August 31, 2017
After a rain-limited excursion on Tuesday evening, it was a treat to get a full day at the US Open on Thursday – especially when the threatened rain never arrived, but there was sufficient cloud cover to make much of the day comfortable. What’s more, two of the most dynamic players in tennis, Nick Kyrgios and Gael Monfils, provided ample entertainment, reminding us why fans put up with the expense and inconvenience of the US Open.
First, of course, one needs to gain entry to the tennis center, which promised to be a challenge because of the mysteries of mobile tickets and the USTA’s non-support of Android wallets. Fortunately, I was able to access my mobile ticket on the first try, and then I learned something new: when the ticket taker scans your phone, she gives you a paper “seat locator” for Ashe, as in this photograph (italicized links refer to photos), so that you won’t need to whip out your phone again to get into Ashe. Wait a second – if print-at-home tickets are passť because of forgery problems, why does the USTA provide these seat locators, which would be relatively easy to forge? Perhaps the theory is that the price difference between a grounds pass and an Ashe ticket is small enough that forgery won’t be a big issue. Why go through all the trouble to forge a seat locator when you can spend an extra few dollars and get an Ashe seat. But that’s true of the cheap (i.e., relatively cheap – nothing is cheap at the US Open) seats in Ashe. What of the expensive seats? If I have figured this out, I’m sure the forgers are all over it. I imagine that this year’s ticketing solution will not be the last word.
Here’s another conundrum for the USTA to ponder: the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, which is to come online next year, will have a roof. Excellent idea, but what will happen when it rains? Will holders of grounds passes be allowed into Armstrong? If yes, won’t there be more bodies than seats? If not – if access will be limited to those holding tickets for premium seats in Armstrong – won’t there be a revolution? Life is complex, n’est-ce pas?
My first stop of the day was Court 17, for Tomas Berdych versus Alexander Dolgopolov. After a long and arduous hold in the first game, Berdych broke Dolgopolov, who is being investigated for match-fixing in Winston-Salem this summer, at love. It looked like a simple story: Berdych’s power, not to mention his record of success in major tournaments, would be too much for Dolgopolov’s finesse and creativity. True, Dolgopolov had two break points when Berdych served for the set, but Berdych saved them with a service winner and an inside-out forehand, and he went on to hold for the set, 6-3. Berdych again saved a break point in his first service game of the second set. By then, I was wilting in the sun, there being very few shaded seats on Court 17, and I having been too late to grab one. Being neither a mad dog nor an Englishman, I repaired to the Chase Lounge. It came as a surprise to learn that Dolgopolov came back to defeat Berdych, 3-6 6-1 7-6(5) 6-2, with some speculation that the loser had a back injury. After losing his first four matches to the big Czech, Dolgopolov has now won two in a row.
After eating lunch, I headed to Court 15, where I arrived at 3-3 in the first set for the doubles match between Julien Benneteau/Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Nikoloz Basilashvili/Andreas Haider-Maurer. The French team is formidable, if unseeded: they won Roland Garros in 2014 and reached the Wimbledon final last year. Both teams wore matching kits, with the Frenchmen stylish in Lacoste and their opponents wearing a brand whose appeal escapes me, Hydrogen. Haider-Maurer, who missed the 2016 season with an ankle injury and who was way more tattoos than necessary, was broken upon my arrival. Basilashvili, the only player to stay back on his serve consistently, was nearly broken at 3-5, wiggling out of two set points at 15-40. In any event, Benneteau served out the set at love. Serve was broken in the first three games of the second set, leaving the Frenchmen up one break. Basilashvili lost a long game at 2-4 on the third break point he faced, and Benneteau served out the second set and the match, 6-4 6-2.
I proceeded to Court 4 for another doubles match, between Nick Kyrgios/Matt Reid and Jan-Lennard Struff/Joao Sousa. When I arrived, Reid was serving at 1-2 in the first set. He got out of a 0-40 jam but was broken on a Struff backhand that clipped the tape and dribbled over.
Kyrgios was bareheaded, while the other three players wore backward baseball caps. Kyrgios always has to stand out. He stood out in other ways, too. On one changeover, he amused himself by flipping a water bottle in the air and letting it land on the court. The trainer worked on his shoulder a couple of times. Against Struff’s big serve, there were a few times that Kyrgios tried his own version of the SABR, albeit without success or even much contact with the ball. Struff and Sousa took the first set, 6-3, having cashed in one of eight break points, while the Australian team had none.
In a way, the revelation in this match was Reid. That this 27-year-old once reached number 183 in the world in singles, let alone number 66 in doubles, is remarkable. He doesn’t move well. He serves inconsistently. He volleys poorly. At one point, a fan sitting near me quipped that Kyrgios would instruct Reid to stay back on Kyrgios’s serve.
In the second set, the Aussies kept it close, and even had two set points while receiving serve in the twelfth game. At 5-5 in the tiebreak, Sousa provided the crucial mini-break with a forehand volley that carried wide, and Struff was unable to return Reid’s serve on set point.
Sousa was serving at 4-4 30-40 in the decisive set when the ball landed in the middle of the Aussies’ court. Kyrgios waved Reid away – he probably had wanted to do that all match – and scorched an inside-out forehand that hit the line and sealed the break, whereupon the exuberant Kyrgios sprinted to his chair. When it came time to close out the match, Kyrgios made no mistake, serving a love game to seal the improbable victory, 3-6 7-6(5) 6-4, as his mother looked on. Kyrgios famously prefers team sports to tennis, and maybe this explains his demeanor throughout this match. To be sure, the intrinsic pressure level is lower in doubles than in singles – certainly for one who doesn’t need doubles wins to make a living – but Kyrgios evidently enjoyed the camaraderie of playing with a teammate, even one he had to carry across the finish line.
My next stop was this year’s temporary Louis Armstrong Stadium, where I walked up a rickety stairway for a seat at the match between Taylor Fritz and the sixth seed, Dominic Thiem. I arrived at 1-1 in the first set, just in time to see Thiem break serve with a reflex return of Fritz’s 128 mph serve. Thiem, with one of the best backhands in the game, guided the ball straight down the line for a winner. Serving for the set, Thiem climbed out of a 15-40 hole and closed it out, 6-4. He padded his lead by breaking to start the second set, clinching the game with a huge inside-out forehand return of a second serve. He held serve throughout my stay, sometimes cranking up his delivery over 130 mph, but more often throwing in a kicker to Fritz’s backhand at 88-90 mph. Thiem has an elegant game, while Fritz’s seems more workmanlike, not to say mechanical. Maybe it’s the two-handed backhand versus Thiem’s sweeping one-hander or maybe it’s Fritz’s corporate haircut versus Thiem’s throwback headband. These are not factors that make the difference between success and failure on the tour, but they at least have an aesthetic impact. After Thiem served out the second set with an ace, I moved on. (The temporary Armstrong is not very comfortable, with the non-premium seats far from the action and lacking backs.) In the end, Thiem won the match, 6-4 6-4 4-6 7-5, one key difference being performance on break points: he cashed in 4 of 9, Fritz only 2 of 18.
My next stop was Court 8, where I saw the last two games of Steve Darcis/Dudi Sela defeating David Marrero/Benoit Paire, 6-3 7-6(3). On match point in the tiebreak, with Darcis serving, Sela, a discreet member of the ever-growing tattoo brigade, poached and put away a backhand volley.
I proceeded to the Grandstand, where I saw my second great entertainer of the day, Gael Monfils, who was tied with Donald Young upon my arrival, with the American serving at 3-6 7-6 4-4. Monfils promptly broke at love, fought off a break point in the next game, and held serve to take a lead of two sets to one.
Young was once considered a top prospect, but has had to settle for a journeyman’s career. Part of it is his height, or lack thereof, which is a crucial factor in the modern game. It doesn’t help that he has a low toss on his serve, so he doesn’t approach the maximum speed he might be able to generate. As for Monfils, who is worth an essay in his own right, he has returned to serving with his feet close together after experimenting with a more conventional stance.
After the third set, Young took a medical timeout, but then he seemed rejuvenated, breaking at love to take a 2-0 lead in the fourth set. Even as he was losing the fourth set, Monfils provided some material for the highlight reels. In retrieving a Young overhead, Monfils overran the ball and somehow lobbed it by hitting a backhand from the forehand side of his body, eventually winning the point. Young, for his part, was taking care of business, hitting a great running forehand pass with Monfils serving at 2-5 to set up two set points and taking the set the easy way on a double fault, one of 13 the Frenchman was to offer up on the day.
Monfils took an early fifth-set lead with a break in the third game, as fans wended their way out of Ashe upon the conclusion of the day session there. (My Ashe seat locator? I never used it, in part because I couldn’t bear to watch Roger Federer’s struggles against Mikhail Youzhny. As readers of this blog know, that’s human nature, even in this wonderful year for Federer.) Others stood atop the suddenly full Grandstand to watch the fifth set. Young broke back for 3-3 with the help of two double faults from Monfils. Thereupon, Monfils broke Young and Young broke Monfils, and the contest was tied at 4-4.
The players tried something new, each holding at love to get to 5-5. In the eleventh game, Monfils cashed in his third break point, and now he would serve for the match. Suddenly, he began to pound his serves with extra venom. The only point he dropped in the final game was a double fault on a 115-mph second serve, and he closed out matters with a 130-mph ace, 6-3 6-7(7) 6-4 2-6 7-5. Surprisingly, IBM SlamTracker says that Young covered 12,489.4 feet during the match compared to only 10,515.3 for the fleet Monfils. Presumably, the amount of running a player does is in part a function of the difficulties his opponent creates, and Monfils creates plenty.
My last stop of the day was Court 10, where Elena Vesnina took on Kirsten Flipkens. There, I had a view of my wedding venue and a friend (who was attending the night session) and I took surveillance photos of each other. (Here’s my friend, and here am I, wearing a black cap, eyeglasses, and a long-sleeved pink shirt. The second photograph is © L. Present.)
On any ball that she hits hard, Vesnina grunts “aya,” often well after impact. Flipkens, who wears athletic glasses, nominally has a two-hander, but broke it out for fewer than 5% of her backhands. Almost always, she hit a one-handed slice. It’s not a bad shot – it certainly stays low to the court – but there is a limit to what she can do with it, which made it surprising that Vesnina did not try to come to net more often behind approaches to the backhand.
In each set, Vesnina took an early lead and squandered it, only to rally late. Thus, in the first set, she came back from 40-0 in the fifth game to earn a break with five straight points. In the eighth game, however, she double-faulted twice at deuce to allow Flipkens back into the set. Two long games followed, with Vesnina earning a break and a hold, and thus the first set.
In the second set, Vesnina went up by two breaks and was serving at 4-1. For her part, Flipkens broke back twice to get to 4-4. At this crucial juncture, Vesnina again found her range, breaking and then holding at love to close out the match, 6-4 6-4, and ending my day at 9:10 p.m. Mobile tickets notwithstanding, it was a wonderfully entertaining day.