Opening Day at Flushing Meadow

August 25, 2014


Opening day at the US Open is a time for decisions. There’s so much to see that triage is necessary. In my case, this involved a snap decision to change my first match of the day. I was ready to camp out on Court 11 to watch Benoit Paire and Julien Benneteau – and that would have been a fine decision, since the match went to five sets and resulted in a mild upset, with Paire victorious (notwithstanding his continual foot-faulting during his pre-match practice session – note: hyperlinks highlighted in red are to photographs that I’ve posted on Twitter; a full complement of photo links appears on my Twitter feed) – but there was no place to hide out in the shade on Court 11, and the backless seats did not bode well for a long day. So I picked up my belongings and moved to the more luxurious Court 17, where both shade and backs were available, to watch Rafael Nadal’s conqueror at Wimbledon, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios, take on the 21st seed, a 32-year-old Ph.D. and father of two, Mikhail Youzhny.


The fans mostly supported Kyrgios, though there were a couple of Youzhny enthusiasts in my row. The Youzhny supporters had nothing to match Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi, which was heard early and often.


Early on, Kyrgios had the edge, but he had trouble forging ahead. Youzhny held serve in a very long opening game, and the players remained on serve till the eleventh game, when Kyrgios stormed back from 40-15 on the Russian’s serve to break. He served out the set and broke again to open the second set. In retrospect, the match began to turn when Youzhny saved two break points in the sixth game. After Youzhny went through one of several visits from the trainer, the emphasis being on his shoulder and neck, he broke serve in the eighth game to square the set. Kyrgios won the tiebreak, 7-4, but his aura of invincibility on serve was no more.


Youzhny came out charging in the third set, breaking twice to take it easily. In the fourth set, Youzhny jumped out to a 3-1 lead, as Kyrgios drew a game penalty from the umpire Alison Hughes for an audible obscenity, his third code violation of the match. One more, and he would be defaulted. But then the match turned again, with Kyrgios saving a set point before holding for 4-5, breaking Youzhny with a backhand down the line for 5-5, and eventually running away with the tiebreak, 7-1. The “young Jedi of the tiebreak” had done it again, his big serve, which was good for 26 aces, and forehand leading him past a seasoned veteran with one of the most versatile one-handed backhands on tour.


This was a “lottery match” (also known as a Simpson’s Paradox match) with Youzhny winning 157 points to Kyrgios’s 156. In the tiebreaks, however, Kyrgios won 14 of 19 points. One did not get the sense that it was all, or even mostly, luck: Kyrgios will be a force in major tournaments.


On a hot late summer day, I decided to take a break in the Chase Lounge, which is available, on a limited basis, to customers of the bank. (I’m planning to return to the US Open twice this year, but I was able to sign up for the lounge only for this session.) I walked all the way from Court 17 past the crowded food court to get to the lounge, only to be told that I had to go back to the Chase kiosk on the other end of the food court in order to check in and get my bracelet for admission. In past years, the security guards at the lounge had a list of those with reservations, but this year’s innovation was to move that list to a distance of at least a five-minute walk, given the crowds. How can this possibly make sense? Chase gets a big thumbs-down for this decision, but at least I eventually got some air conditioning and lemonade.


Leaving the lounge, I caught the final game of Alla Kudryavtseva’s 2-6 6-2 6-4 win over her fellow qualifier Ying-Ying Duan on Court 8. My interest in the match stemmed from that of two of my young cousins, who were enjoying the day with their grandfather. Last week, they had taken a shine to Kudryavtseva in the qualifying, when she posed for a photo with them after a win. This time, they cheered her on and were rewarded with autographs.


I then repaired to Court 6 to watch Camila Giorgi, who would have been seeded if the tournament had started a week later, face the Russian-Australian veteran Anastasia Rodionova, a qualifier. Before I got there, I passed Ryan Harrison on the grounds and snapped this photo. Here’s a multiple-choice question:


Is Harrison dour because:

    a) that’s his standard demeanor;

    b) it was a hot day in New York;

    c) he got another tough draw at a major tournament (facing Grigor Dimitrov in the first round); or

    d) all of the above?


Court 6 is part of a redesigned area of the National Tennis Center, with a long runway providing a view of Courts 4, 5, and 6 on one side and practice courts on the other. Unfortunately, Court 6 remains somewhat low rent: there is no speed gun for serves, no Hawk-Eye for review of line calls, and not even a singles net; rather, there was a doubles net propped up by sticks in the alleys.


When I arrived, Giorgi was finishing up a routine 6-1 first set. Rodionova, who was sporting long white tube socks à la Bethanie Mattek-Sands, frequently threw up her hands in frustration: Giorgi was walloping the ball, and there was nothing much Rodionova could do about it.


But Giorgi, who hits a flat, hard ball, barely reduces the speed of her second serve, and stood inside the baseline to return Rodionova’s serve, began to miss in the second set. She served for the match at 5-4 but was broken at love. She was broken again to drop the set, 7-5, and her controversial father, Sergio (seen here with the long gray hair and gray T-shirt), could barely bear to look at the court.


The beat went on in the third set, as Giorgi continued to misfire, eventually tallying 14 double faults. Her serve was hardly the only problem, but it stood out: a couple of faults bounced before they reached the net. This was another lottery match, as Giorgi won 99 points to Rodionova’s 96, but Rodionova – cheered on by a fellow wearing credentials around his neck who seemed to know her from her role with the Washington Kastles, yelling “Come on, Kastles, sense of urgency” and, frequently, “Come on, Rodie” – deserved the win. The US Open’s statistics were incomplete from this orphan court, so we don’t have full tallies of winners and errors, but my sense was that Giorgi probably finished 70% of the points. Rodionova’s job was to get the ball back and hope that the bulk of the 70% would tilt from winners to errors, and it did. This was the second time I’d seen Rodionova upset a much higher-ranked player at the Open, as she did the same to Sabine Lisicki in a memorable match in 2009, but this win had to be particularly sweet for a 32-year-old player who is not universally loved by her peers.


It was also a sweet victory for me. Earlier in the day, while we sat in the shade on Court 17, my young cousins insisted that my shirt was orange, while I contended that it was yellow and wondered who had been smoking what. On Court 6, where we could no longer avoid the sun, they conceded that my shirt was yellow, so I had that going for me.


My next stop was Armstrong, where I saw Milos Raonic, featuring an iridescent shirt and sneakers, take some target practice (as a spectator described it) against the Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel. I arrived midway through the first set, catching Raonic’s first break of Daniel’s serve. Three more breaks were to follow, and Raonic would not be broken until he served for the match at 5-4 in the third set. The big Canadian recovered from that hiccup to run through the tiebreak and win the match, 6-3 6-2 7-6(1). Along the way, he served 20 aces, including one second serve clocked at 140 mph. (I don’t know why the US Open’s website shows his hardest serve of the match at 138 mph.) Daniel has a nice forehand, which he whips after cocking his wrist, but he’s just not in Raonic’s league. I was pleased to see Raonic experiment with the dying art of serve-and-volley, often behind slice or twist first serves. This explains why the statistics show an average first-serve speed of 120 mph; the serves were not all bombs, unless he was staying back.


I returned to Court 6 to see Jérémy Chardy in the third set of a tussle with the left-handed Alejandro Falla. Falla had pocketed the first set with a 7-5 tiebreak, while Chardy stormed back to take the second, 6-2. What followed was, in a way, the opposite of what I had seen earlier on Court 6. This time, the higher-ranked, more skilled player got through patches of rough play (including 10 double faults) to squeeze past the opponent.


Falla served for the third set at 5-4 but was broken when Chardy moved out wide on Falla’s second serve to pound a forehand return. Chardy broke again when Falla served at 5-6, capping the game with an inside-in forehand winner.


While this was going on, Michael Llodra’s farewell tour was visible on the adjoining Court 5, as he faced Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Apropos of Llodra’s net play, which truly is a throwback to the Becker/Edberg days, or perhaps Laver/Rosewall, a spectator on Court 6 said in appreciation of a winning volley: “Like butter, man.” We also heard the boom of fireworks from nearby Ashe, as the opening night ceremonies got underway.


In the fourth set, Chardy again fell behind by a break, but evened the set in the eighth game. Falla, whose defining memory must be a devastating loss to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2010, served at 4-5, needing to hold to stay in the match. He made no first serves on five points, three of which, including match point, ended in double faults, for a total of 18 in 146 service points. It was no way to end a day’s work, and Falla angrily slammed his racquet into his bag.


It was by now 8:30, and though some of the day session remained to play out, I called it a night, hoping to save some energy for a return to the Open on Thursday.