September 1, 2014
My wife and I had tickets for the night session on Labor Day. Neither of the two surprises mentioned in the title took place on the court.
First, a word of amplification: I have been informed that the outfits I had seen at the Milos Raonic-Peter Gojowczyk match in the second round were lederhosen. I feel like I should have known that.
The gates open for the night session at 6:00 p.m., which gives patrons a chance to see some day session matches, if they can squeeze in. We got off the subway and were approaching the grounds at about 5:30 when we heard our names being called. Going in the opposite direction, toward the subway, were my uncle and three cousins, bedraggled after spending the heart of the day session in the heat and humidity of a real summer day. With thousands of people moving in each direction on the boardwalk linking the subway and the National Tennis Center, the chances of their noticing us – especially as we hadn’t planned to meet – must have been slim. The second surprise came in the second night match, about which more later.
We were standing on the security line waiting for the gates to open when a few drops of rain fell at about 5:55. The tournament officials thereupon had mercy and opened the gates; fortunately, the rain blew over. We tried to get into Armstrong to watch Stan Wawrinka play Tommy Robredo, but there was a line that looked like it was good for at least an hour’s wait. Stephanie Myles, referring to the US Open’s “line problem,” reports on a similar difficulty earlier on Labor Day, as Novak Djokovic played on Armstrong. Rather than risk a long and ultimately fruitless spell on line, we repaired to the Grandstand, where we got excellent seats behind the court for a third-round mixed doubles match between the third seeds, Cara Black and Leander Paes, each the owner of over fifty doubles titles, and last year’s finalists, Abigail Spears and Santiago Gonzalez. The latter, at 31, was the youngest player on court, with Paes being the eldest, a distinguished 41. Earlier in the day, Black, playing with Sania Mirza, had won her third-round match in women’s doubles, while Paes, playing with Radek Stepanek, had lost his third-round match in men’s doubles. As though hoping to make life difficult for spectators, or perhaps to give Paes time to recover from his earlier match, the organizers delayed the mixed doubles match to 6:45, which meant that it actually started just after 7:00.
While the majors have not adopted the abbreviated form of doubles – no-ad scoring and a match tiebreak in lieu of the third set – in men’s and women’s doubles, the US Open has done so for the mixed. I have a feeling this was a factor in the configurations in this match, as both men played the deuce court. Typically in mixed doubles, the man would play the ad court.
Spears had an interesting look, wearing a visor and glasses whose stems fit over the visor, as well as exotic physio tape that looked like tattoos and covered her calves. My wife and the female half of the other couple that joined us concurred that Paes’s combination of shorts and shirt was not quite up to fashion par.
The teams exchanged breaks early in the first set, with Spears (who consistently served over 100 mph) victimized first and Black (whose serve is generally in the eighties, but whose legendary volleying skills are encapsulated in this video) immediately after. Suddenly, Paes was broken at 15 in the tenth game, and the first set thus went to the unseeded team.
Gonzalez double-faulted on break point to open the second set. Black and Paes saved two break points in the second game and three in the fourth (recall that, in no-ad scoring, 0-40 constitutes four break points), and they served out the set, 6-4.
Black and Paes jumped to a 3-0 lead in the match tiebreak, but this represented an advantage of only one mini-break. With Black serving at 4-2, Gonzalez hit a winning service return down the line, and a challenge revealed that he had hit the line. While Black and Paes returned to a mini-break lead at 5-4, they suddenly fell behind with Black serving at 7-6. On Black’s first service point, Spears returned her second serve for a winner. On Black’s second service point, at 7-7, Gonzalez’s return skipped off the tape for a lucky winner and an 8-7 lead.
The match was thus on Gonzalez’s racquet. He put away an overhead to get to 9-7 and two match points. Paes hit a winner to grab back the mini-break and get the opportunity to serve at 8-9. In the exchange that ensued, Gonzalez grabbed a forehand volley opportunity to hit a winner up the middle, and with it to capture the match.
My contingent could see from the Grandstand that there were now at least some seats available in Armstrong, so we hustled over to see Wawrinka versus Robredo. We arrived as Wawrinka was preparing to serve for the match at 5-2 in the fourth set, after he had forged ahead by winning the third set in a 9-7 tiebreak. We saw very little of this match, as Wawrinka made no mistake, closing out the match easily and evidently feeling pretty loose, as he served-and-volleyed a couple of times.
That just about exhausted the available day session matches; there was still a mixed doubles match on Court 5, but the players had reached the match tiebreak, and there was no way we could get over there in time. Thus, we resigned ourselves to Arthur Ashe Stadium. It helped that our tickets were the best of a bad lot. That is, everything above the two tiers of luxury boxes is deficient, but we were in the loge, in the very first row above the luxury boxes. Since the two matches of which we saw fragments were available to the whole world on television, there’s not much to report.
The first match we caught was Victoria Azarenka against Aleksandra Krunic. The former, having won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013 and been a finalist to Serena Williams both years in the US Open, is obviously better than her current ranking of number 17, but injuries have hurt her ranking. Krunic, born in Moscow and playing for Serbia, had played only one Grand Slam singles event before this year’s US Open, losing in the first round at Flushing Meadow last year. Ranked number 145 at age 21, she came out of nowhere – and the qualifying – to defeat two seeds, Madison Keys (number 27) and Petra Kvitova (number 3), on her way to the fourth round and a date with Azarenka.
Krunic had kept her mojo going, winning the first set from Azarenka, 6-4. When we arrived in Ashe, Azarenka was serving to square the match at 5-4 in the second set. On her second set point, she did so.
Azarenka, whose grunts are as loud in person as on television, immediately broke to start the third set, and I thought it would be one-way traffic from there, but it was not. In the fourth game, Krunic, who swung freely, broke back. Azarenka got the decisive break in the seventh game, with the help of a lucky shot that dribbled over the net cord at 30-30, followed by the de rigueur and necessarily insincere apology. Krunic was not done, getting to 15-40 in the eighth game and 0-30 in the tenth, but Azarenka pulled through. On match point, Krunic’s service return was called out, and a review on her challenge showed that she had missed by millimeters. There are a lot of talented players out there, so it’s always hard to say who will step up in the ranks, but Krunic looks like at least a Top Fifty talent.
The final night match featured Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori, with the winner slated to take on Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. In honor of the after-dark setting, Raonic had traded in his traditional white compression sleeve for a black number with a yellow pattern. Raonic came out firing on his serve, and the match looked like a heavyweight beating up on a welterweight. He quickly went up a break, and was on the verge of a 5-1 lead when Nishikori fell behind 0-40 in the sixth game. But Nishikori reeled off five straight points to hold serve, and then broke the big man’s serve in the seventh game, recovering from a 40-0 deficit. After Nishikori held for 4-4, Raonic turned the set around, winning eight straight points to take opening frame, 6-4.
At this point, it was around 11:00 p.m., and my wife and I, in deference to our civilian responsibilities, headed home. It was only the next morning when we learned that this match had gone five sets, tied a US Open record by ending at 2:26 a.m., and resulted in an upset win for Nishikori.
I had promised two surprises in this dispatch. The second came during a changeover in the first set of the Raonic-Nishikori match. On Ashe, the video board features shots of random fans and celebrities. When Jay Pharoah was shown on the board, you didn’t have to be a lip-reader to make out his “WTF” – and he was not referring to the ATP World Tour Finals.