I made my first visit to this year's US Open on the second day of play, accompanied by my friend Gabriel. He and I have a history at the tournament, largely of my worrying about him wandering off and having to explain his disappearance to his parents. Gabriel is 12 now, and he had a cell phone with him, so I was somewhat less nervous than in the past. On the other hand, I gave him frequent opportunities to invoke his favorite admonition: "Chill."
Though savvy fans do not spend too much time in Arthur Ashe Stadium (thank you, USTA, for building that monstrosity), we did want to see Roger Federer, who was given an 11:00 a.m. start time. I got stuck in the office a little bit later than I might have liked, and I navigated the subways with all the Úlan of a congressman caught taking bribes on videotape (not realizing that the stop labeled "Roosevelt Avenue" was really the "Jackson Heights" stop where we had to change from the E train to the 7), so Federer was in the process of breaking Ivo Minar for a two-set lead when we arrived.
One of the big video monitors at Ashe was out of order. Every year, it's as though the start of the tournament comes as a surprise, and it takes a while to work out the kinks. That's a regular experience with the IBM online scoreboard for all the Grand Slams.
At 1-1 in the third, Federer called Norm Chryst down from the chair to check the lines, which were becoming slippery as a result of a drizzle. The forecast had called for rain on and off throughout the day, so it looked like we were in for a siege. But no - Chryst determined the court playable, and it never rained again during the long day. It was plenty humid, however, and the fans, to say nothing of the players, were soaked with perspiration throughout the day. Indeed, some players were to encounter problems a lot bigger than maintaining a dry grip.
There isn't a whole lot to say about the Federer-Minar match. Minar did not have any obvious weaknesses, but that's not quite sufficient to help one keep up with Federer. Federer is sublime, as anyone who is reading this page well knows. In 64 minutes, it was over, 6-1 6-1 6-1.
I tried to get onto Court 10 for the match between Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic, but it was impossible. In the end, Djokovic - who needed repeated injury timeouts - rebounded from being bageled in the fourth set to win the match 7-5 in the fifth. But this is not an eyewitness account, other than to the extent that I stood behind four or five rows of fans outside Court 10 and heard the end of the match.
I continued to Armstrong, where Tim Henman was down two sets and a break to the flashy Spanish lefthander Fernando Verdasco, not to be confused with the flashy Spanish lefthander (and Verdasco's doubles partner) Feliciano Lopez. Henman looked old, tired, and overpowered. He would win only one game after my arrival, succumbing 6-4 6-2 6-2. The press accounts later said he had a bad back, and Henman fans had better hope this was the case. But for such extenuating circumstances, he looked like he's about ready to retire.
Speaking of Feliciano Lopez, I continued to Court 6, where Lopez led Filippo Volandri by two sets to one and 2-0 in the fourth. Volandri doesn't play like my image of an Italian dirt-baller: he hits a one-handed backhand and is not afraid of the net. But he was hurting by the time I arrived; at the 3-0 changeover, a trainer was summoned to work on Volandri's right shoulder. The trainer applied a cream to the shoulder, which might have helped Volandri a little bit, because Lopez dropped his serve immediately thereafter, double-faulting on break point. Volandri returned the favor, broken back on his own double-fault, and the trainer worked on him again. By the end, Volandri was not serving as hard as before, and he went down 6-2 4-6 7-6 6-1. Fashion tip for Lopez: You may want to stay away from those awful Nike capri pants on humid days, because the seat turns nearly transparent when you sweat. Or maybe this is all calculated to enhance Lopez's commercial appeal?
I then caught the very end of Rainer Schuettler's victory over Potito Starace on Court 15, with Schuettler finishing off Starace in a tiebreak. Schuettler has fallen a long way since 2003, but he maintained his concentration while a bunch of Aussie fans began to hoot and holler in preparation for Wayne Arthurs's match on the adjoining Court 16.
It was time to go back to Ashe, to see James Blake, on the rebound with his win in New Haven last week. I rejoined Gabriel, who had added to his autograph collection on his oversize tennis ball the John Hancock of Sesil (The Mouth) Karatantcheva, a three-set winner over Meghann Shaughnessy in the first match on the Grandstand. When I arrived, Blake was already up 7-5 7-6 on Greg Rusedski, and the crowd was firmly in his corner. Rusedski, like Wayne Arthurs, whom I was to see a bit later, is left-handed, is over thirty, still has a big serve, and wears less baggy shorts than are favored by the kids these days. The days of Borg and Vilas are long gone!
With Rusedski serving at 2-3 in the third, Blake cracked a forehand passing shot on the run and then took the game with a forehand return of a second serve for a winner. That break was decisive, and Blake closed out the match, 6-3 in the third. He relished the new exercise that takes place on Ashe, wherein the winner autographs three tennis balls and rifles them into the stands. (Federer has seemed to get a kick out of it, too.)
We repaired to Court 13, where Rajeev Ram, No. 218 in the world, was serving at 3-4 in the fifth set to Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland. Ram, 6'4", has a big serve and forehand, but Wawrinka is able to generate pace off both wings, including a one-handed backhand. Serving at 4-5, Ram saved a match point with a stretch forehand drop volley. In the 5-6 game, he could dodge the bullet no more. At 15-15, Wawrinka hit a good lob, which Ram allowed to bounce before netting the overhead. On the next two points, Ram dumped forehands into the net, and it was over.
I then went to see what the Aussies were up to on Court 16, where their man Wayne Arthurs was down 6-3 6-3 3-3 to his fellow old-timer, Italy's Davide Sanguinetti. I've seen Sanguinetti lose to Tim Henman in New Haven in a split-set match in 1998 and in five sets to Tommy Haas at last year's Open. I like to watch him because he uses his smarts to rank No. 59 in the world at age 33. He's certainly not doing it with his serve, but he's got beautiful groundstrokes, particularly his flat crosscourt two-handed backhand.
Whatever images one has of raucous crowds at Il Foro Italico, the Aussies were far more vocal than the Italians at this match. They serenaded Arthurs with various chants on the changeovers, and they paid homage to his aces with snake-like hisses. Arthurs remains an unreconstructed net-rusher, including the Paul Annacone-like chip-and-charge when returning second serve. This made for a good contrast of styles with Sanguinetti, who can hit groundstrokes till the cows come home.
The third set went to a tiebreak. At 2-2, Sanguinetti got a look at a second serve, and he punched it for a winner. He immediately gave back the mini-break with a short lob that Arthurs pounded. Arthurs, serving at 3-4, had a sitter overhead, but he clipped the tape with his smash, giving Sanguinetti a chance to hit one more lob - and Arthurs missed the second smash. Serving at 3-5, Arthurs was passed by the Sanguinetti backhand, and he faced three match points. On the first one, Arthurs tried the chip-and-charge on Sanguinetti's second serve, but he popped up the return, and Sanguinetti made an easy backhand pass to close out the match. Afterward, he lifted his racquet and applauded the Australian fans.
My next stop was the Grandstand, where I had to wait through two changeovers before getting in to see David Nalbandian finish off Alex Bogomolov, Jr. Nalbandian scored the decisive break at 4-4 in the third, while I was waiting to get in. He served out the match routinely, 6-2 7-5 6-4.
I stayed on the Grandstand to see Andy Murray take on Andrei Pavel. Pavel, who turns 32 in January, is now No. 39 in the world, but he was as high as No. 13 less than a year ago. Everyone thinks Murray should have received a wild card into the US Open. He's hanging in at No. 122 in the world, and soon he won't need wild cards anymore. Murray was wearing a brace on his left ankle, presumably a result of his pre-Wimbledon mishaps. He can hit the ball hard off both wings - he hits a topspin two-handed backhand and a one-hander with slice - and his serve is capable of reaching 130 mph. His second serve is a weakness; often, it was in the low to mid-80s. Murray came out of the gate fast, breaking Pavel in the very first game. Pavel squared the first set with a break for 2-2, but Murray immediately broke again with a forehand pass. To top it off, Murray scored a second break to take the set, 6-3, hitting a nifty backhand drop volley to close it out. A disgusted Pavel rifled his spare tennis ball out of the Grandstand.
Pavel played two nice points at 30-30 in the opening game of the second set to break Murray and take an early lead. He held it throughout and, like Murray in the first set, closed out the set 6-3 with a second break.
In the third set, the players exchanged breaks: first Murray, with Pavel tossing his racquet, then the other way around. Murray ran into trouble again in the eighth game. He double-faulted at 15-15, and Pavel hit a forehand stretch drop volley to get to double break point. A backhand pass on the second break opportunity gave Pavel a 5-3 lead, and he served out the set at 15.
With Murray down 6-3 3-6 3-6, I thought he might fold up his tent, but the young Scotsman has a lot of fight in him. He held serve to start the fourth set and then broke with a fantastic crosscourt backhand pass. Murray broke a second time for 5-1 and served out the set at love. It looked like Murray had the momentum going into the fifth set, especially when Pavel, after escaping from 0-40 to 30-40 in the first game, netted a backhand volley for the early break. The players held serve for two games, and then Murray, on the changeover at 2-1, vomited twice. There was a delay while the officials tried to figure out how to clean up the mess. (I can imagine them saying to each other: "No, you do it.")
When play finally resumed, Murray looked done for. He couldn't serve as hard and didn't seem to be moving that well, and he was broken at 15 for 2-2. Pavel held for 3-2, twice wrong-footing Murray, which is not a bad strategy when your opponent is in distress. Later, we learned that Murray was not in such distress. He told the press that his stomach had merely reacted badly to a sports drink. At any rate, it seemed to take a lot of courage for Murray to hold for 3-3. The crowd cheered him after that game, and he windmilled his arms to urge greater cheers. In the seventh game, Pavel became very exercised when a Murray lob, called out on the baseline, was ruled good by the umpire, making the score 15-30. At 30-40, Pavel hit a backhand wide and was broken. He became angry enough that he was penalized a point, so Murray began the next game serving at 4-3, 15-0. Both players held, and it fell to Murray to serve out the match with new balls at 5-4.
Murray couldn't buy a first serve in the big game. At 30-30, he overhit a forehand and it was break point, but Pavel reciprocated with a backhand long. Murray reached his first match point when a Pavel backhand pass went wide. But Pavel then cracked a backhand return of a second serve for a winner, and it was deuce. Murray revved up a 129 mph serve for a winner and his second match point. This time, Pavel dropped a backhand into the net, and the marathon was over, 6-3 3-6 3-6 6-1 6-4.
For much of the day, I had been struggling through tides of humanity on the outside courts. Maybe the Open is selling more grounds passes; maybe more people are actually using their tickets these days; maybe sophisticated fans are spending more time in the field courts; or maybe it's some combination of the above. At any rate, I didn't want to fight my way into another crowded court, so I hiked over to Court 7, where the No. 6 player in the world plied his trade in front of a crowd of under 200. That would be Nikolay Davydenko, who was playing Tomas Zib, No. 60. Both are right-handers with two-handed backhands, and Zib is a solid pro, but Davydenko - whom I'd never seen on television, let alone in person - is a groundstroking machine. Prematurely balding at 24, slight of build (5'10", 154 lbs.), Davydenko crushes forehands and backhands with moderate topspin and a lot of pace. He is the image of a Cold War Soviet fighting machine, a KGB assassin in short pants. Federer slices up his opponents with a rapier; Davydenko bludgeons them.
Last year, Zib beat Davydenko in a Challenger match in Ukraine. This year, it would be inconceivable. When I arrived at 8:10 p.m., Davydenko led 4-1; he ended up winning the match 6-2 6-0 6-4, and the score was deceptively close. Zib shook his head in frustration, particularly in the second set, when Davydenko fed him a bagel. Zib seemed to be saying to himself: This shouldn't be happening. I felt like telling him: There's a difference between No. 6 and No. 60, and it's not a fluke that Davydenko is No. 6. I remember wondering how Nicolas Lapentti became a Top Ten player; in any event, his stay at those lofty levels did not last long. Whether Davydenko can sustain his current form is open to question, but off the evidence of his first-round match at the Open, he is no impostor.
While I was watching Davydenko put on a clinic, Gabriel managed to get into the night session at Ashe to watch Andy Roddick take on Gilles Muller. I had seen Muller win the Boys' Singles in 2001, and he certainly looked like a potentially decent professional, but not too many people expected him to win this match in 2005. We made a deal that Gabriel could stay for the first set and then we'd have to head home, because I have a day job. Little did we know that Muller's first-set tiebreak win would be replicated twice, but that's another story, to be told by those who saw it.