nearby park, and watched as a giant white cloud of smoke slowly traveled southeast from what we would soon be calling Ground Zero. I’d never smelled anything like it, and haven’t since.

The events that had seemed like such a big deal at the Open a few days earlier—the first night women’s final, between Venus and Serena, Hewitt’s demolition of Pete Sampras in the men’s final—were immediately obliterated in our minds. Many New Yorkers moved out of the city, and many more wondered what would happen to it. Would it be a target again? Was downtown Manhattan finished? Should we risk traveling through the underwater tunnels to New Jersey?

Now, 20 years later, we’re back at the Open, Pete. There have been disasters related to 9/11 since, most obviously the war and pullout in Afghanistan. Sadly for the people who died in it, the consensus seems to be that it was a 20-year mistake. Over the past 18 months, New York has faced a new crisis due to Covid. Three thousand people died on 9/11; 34,000 people in New York City have died of Covid. Last year, it was briefly fashionable to say that New York was “over.”

I’ve been skeptical of that talk, precisely because we heard it all before after 9/11, and our worst fears from that day didn’t come to pass. To me, this year’s gangbusters US Open has been one of the most heartening events in the city since the virus appeared.

Pete, what do you think of tennis then and now, and the Open then and now?

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In a way, we all like to go back to what we know, what gives us comfort and pleasure. Tennis is one of those things for many of us.

Steve,

What you said about not smelling anything before or since like that acrid, semi-electrical fog that enveloped the city in the days following 9/11? That really resonated with me. So did the order-of-magnitude difference between the casualties on 9/11 and more recently due to Covid. But I’m uneasy with drawing any parallel or equivalence between those two horrific events. Covid-19 seems more like a natural catastrophe, while the 9/11 event was mass murder.

But anyway. . . to the tennis. The thread, at least for us, holding these tragic events together is the US Open. The momentous events two decades ago immediately put out of our minds much of the pride we felt at seeing two American women—sisters no less—battling for the US Open title. It also robbed us of much of the pleasure we took from that Open.

The highlight of the 2001 US Open for me was older-sister Venus’ win in a first Grand Slam final between the sisters. That took her record over Serena to 5-0 in official tour matches (Serena won Indian Wells in a walkover when Venus, injured, was unable to compete in the final). I’m convinced that those early wins by Venus were pivotal to Serena becoming who she is today. Venus set a high bar, and Serena cleared it with room to spare.

Serena and Venus Williams, after their 2001 US Open final.

Serena and Venus Williams, after their 2001 US Open final.

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On the men’s side, few expected Hewitt to defeat Pete Sampras. Although he was seeded a lowly No. 10, Pete had overcome his rival Andre Agassi in a sensational, heavily publicized night match quarterfinal (Sampras won in four sets, all tiebreakers, in a brutal clash between the best server and the best returner [Agassi] in the game). Sampras then knocked out Marat Safin in a classic revenge win; Safin had blasted Sampras off the court in the 2000 US Open final. Many speculated that the Sampras-era in tennis was over. Not so fast: The table was set for a Sampras win—but Hewitt, the gritty, quintessential “Aussie battler,” took advantage of Sampras’ heavy legs and counter-punched his way to a relatively easy straight-sets win. It was a disappointing result for the U.S.—but a fascinating, satisfying tournament.

You know, I understand your feelings about the costly 20-year U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, but I was saddened by the hash we made of our exit. I’ve been reading a book about the post-World War II Berlin Airlift which, at the cost of enormous riches and many American lives, probably remains the greatest humanitarian effort ever mounted. But it appears that young people today don’t know any more about that than they do about 9/11. Where’s the line between a healthy ability to move on, and the perils of forgetting the lessons of the past? In a way, we all like to go back to what we know, what gives us comfort and pleasure. Tennis is one of those things for many of us.

I agree that in the wake of the virus, this US Open has been an uplifting, “heartening” experience. And I’m glad that it’s taking place as the pandemic largely seems to be waning—rather than before it hits, the way 9/11 did. It would have been terrible if the tournament were, once again, a prelude. I have especially enjoyed the role played by those fresh-faced 18-year olds, Carlos Alcaraz, Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. Steve, you and I are getting older, and tennis is a game for the young (don’t tell Serena or Roger!). This Open has been about recovery and resilience, about fans streaming through the gates, waving their proof of vaccination, hungry to watch some of the most gifted athletes in the world ply their trade, their passion. And it seems to have gone incredibly well. It has felt like old times at Flushing Meadows.

Did you have any concerns a few weeks ago about how this tournament would play out, and who do you like best among those three youngsters who brightened up the tennis landscape?

Emma Raducanu, qualifier-turned-finalist at this year's US Open.

Emma Raducanu, qualifier-turned-finalist at this year's US Open.

Pete,

I definitely had concerns about this Open. Covid is obviously still rampant in large parts of the country, if not in New York, and social distancing can never really be part of the plan at an event that can draw 600,000-plus people over two weeks.

Beyond that, I wondered if people would get out of the habit of coming to big sporting events like this, and find other, less public, less crowded ways of entertaining themselves. Judging by the evidence of the last week and a half, I was wrong to worry, and I’m happy about that. I’ve been to the Open every year since 1983, and I’ve never felt energy and enthusiasm like this on a daily basis. Whether the great matches we’ve seen virtually every day have inspired that energy, or vice-versa, I don’t know, but I’ll take it either way.

When I think of the 2001 edition of the tournament, there seems to be a big gap between the men’s and women’s games at that time. The WTA was riding high, with a cast of high-profile, sometimes-contentious characters like Venus, Serena, Hingis, Capriati, Henin, Clijsters, Kournikova and others. The men, as you say, were transitioning from the Sampras era to…who knew what, exactly? Hewitt and Safin looked like the best of the new generation, with Andy Roddick not far behind—he and Lleyton had a late-night five-set deal on September 6, 2001. But it wouldn’t be until 2003, with the rise of Roger Federer to No. 1, that the era of the Big Four—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray—would begin.

Now, nearly 20 years later, we’re transitioning out of that era into…who knows what, exactly? But looking back at the 2001 Open makes me think that tennis will be OK without Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic whenever they hang up their racquets—in Djokovic’s case, that may not be for half a decade or more. In 2001, there was the same skepticism about the future that there is today, and we ended up with the best 15 years in ATP history, in my opinion. We may even be seeing the future appear before our eyes, in the figures of Fernandez, Raducanu, Alcaraz, Jenson Brooksby and Felix Auger-Aliassime. I’ve loved watching all of them, but especially Fernandez. I’ve never seen tennis played quite in the excitingly aggressive way she has played it in New York.

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A bird's-eye view of Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2016, fifteen years after 9/11.

A bird's-eye view of Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2016, fifteen years after 9/11.

There have been lots of 9/11 ceremonies at the Open over the years, and they never cease to be moving. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be bathed in anniversary stories about the event this year, but I’ve been moved by many of them all over again, especially those about Flight 93. I’m going to make it a point to get to the memorial in Pennsylvania soon.

The connection between 9/11 and the Open happens for me every time I take the media bus back from Flushing Meadows to Manhattan in the evening. At one point, on the bumpy highway crossing Queens, the Freedom Tower, which replaced the Twin Towers at Ground Zero, swings into view. It isn’t as iconic or skyline-defining as the World Trade Center was, and, perhaps deliberately, it doesn’t shine as brightly at night as the city’s other famous skyscrapers. There’s something mournful in those dim, blurry lights at the bottom of the island, and that seems just right.