US Open Report

Sunday-Monday, September 12-13, 2010

Jerry Balsam


A New Member of the Career Grand Slam Club


I paid a surprise visit — by which I mean surprising to me — to the US Open men’s singles final. This two-day project arose from a last-minute invitation by a friend who had an extra ticket, which was a very generous reciprocation of my having given him an extra ticket for the September 5 day session.


This was my fourth time at the final. In 1976, as a pup, I was disappointed to see Jimmy Connors defeat Bjorn Borg. In 2001, two days before 9/11, I was disappointed to see Lleyton Hewitt beat Pete Sampras. Things improved in 2008, when I had a wonderful seat to watch Roger Federer beat Andy Murray to pull within one of Pete Sampras’s record for Grand Slam titles. This time, I would be rooting for Rafael Nadal to defeat Novak Djokovic and complete the career Grand Slam, even though a win would pull him within hailing distance of Federer’s post-Sampras record of sixteen major titles. There’s still a long way to go from nine to sixteen, but of the seven titles Rafa will need (assuming Roger is done winning majors), how hard is it to imagine his picking up at least five more at Roland Garros?


As is the practice with these dispatches, my report is supplemented by photos, the full album of which may be accessed by clicking here. Italicized hyperlinks in the report refer to individual photos in my album.


Ashe: Rafael Nadal (ESP) (1) v. Novak Djokovic (SRB) (3)


When a match is televised internationally and reported extensively, there is not much to add from one’s seat in the stadium, so readers would be well-advised to read the coverage on the US Open’s Web site or Stephanie Myles’s blog, among other sources. Instead, I’ll try to give a flavor for what it was like to be at the Open.


First, there was Sunday, when it was raining lightly and just wouldn’t stop in time for CBS. I saw Justin Gimelstob, now working for Tennis Channel, hanging out under the stands. I couldn’t resist asking him to pose for a photo, in which I look ridiculous because I’m talking about his 1999 second-round match against Daniel Vacek. (By the way, it’s not that I’m terribly short, it’s that Gimelstob is a legitimate 6’5”.) Gimelstob, who plans to run the New York Marathon this year (and has a $10,000 bet on whether he finishes the race), correctly recalled that he’d won that match 6-3 in the fifth set. We both thought that the match had been on Court 11, but I wouldn’t swear to it.


Though it was not raining hard, it was enough to soak the courts, as you can see in this photo of Armstrong. Because the rain was persistent, there was no chance to implement the court-drying technology that we’d see soon enough.


So it was back to Flushing Meadow on Monday afternoon, but not before a reminder of why “Trust us, we’re the Transit Authority” was a funny line. I was changing from the E train to the 7 at 74th Street in Queens. The 7 express does not stop there, and the locals were few and far between. It was physically impossible for me, and many others, to get on the first 7 I saw, as tennis fans were joined by adults coming home from work and teenagers returning from school. When I finally got to Ashe, the first couple of points were already in the books.


I’d estimate that the upper tier of seats was about 30% empty through the first set, and more so after the end of the second set’s two-hour rain delay, when some people went home and others moved to better seats. This was the third consecutive year in which the men’s final was bounced to Monday. The folks in Melbourne and at Wimbledon must be chuckling at the USTA’s misfortune, but query what it would cost to put a retractable roof on the big (i.e., too big) Arthur Ashe Stadium.


Nadal’s game was impressive in some of the usual ways, and in some relatively new ways. His serve certainly has more bite, as he dialed it up to 132 miles per hour. I very much liked his one-handed slice backhand, which he could hit straight down the line to keep the ball from Djokovic’s forehand (not that there’s anything wrong with the Serb’s backhand) or hit crosscourt with heavy spin to keep the ball low and difficult to attack. Both players picked their spots coming to net, with Djokovic even serving and volleying a few times. The problem was not a fear of the net, but the excellence of the opponent’s passing shots. Several times, especially when it was Djokovic on the attack, a player came to net in a seemingly impregnable position, only to be passed or lobbed. We know of the down-the-line forehand that Nadal can hook from beyond the doubles alley into the corner of the singles court, and he used it more than once. But no one should underestimate his ability to do something similar with the backhand, even from far behind the baseline. When the shot is seen in replay, the viewer can appreciate how Nadal, a natural right-hander, is essentially hitting a two-handed righty forehand, with the top hand giving a little extra oomph at the point of contact, hooking the ball crosscourt at a sharper angle than would seem possible. Against such firepower, an opponent has to think of other ideas, especially since slugging it out from the baseline is not a great strategy for beating Nadal. Djokovic tried some drop shots; for the most part, however, they were not the answer.


In the first set, Nadal went up an early break and Djokovic broke back. Eventually, Djokovic was to break Nadal’s serve three times, which was one time more than had occurred in the first six rounds. Nadal reasserted himself in the fifth game, when it took him six break chances to come up with the goods, an inside-out forehand for which there was no answer. The clouds began to gather as Nadal served out the first set, and the lights went on at 5:10 p.m.


In the second set, it was Djokovic who got the early break, abetted by a Nadal double fault that made the score 0-40. In the seventh game, Nadal needed three break points to get back on serve. Eventually, it was Djokovic serving at 4-4 30-30 when the rains came. The spectators were instructed to evacuate the stadium because of the severity of the expected thunderstorm. Here, the organizers of the tournament, though they might have some explanation, demonstrated what seemed to me abject stupidity, bordering on recklessness.


Fans in the upper tier were herded into the walkway behind the stands and told by men wielding flashlights to move “to the left.” There was nowhere to go, however. Were this not a relatively genteel tennis crowd, there could have been a stampede and even fatalities. Eventually, I heard fans saying that all but one of the staircases had been blocked off — for security reasons, perhaps? — and it was not until they were unblocked, perhaps 20 minutes after the scrum began, that we were able to move. The USTA has to address this issue before it arises again. If they don’t, they are asking for trouble.


Play resumed after a two-hour delay, with a crew of motorized squeegees followed by ear-splitting orange blowers. (During the delay, I milled around the stadium, where I saw, among other things, an interesting example of the persistence of image advertising: a BP logo on Rod Laver’s tennis whites in a photo probably taken forty years ago.) While Djokovic had a tough hold in the 4-4 game, it was Nadal who stumbled in the twelfth. At 30-15, he hesitated on his way to net and dumped a half-volley into the net. He misfired on a backhand pass to fall behind 30-40. On set point, Djokovic jumped on Nadal’s first serve, sending it back at his feet, and Nadal’s forehand found the net, so the match was abruptly tied.


After that, Nadal tightened the clamps. In the third set, he had eleven break points, while Djokovic had none. The lone break came in the third game, when Djokovic scrambled from 0-40 to 30-40 but then pulled a forehand approach shot wide. Nadal took care of serve the rest of the way, closing out the set with an ace and a service winner.


In the fourth set, which was my opportunity to move down and get a better look when the players faced off at net, Djokovic saved a break point in the first game, but succumbed in the third when his forehand ticked the net cord and sailed long. Nadal ran his lead to 4-1, with two breaks, when Djokovic dropped serve in the fifth game, partially because of a double fault at 0-30, which came when he was following his second serve to net. Djokovic’s last stand came in the sixth game, when he had his only break point of the set. Nadal fought off the challenge and, on his way to holding serve, hit one of his crosscourt backhand passes that ended with his racquet wrapped around his neck. Nadal hit a small speed bump when serving for the match, as Djokovic grabbed a point with a net cord winner, which led to his raising his arms in mock triumph. At 30-30, with flashbulbs popping throughout the stadium, Nadal hit the accelerator, hitting a forehand pass that clipped the baseline (as confirmed by Hawk-Eye) and then, after Djokovic pulled a final forehand wide, collapsing to the court in joy. Djokovic crossed over to Nadal’s side of the court to hug the victor, and before long one of the intrepid workers had climbed the ladder outside Armstrong to post the score of Nadal’s victory on the giant draw sheet.


Final Score: Nadal d. Djokovic 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-2


This was a well-played match, as indicated by the stat sheet: the four sets took 50, 71, 57, and 45 minutes, respectively. There were long points and multi-deuce games, and the match was far more won by the indomitable Nadal than lost by a brave Djokovic.


As the crowd, some wearing Vamos Rafa shirts, filed out rather later than they’d expected to, Court 13 was still covered in water, and another US Open was history. Now, USTA, please — do something about crowd control before next year’s Open. (I’ve complained about this before, and remarkably there has been no progress!)