US Open Report

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jerry Balsam


Rules Are Made to Be Broken


I have a few rules for the first week of the US Open, which is the best time to be at the tournament:

  1. Avoid Arthur Ashe Stadium at all costs.
  2. Avoid the sun.
  3. Go someplace where you can get a seat.
  4. Of course, see good matches.

The first rule is a sad necessity: sad, because Arthur Ashe was a great man; a necessity, because the cavernous stadium that bears his name makes for bad viewing anywhere above the two tiers of luxury boxes. Why watch a match in Ashe from bad seats when you can enjoy it with a great view from the comfort of home?

The second rule is a tribute to my pale skin, which doesn’t love the sun, let alone to my no-longer tender years.

The third rule flows from the first: I’m not the only spectator who eschews Ashe, and the show courts on the grounds can get crowded, especially in light of the many patrons who buy grounds passes.

The final rule seems to be the whole point of coming to the Open.

As will become apparent, it is not always a simple matter to follow all four rules. When my 2011 visits to the US Open began on August 31, it looked like I had a shot at my own version of the Grand Slam, but three of the four rules were to go by the wayside by nighttime. I began the day on the Grandstand, where my uncle and cousin had thoughtfully arrived quite early and saved me a seat in the shade on the west side of the court. There, we would start our day with the sixth seed, Robin Soderling, and his booming shots. Or not – moments before 11:00 o’clock, we heard an announcement that Soderling, who had been struggling with an injured left wrist, had withdrawn from the event with an illness. So much for rule 4.

One more word before getting to the action. This year, I’ve treated myself to a DSLR camera. This has resulted in multi-megabyte photos that are not so easy to upload to my traditional sites. So I’m trying something new this time, uploading the photos in condensed form to Twitpic. You can see my selection of photos from August 31 by clicking here. They appear in reverse chronological order, so I recommend that you view them from the bottom of the page up.

Grandstand: Rogério Dutra da Silva (LL) (BRA) v. Louk Sorensen (Q) (IRL)


In Soderling’s stead, we got a 27-year-old lucky loser, the Brazilian Rogério Dutra da Silva, now ranked no. 114 after a career high of no. 111 earlier this summer. And a lucky loser he was, as his opponent for his first match ever at a major was the Irishman Louk Sorensen, ranked no. 618 and never higher than no. 213. At least Sorensen had once won a match at a major: he got to the second round of the Australian Open in 2010.

Soderling may have been a no-show, but at least we had my favorite usher, whom I’m used to seeing on the Grandstand year-after-year, a high-spirited and quick-moving gentleman with dreadlocks who hustles fans into and out of the venue on change-overs and this year snapped a photo of fans who wanted a souvenir to take home with them.

Before opening the match on serve, Sorensen did some exuberant jumps to get the juices flowing. He promptly double-faulted on the first point, leading a wag in the stands to ask: “Aren’t they playing first-ball-in?” It was all downhill from there in the first set, as Sorensen could barely make a ball, while Dutra was flowing with a pretty one-handed backhand and a an unusual service motion in which his left hand does not make contact with the throat of the racquet during the preparation.

For a fellow who had barely won a match on the main tour and never appeared in a major, Dutra made himself right at home. He and Sorensen toweled off after practically every point, even though it was not all that warm or humid a day. When Dutra was finished with the towel, he would hand it to the ballboy who had brought it to him, so long as the ballboy was nearby. If not, he would drop it on the court and let the ballboy worry about it. My, my, we’re feeling entitled, aren’t we? By contrast, Christina McHale, whom I was to see later in the day, neatly folded her towel and placed it atop the nearest clock, the one recording match time or the one showing service speed. Let this be a lesson to all the kids out there.

At any rate, having been fed a bagel in the first set, Sorensen seemed a different player in the second, perhaps because he changed into a green shirt. You can’t mess with your national colors! Sorensen got one opening to break, and he took it, ripping a forehand down the line to go up 4-2, and then serving out the set.

In the third set, Dutra changed from a black shirt to white, which was not a bad idea if he found it necessary to go to the towel after each point. Dutra crept out of a 15-40 hole in the seventh game, after which Sorensen received an ominous visit from the trainer. Though the trainer worked on Sorensen’s legs, the player was shaking his arms between points after play resumed. His serve suddenly was moving at less than three-quarter speed, but he was able to hold for 4-4. It got tougher for Sorensen in his next service game. He fell behind 0-40 for triple set point, and drop his racquet while wincing in pain after losing the third point of the game. He somehow got back to deuce, saving the third of the break points with the first serve-and-volley foray of the match. At this point, he was all-in: he needed to come in behind serve, because he could not do the running necessary to patrol the baseline. He dropped two consecutive points from deuce and thus the set. Serving at 0-1 30-30 in the fourth set, he finally gave up.

By making the second round, Dutra is assured $31,000 in prize money, or 13% of his career winnings before the tournament. Illness and infirmity, as experienced by Soderling and Sorensen, had been good indeed to Dutra.

Final Score: Dutra da Silva d. Sorensen 6-0 3-6 6-4 1-0 ret.

Grandstand: Marion Bartoli (8) (FRA) v. Christina McHale (USA)

Marion Bartoli is very talented: one doesn’t get to the top ten otherwise. She’s also got more quirks than Paris has arrondissements. Where does one start? Between points, she does a dance in which she pantomimes a particular stroke, either one that has just gone astray or one that has done well for her. Once, a ballboy had to back off lest he be clobbered by one of Bartoli’s swings. Her frenetic dances, even when seen dozens of times, retains the capacity to amuse, which gives it something in common with the dead parrot sketch. She does not bounce the ball before serving – it’s hard for me to imagine how one can serve without that little ritual to establish rhythm – but then she started bouncing the ball when the going got tough. She doesn’t bring a towel onto the court and does not wear wristbands. When serving, she looks something like an off-balance giraffe. Oh, yes, she hits both forehands and backhands, including volleys, with two hands. (She also takes quite a cut at the ball.)

By contrast, McHale, a local product from New Jersey, age 19, is a model of stolid perseverance. She doesn’t hit unconventional shots or big serves. She doesn’t shriek or grunt. She just keeps getting balls back. This was not enough to trouble Bartoli – not at first. She broke McHale at 15 in the opening game, standing inside the baseline to receive the first serve and well inside the baseline for the second. At 1-3, McHale went down 15-40, and it looked like she would have a long day, albeit one that ended quickly. But here McHale made a stand: she held serve and then broke for 3-3. Although Bartoli broke back for a 4-3 lead and served for the set at 5-4, she could not close it out. The set went to a tiebreak, and McHale raced ahead 5-0 before taking the breaker, 7-2.

One might have expected order to be restored in the second set, but McHale broke serve in the first game and began her run to the finish line. In the second game, I saw something new. Bartoli pounded a short ball and, while the point was still underway, exhorted herself: “Come on!” The umpire stopped the point and awarded it to McHale. Aside from the strangeness of Bartoli’s exclamation during a point, I wonder why she used English rather than French. As the set went on, Bartoli increasingly urged herself on, pumping both fists between points and telling herself to “come on.” It did not help. She fell behind by two breaks of serve, got one back, and then lost another to trail 5-2. McHale had blunted Bartoli’s power by getting everything back, occasionally resorting to a rope-a-dope strategy of slicing soft floaters on the backhand side, here using only one hand, before getting a ball she could rip. Bartoli had run out of answers, and McHale made no mistake serving out the match, doing so in style with an ace up the T on match point at 40-15.

Final Score: McHale d. Bartoli 7-6(2) 6-2

It was now late enough in the day to leave my shaded spot in the Grandstand. First, I went under the stadium and took a USTA survey on a computer installed for that purpose. The Q&A made sense till the computer started asking questions about why I was coming out to see the qualifying. I guess that was a sly reference to the Dutra-Sorensen match.

Rule 3 became a problem after I left the Grandstand. I tried to get onto Court 17 to see the Bryan brothers play Ivo Karlovic and Frank Moser. The twins were down a set when I arrived, and it was impossible to get in. That was a shame, because I would like to see the new Court 17 this year. I’ll give it another try before the Open is over. (The top-seeded Bryans were to go down in three sets.) My next destination was Court 11, where Alex Bogomolov Jr. had dropped the first two sets to Steve Johnson and was now mounting a comeback, trying to take the fourth set. I queued up to get onto the court; when the last changeover before the tiebreak came to an end, the usher chained off the entrance, keeping out two or three people ahead of me. Perhaps I should have stayed on line at 11 and waited to see the fifth set (which Bogomolov was to win), but instead I headed out to the real field courts, the ones with bleachers rather than real stands.

Court 6: Monica Niculescu (ROU)/Shahar Peer (ISR) v. Iveta Benesova (CZE)/Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (CZE) (9)

Shahar Peer is one of my favorites, and last year I managed to retrieve a ball she hit over the fence in a doubles match. This year, she and Monica Niculescu were down a break in the third set when I arrived, facing off against a lefty-right Czech tandem. The southpaw, Iveta Benesova, is the incumbent Wimbledon mixed doubles champion. Wikipedia reports that her partner, Barbora Záhlavová Strycová, “is noted for her changeover tantrums and racket abuse.”

I did not see any tantrums, but I did see plenty of breaks of serve. Záhlavová Strycová was the first to crack, failing to hold with a 4-3 lead. Niculescu was next: on break point, Peer led a Záhlavová Strycová return sail by her, and it hit the line. This left Benesova to serve for the match, but she was broken at love. Peer served at 5-5, and she was broken in a multi-deuce game. The next time around, Záhlavová Strycová was able to hold serve, closing out the match.

Final Score: Benesova/Zahlavova Strycova d. Niculescu/Peer 5-7 6-4 7-5

I decided to stay on Court 6, because I wanted my first look at Grigor Dimitrov. Maybe he won’t live up to the nickname “Baby Federer”; indeed, odds must be that he won’t. But if the comparison can be made, there must be something to see.

Court 6: Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)/Dmitry Tursunov (RUS) v. Eric Butorac (USA)/Jean-Julien Rojer (AHO) (8)

I always have trouble remembering what the abbreviation “AHO” that comes after Rojer’s name means. For those scoring at home, the answer is Netherlands Antilles. Rojer has been at it at a while: he turned 30 last week. He has never played a singles match in a Slam, but he’s been in all the Slam doubles draws since Roland Garros in 2009, and he’s made a bit over $600,000 in his career. Also 30, the left-handed Butorac is similarly situated: never in a Grand Slam singles draw (indeed, he barely made the top thousand in singles at his peak, in 2006), but regularly playing on the doubles circuit, and making over $750,000 over the years. How much Butorac and Rojer got to keep of those winnings after expenses is quite another story.

By contrast, Dimitrov, at 20, has already been ranked as high as no. 52 in singles, has made nearly half a million dollars on tour, and will surely cash quite a few decent paychecks over the next decade. Tursunov, 28 and a Russian/California surfer dude, has made the top 20 and won nearly $4 million in prize money, twice making the round of 16 at Wimbledon. Not to stack the deck too much, but you get the idea of which team felt a greater need to win this doubles match.

To make things more interesting, Butorac and Rojer take the unusual, but not unheard-of, tack for a lefty-righty tandem of keeping their forehands in the middle when receiving serve. Thus, the left-handed Butorac played the deuce court and the right-handed Rojer the ad court. On their service games, they played a fair amount of I-formation, with the net player crouching near the net, on the center line, supporting himself with his non-racquet hand resting on the court. The one departure from standard doubles procedure came in Tursunov’s service games: he almost always stayed back on his serve, except when he got a floating return that he could crush with a swinging volley.

I find it difficult to assess which prospects will turn into great players. It’s hard enough to do under the best of circumstances and more difficult now that everyone has solid strokes. In the old days, you might see a player who could hardly serve or make a backhand passing shot, and you knew he would have problems climbing through the ranks. Now, they all look good, and the questions are how consistently they can produce great shots and how well they can handle pressure. My assessment of Dimitrov – on a doubles court, to be sure, where he will not be making his living – is that he obviously has talent. He strikes his one-handed backhand with an easy motion, sometimes resulting in blazing winners. His service motion is fluid, even with a straight arm as he draws back the racquet, and he is not afraid of the net, though he did butcher some volleys. Based solely on the numbers, Dimitrov is already a world-class player: if you’ve been on the cusp of the top fifty at age 20, it’s likely that you’ll later see the top twenty. Whether he’s got the goods to go top ten or top five is anybody’s guess, but I don’t think the answer is knowable other than in retrospect.

The first set went smoothly for the servers, with nary a break point. In the tiebreak, a late out call on a Tursunov volley put his team down a mini-break, to his substantial consternation, but a Dimitrov winner returning serve off his backhand evened the score. Rojer had been serving with the sun at his back. Now, serving for the first time from the other end, he tossed in consecutive double faults at 3-4, giving set point to the opposition. Dimitrov served an ace to close out the tiebreak, 7-3.

The turning point of the match came in the third game of the second set, with Dimitrov serving. At 30-30, he could not track down a lob and then double-faulted for the break. The next time he served, he badly missed an overhead and, seemingly peeved, tossed in consecutive double faults, refusing to temporize on second serve. After that, he whacked a ball out of the court and drew a warning from the chair. Rojer served out the set, 6-2. In the third set, it was off to the races, as the doubles specialists, granted new life, registered a bagel against the now-uninterested singles stars.

Final Score: Butorac/Rojer d. Dimitrov/Tursunov 6-7(3) 6-2 6-0

Court 8: Arnaud Clément (FRA)/Lukas Dlouhy (CZE) v. David Marrero (ESP)/Andreas Seppi (ITA)

I slid over to Court 8 to watch the French veteran Clément, an Australian finalist and top ten player a decade ago, and the doubles specialist Dlouhy, who has won the US Open and Roland Garros in doubles and lost each of those finals twice, face off against Marrero, 31 and no longer bearing a singles ranking, and Seppi, still hovering outside the top 50. It is worth remembering that Clément was not merely a talented singles player: he has won the Wimbledon doubles and was runner-up in Australia.

When I arrived at Court 8, Marrero and Seppi, both of whom stay back on serve, were up a set on the more pedigreed team. Clément is really small in person: even his listed height of 5’8” may be generous. He still wears his familiar bandana and sunglasses.

In the second set, the server sometimes had to scramble out of trouble, but there were no breaks of serve. With Dlouhy serving at 4-4 in the tiebreak, Clément missed a forehand volley. Marrero then came up with a forehand winner up the middle, giving his team a 6-4 lead and two match points. Clément and Dlouhy saved the first in a magnificent long point that involved lots of poaching, lobs, and scrambling. On the second match point, Seppi missed a forehand pass. Marrero followed with his own missed forehand, and it was now set point for Clément and Dlouhy at 7-6. With Seppi serving, Marrero nailed a backhand volley winner to tie the score. Clément hit long on his forehand return of Seppi’s second serve to create a third match point. Dlouhy served to stay in the match, but two excellent lobs turned the tide: the first by Marrero to shift the momentum of the point, the second by Seppi to win it.

Final Score: Marrero/Seppi d. Clément/Dlouhy 6-4 7-6(7)

My US Open rules having fallen one by one, it was only a matter of time till a friend called to report having an extra ticket for the night session. For reasons that will become apparent, we’ll call my friend Max, a gender-neutral name. Max is not a tennis fan but had to use the ticket in order to satisfy a social obligation. I suggested to Max that this could become a Curb Your Enthusiasm storyline. So we went to Ashe unenthusiastically: Max not caring for tennis, and I not caring for long-distance viewing of players I can see on television, especially when one of those players is the hard-to-watch Andy Roddick. We stayed for a very little bit of Roddick’s match against the 33-year-old journeyman Michael Russell, and off we went at about 9:00 p.m., well before Roddick closed out a four-set victory, to say nothing of the Maria Sharapova shriekathon that followed. (Well, it couldn’t have been much of a shriekathon, as Masha prevailed quickly, 1 and 1.)

Notwithstanding the serial violation of my rules, I am pleased to say that I managed to stay out of the sun for almost the entire day, thereby scoring a big fat 25 on my exam. I shall try to improve next week.