US Open Report

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jerry Balsam


Amateur Hour


My final visit to the 2011 US Open gave rise to two conflicting feelings: (i) the people who run tennis are greedy and incompetent; (ii) the sport itself is a thing of beauty. I must express my dissatisfaction with the United States Tennis Association before celebrating another day of engrossing competition.

The USTA makes me think of the works of Jimmy Breslin. There’s his book on the first year of the New York Mets, Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game? And then there is his Mafia comedy, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Any resemblance of these titles to the workings of the USTA is purely coincidental.

Now, I’m sure the USTA tries to do the right thing, at least on those rare occasions when it is not contrary to the organization’s pecuniary interests. But when some rain comes to the New York area, the USTA is helpless, not to say hapless.

The biggest problem, of course, is that Arthur Ashe Stadium is too big and therefore too expensive to cover with a retractable roof. This leaves the US Open behind Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and soon enough behind Roland Garros. The poor decision to build Ashe is done (I’d say a “sunk cost,” but the pun may not go over well after all the rain), and today’s USTA leadership cannot change that. Still, you’d think they could do a better job of dealing with the hand they’ve been dealt.

When I arrived a bit late on Thursday, September 8 – having been rained out on Tuesday, September 6, the first of two consecutive days to be washed out – I hurried to Armstrong to see the match between Andy Roddick and David Ferrer. The players, having played a couple of games, were huddled at the net with officials, discussing a moisture bubble on the court. As quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Roddick told Brian Earley, the tournament referee: “You’re killing us. I’m baffled right now. Absolutely baffled.”

Roddick and Ferrer trundled off to the cozy Court 13, and I did not even try to follow them, figuring the stands would be inaccessible. I’m willing to give the USTA the benefit of the doubt on the saturation of Armstrong – again, the decision to build on landfill is in the past – and even on moving a marquee quarterfinal to Court 13, since there was a rush to get matches in as soon as possible, especially with the weather forecast being dicey.

What I will never get was a decision that came later in the day. I assumed we would hear some kind of plausible explanation for the decision, but I’m not aware of any. After the second match on the Grandstand, about which more later, Melanie Oudin and Jack Sock got a walkover from Elena Vesnina and Leander Paes in the mixed doubles semifinal. There was thus an opening for a match on the Grandstand. At the same time, Caroline Wozniacki and Andrea Petkovic were about to start their quarterfinal. One would think that any rational person would put Wozniacki and Petkovic on the now-available Grandstand. Instead, the Grandstand got (after a long delay, just to make things more irritating) a doubles match between the team of Daniela Hantuchova and Agnieszka Radwanska and that of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.

In what universe does that make sense? A Wozniacki-Petkovic quarterfinal and a doubles quarterfinal are both ready to start, and the two available courts are the Grandstand, with several thousand seats, and Court 13, with under 600. For what it’s worth, the fans in the Grandstand saw Brad Gilbert descending from the broadcast booth before the decision had been announced and asked who was next on our court. He responded: “I think Wozniacki.” You didn’t have to be a tennis savant like BG to think that. Part of me still wants to believe that the USTA has a good explanation for the decision to put Wozniacki and Petkovic on Court 13, but I simply lack the creativity to come up with it.

Perhaps there is no good explanation, and this unforced error was produced under the pressure of having to make a quick decision. Fortunately, another unforced error was averted when the USTA had time to think, or the players had time to demand that the USTA think. Because of the rain delays, the USTA was prepared to have one of the men’s finalists play best-of-five-set matches on hard courts on four consecutive days. At least that bad decision was reversed. George Vecsey, writing in the New York Times, put it well:

The best players in the world wonder if they are not only dueling a respected opponent and the forces of nature but also the crass purposes of management. The star male players more or less shamed officials into extending the weather-plagued Open to Monday, rather than forcing them to play four consecutive days.

A cynical, and entirely plausible, explanation for the USTA’s acquiescence in the Monday men’s final was the availability of Serena Williams as a headliner for weekend television.

So much for the administrators of the game; let us focus on the athletes who make it great.

Grandstand: Donald Young (USA) v. Andy Murray (GBR) (4)

I saw a friendly face as I tried to hustle from the now-disabled Armstrong to the Grandstand: Chris, one of the people who handle court assignments at the National Tennis Center when it is a public facility for eleven months of the year. Many is the time Chris has signed up my playing partner and me; many is the time we had to call him to reschedule. (You’re best off not dwelling too long on the quality of tennis that we have brought to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, mostly recently on a Sunday in early August on Court 11.) Chris is always pleasant and helpful, and now he was wearing a red T-shirt identifying him as an “Area Director,” moving fans into the Grandstand. Chris is alright.

So is Andy Murray. Of course, I can’t say he’s always pleasant and helpful. What’s more, he has entered the Azarenka Zone: don’t bet on him to win a major until he shows he can do it. But he is wonderfully skilled, and it showed in this match, when he easily took revenge on Donald Young for a defeat in Indian Wells earlier this year.

If you like service breaks, a Murray match is just the thing for you. Even as he dominated Young, Murray was broken three times. This was hardly enough to advance Young toward the finish line, as he was broken eight times in thirteen service games.

Young showed an admirable willingness to move forward, even behind his serve, but this generally did not trouble Murray. Young’s primary weapon is a lefty forehand hit with a whippy wrist, and Murray did his best to keep the ball out of his opponent’s comfort zone, focusing on his backhand or, when Young was out of position after moving far to his right, going for the open court in his forehand corner.

Brad Gilbert was calling the match and, according to a fan who had a radio earpiece, was switching off to call play on Court 17. We noticed that, when speaking on television, Gilbert stood up. His broadcast partner, Patrick McEnroe, remained seated.

The new and improved Young was not much in evidence on this occasion. He held his temper till the end of the third set: after going down the decisive break, he pounded the Citizen clock in frustration before Murray served out the match. According to the stat sheet, Murray had 15 winners (most, it seemed, on brilliant running passing shots) and 17 unforced errors, while the corresponding figures for Young were 19 and 53. In short, Murray was content to make Young uncomfortable and let him beat himself, and that’s how it played out.

Final Score: Murray d. Young 6-2 6-3 6-3

Grandstand: Samantha Stosur (AUS) (9) v. Vera Zvonareva (RUS) (2)

In this year’s US Open, Sam Stosur has had considerably more success than Napoleon did in battling Russians. She beat Nadia Petrova in a tight third-round match and Petrova’s doubles partner, Maria Kirilenko, in a fourth-rounder that featured a 17-15 tiebreak. Now she was to meet Vera Zvonareva, number 2 in the world, who doesn’t feel like a number 2 any more than Wozniacki feels like a number 1. Zvonareva was wearing a black ribbon on her visor in memory of those who perished in the recent plane crash in Russia. Stosur’s taking the court was the occasion for my first experience this year of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi,” which came from both sides of the court.

Going into Thursday’s play, the forecast called for a window to get in some matches in the late morning and early afternoon, and then a return of showers. The sun was shining during the Murray-Young match, and I stayed in the sheltered seats on the west side of the Grandstand. For Stosur-Zvonareva, I treated myself to a box seat on the south end of the court. After criticizing the USTA for just about everything, I should note that the box seats on three sides of the Grandstand (all but on the west, or Armstrong, side) are now open to all ticketholders. If you can get this close to the action, you can really appreciate what the players are doing, especially when a serve is coming at you.

The monitor that reports service speeds was present on the Grandstand, but not working. Later in the day, when I got to Court 17, I saw that it no longer even had the monitor. I suspect this has something to do with those courts being shut down in the second week and then called back into action unexpectedly. Indeed, on 17, the big television camera that would go behind the court was missing, and instead the action was being shown via a camera that hovered in a corner of the court at the end of a long boom.

Stosur’s kick serve was very effective, and she also hit some flat ones to good effect. Her net game was somewhat less powerful than I’d expected; it appeared that her backhand volley could use some more pop. But she moved ahead of Zvonareva with a break of serve in the sixth game and served out the set without a hiccup, finishing it off with a backhand pass at the feet that Zvonareva could only graze. Zvonareva retreated under a towel during the changeovers, which was not a reflection of her fragile mental state but rather her standard practice.

Stosur played a superb receiving game to start the second set, breaking at love with great court coverage and passing shots. She faced some trouble in the eighth game, falling behind 0-30 on her serve, but then reeled off four straight points, largely with the help of punishing inside-out forehands.

Stosur ran her record against her contemporary Zvonareva to 8-2 with another break in the ninth game, a victory achieved without facing break point. Napoleon wished he’d had it so easy.

Final Score: Stosur d. Zvonareva 6-3 6-3

Court 17: Angelique Kerber (GER) v. Flavia Pennetta (ITA) (26)

After the confusion regarding the Wozniacki-Petkovic match and a long delay in which nothing was transpiring on the Grandstand, I went out to Court 17, a new favorite this year, to watch the German lefty Angelique Kerber take on the Italian Flavia Pennetta, who will be 30 in February. I had seen Kerber get by Monica Niculescu, whose style made both players look bad. Kerber looked a lot better against Pennetta, who has a wide range of skills, including a harder serve than one might expect and a willingness to move to net. (She and Gisela Dulko comprised the second-seeded women’s doubles team at the tournament, though they were ousted in the third round.)

Pennetta played with an elastic brace on her right elbow, but she did not seem to be in pain. There were probably fewer than a thousand spectators on Court 17 for most of the match, which, I would guess, made this an easier venue for Kerber to play her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. In 2010, she had made the third round at the Australian Open and Wimbledon; otherwise, she had thirteen losses in the first or second round of majors, including the first round in the first three Slams this year.

The key break of serve in the first set came in the ninth game, when Kerber’s forehand down the line set up an easy forehand winner for 15-40, and then Pennetta missed a forehand wide. Kerber served out the set at 15, finishing it off with an excellent retrieval of a lob followed by a cross-court backhand passing shot.

There were breaks of serve in the first five games of the second set, and then Kerber held for a 4-2 lead. The tide turned, with Pennetta taking six consecutive games, giving her the second set and a 2-0 lead in the third. Pennetta was being cheered on, possibly to her chagrin, by a fellow who dressed like an ex-preppy now on Wall Street and talked like an aspiring cast member of Jersey Shore, albeit without profanity, but with some attempts at faux Italian. He was ragging on Kerber and kept on announcing: “Flavia, it’s yours.” It surely seemed that way early in the third set.

Pennetta was serving at 3-1 when she missed a couple of forehands to put Kerber back on serve. At 3-3, Pennetta floated a forehand long and then double-faulted, and suddenly Kerber was on top for the first time in a long while. In a long struggle, Kerber averted four break points to hold serve for 5-3. Improbably, Pennetta seemed to have run out of gas. She allowed Kerber to take the match without having to serve for it, broken on match point when she poked a forehand volley wide. As against Pennetta’s earlier streak of six games, Kerber’s skein of five was only marginally less impressive and definitely weightier, because it put her into a Grand Slam semifinal.

Final Score: Kerber d. Pennetta 6-4 4-6 6-3

Court 17: Rohan Bopanna (IND)/Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi (PAK) (5) v. Colin Fleming (GBR)/Ross Hutchins (GBR)

The last match of the day session was also on Court 17, and it was time for some old-school men’s doubles, in the sense that all four players followed every serve to net. What differs today is the idea of hitting the serve at three-quarters speed in doubles has gone by the boards, and thus most points in men’s doubles are short. We’ve seen the rules for doubles change substantially on the tour, with no-ad scoring and a match tiebreak now played in lieu of a third set. Why wouldn’t the ATP Tour experiment with some tournaments at which doubles would be played with one serve only? This would make for longer, more interesting points and eliminate the conferences between partners that frequently take place between the first and second serves. If this approach resulted in too many breaks of serve, how about an experiment in which each team could limit its opponents to only one serve on five or ten designated points per set? Think of the strategy that would be involved in deciding when to announce: “Second serve.” It might work; it might not. In any case, it’s a better idea than putting Wozniacki and Petkovic on Court 13.

The rain had held off since the morning, and the question was whether the day session could squeeze in one more match. As clouds gathered over Ashe, the celebrated Indo-Pak Express of Bopanna and Qureshi (the second best team on the subcontinent, after the reunited and superannuated Bhupathi and Paes) took the court against the British duo of Fleming, a Scot, and Hutchins, born and still living in Wimbledon. The Brits made the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year, losing in five sets, and now followed that up with a quarterfinal at the US Open, having beaten the second-seeded team of Mirnyi and Nestor along the way. Bopanna and Qureshi, both 31 and really old school with their one-handed backhands, were US Open finalists last year.

Play was rather spotty. I thought Bopanna and Hutchins were the better players on each team. There were no breaks of serve till the eleventh game, when Fleming lost a long game after double-faulting at deuce and then seeing Bopanna hit a winning crosscourt backhand return on break point. Qureshi served out the set at 15.

The second set was quite a different story, as the Brits broke Bopanna straight away for a 2-0 lead, climbed out of a 0-40 hole on Hutchins’s serve in the fifth game, and broke Qureshi in the eighth game to close it out.

The first two sets, at 7-5 and 6-2, consisted of games divisible by four, so each team started each set with its stronger server, Bopanna and Hutchins, as part of the normal rotation. It would have been interesting to see if they would have changed the order to utilize the stronger server, as they are entitled to do, had a set gone 6-3 or 6-4.

In the deciding set, the Brits sprinted ahead by 4-2 when they broke Bopanna in the sixth game. Fleming averted two break points in the following game, and Qureshi saved match point at 2-5 30-40. The Brits had two more match points on Hutchins’s serve, but squandered them with a double fault and missed overhead. The Indo-Pak Express reached break point when Qureshi nailed a forehand pass up the middle. On the next point, Fleming seemed to hit a winning backhand volley, but his team lost the point on the umpire’s ruling. I could not tell whether it was because Fleming had reached over the net to hit the ball or touched the net on his follow-through. Either way, the Indo-Pak Express had new life with this break of serve. Bopanna held at 15 for 5-5 and then put his team ahead with a forehand passing shot to help break Fleming.

There was mist in the air – remember, this is the 2011 US Open we’re talking about – when Qureshi stepped onto the court to try to serve out the match at 6-5. He won the first point and dropped two when the mist became too heavy to continue. (At the same time, play stopped in Ashe’s night session, as Roger Federer faced off against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, except that they resumed play after about an hour.) Thus, my in-person US Open experience concluded at 8:15 p.m. on September 9, and the Indo-Pak Express wrapped up the match the next day, as the second match on Court 17.

Final Score: Bopanna/Qureshi d. Fleming/Hutchins 7-5 2-6 7-5

The first US Open match I recall seeing in person took place in 1974, at Forest Hills, between Stan Smith and Brian Teacher. If only we’d had digital cameras back then, to preserve the memories. I do recall being amazed to see how short the grass was cut on the field courts. A lot has changed since then – the venue, the surface, the racquets, the strings, and certainly the money – but the beauty of the game, in spite of all USTA efforts to blunt it, remains.