The Only Bargain in Flushing Meadow

US Open, September 7, 2023

Jerry Balsam

 

For my final visit to the 2023 US Open, I took advantage of the greatest secret in tennis: the day session for the second Thursday of the fortnight, when admission is free. This might explain the doubles quandary in a nutshell: you literally canít give away tickets to world-class doubles. There is a question of causation here. Do fans stay away Ė even though more of them play doubles than singles Ė because the US Open treats doubles as a neglected stepchild? Or does the US Open ignore doubles because the fans arenít interested? To at least some extent, we can blame the neglect on the specialization of doubles today. As recently as John McEnroeís day, top menís singles players were known to play doubles. Since then, not so much Ė with exceptions like Indian Wells, where the length of the tournament and the absence of best-of-five singles reduce the physical burden. When the big names play doubles, fans will indeed watch. Itís not clear that this problem can be addressed at the Grand Slam events, where the stakes in singles are so high and the matches are so grueling.

 

In deference to the heat and humidity, I camped out in the shade of Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the roof was partially closed, the lights were turned on, and there was a bit of a breeze. (Italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs.) At peak attendance, perhaps 25% of the seats were taken Ė all in the lower bowl (where you need a special ticket for all other Armstrong sessions), save for one lonely figure in the upper deck. The food vendors inside the stadium were all closed.

 

The two matches I saw were the menís doubles semifinals. I would have checked out some of the junior action on the field courts, but the sun was just withering. Thus, I missed a chance to get a better look at Cooper Williams than the brief glimpse I had had at Wimbledon. (Williams was to drop his quarterfinal to Joao Fonseca.)

 

In my report for August 31, I described the womenís doubles match between Magda Linette/Bernarda Pera and Elisabetta Cocciaretto/Martina Trevisan as the functional equivalent of a singles match. This was not the case for the menís doubles matches of September 7, but they donít exactly play the way the Aussies of old did. In my youth, doubles players were coached to hit the first serve at 75% or 80% of full speed, to make sure it went in and to get closer to the net for the first volley. The server would take up a position about halfway between the center notch and the sideline, rather than crowding the center notch. At least in the two matches I saw, the players were not spinning in their first serves (the four teams made between 52% and 62% of their first serves), and they were not always coming in behind them. Rather, the predominant tactic was to have the net man crowd the middle of the court, crouching to avoid getting bonked in the head by the serve. (The method of crouching varied by player: resting on oneís haunches or getting down on one knee.) The server stood as near to the center of the baseline as possible, giving rise to something close to an I formation with his partner. After the serve, the net man would move to one side or another, with the server taking the other side. When the net man crossed, the server often stayed back; when the net man stayed home, the server was more likely to come to net. If a receiver gets a good look at the serve, he has a lot of room for a passing shot, even if the net man is moving to cover the line, but itís easier said than done.

 

Nowadays, the server and his partner discuss tactics before every point. When the serving team had its back to me and the first serve missed the mark, I could read the net manís signals telling the server where to serve and advising whether he would cross or stay home. As a middling recreational player in my youth, it was not obvious to me that the serverís partner should be making these decisions, perhaps because it was all I could do to place my serve with reasonable accuracy. On a more advanced level, however, it is the received wisdom that the net man is the ďgeneralĒ on the court.

 

Against this background, the semifinalists in the menís doubles were all venerable members of the tour and accomplished practitioners of their specialty. Here are the major title rťsumťs of the semifinalists, who ranged in age from 31 to 43:

 

††††† FIRST SEMIFINAL

 

        Pierre-Hugues Herbert (age 32): 5 menís doubles, including a career Grand Slam, with a side of anti-vaxxing

        Nicolas Mahut (41): 5 menís doubles, including a career Grand Slam, but no anti-vaxxing

 

        Rohan Bopanna (43): 1 mixed doubles

        Matthew Ebden (35): 1 menís doubles, 1 mixed doubles

 

SECOND SEMIFINAL

 

        Rajeev Ram (39): 4 menís doubles, 2 mixed doubles

        Joe Salisbury (31): 4 menís doubles, 2 mixed doubles (interestingly, winning Roland Garros and the US Open with Desirae Krawczyk in 2021, but losing the Wimbledon final that year when partnering Harriet Dart and facing Krawczyk and Neal Skupski)

 

        Ivan Dodig (38): 3 menís doubles (with 3 different partners), 4 mixed doubles (with 2 different partners)

        Austin Krajicek (33): 1 menís doubles

 

For the first set of the first match, the sun still shone on the court, which was not necessarily great news for the capless Bopanna. (Here is one spectator who did not need a cap, and probably could not put one on even if he tried. Another spectator offered a novel solution to the heat.) His fellow 40+ player, Mahut, was also bareheaded, while the young guys in their thirties were more cautious. The old-timers sported one-handed backhands. Ebden took two hands on the backhand to an extreme, even hitting volleys double-fisted. The youngsters also played the ad court when receiving.

 

Bopannaís serve cracked first. He saved three break points in his first service game, opening the match, but was broken on his next turn, in the fifth game. Mahut gave back the break in the eighth game.

 

After a changeover, Mahut, serving at 5-6, won the first point, and then sat down on the court in evident pain, which looked for all the world like a cramp. (Ironic for a player who survived a notorious eleven-hour match.) He repaired to the sideline, where he placed ice towels around his neck and on his legs. A trainer visited him but provided no discernible treatment. Mahut resumed play and held at 15, closing the game with a 117 mph ace up the T. Crisis averted, it seemed, but the French team was toast after Mahut was indisposed, even though he seemed to the naked eye none the worse for wear.

 

In the tiebreak that decided the first set, Bopanna and Ebden grabbed the first mini-break on the third point, with Herbert serving. On a ball hit up the middle, Herbert thought Mahut would take the volley, but he did not, and Herbert, faked out, netted his forehand volley. The points thereafter went on serve until Herbert served at 3-6, whereupon Ebden pounced on a 104 mph second serve, sending back a crosscourt backhand that caught the sideline and nailed down the set.

 

Mahut led off serving the second set, though he had served the twelfth game of the first set. Presumably, his team wanted to keep each player serving on the end of the court to which he was accustomed. (By contrast, Bopanna served first in each set for his team.) In the third game, Herbert double faulted twice and was broken. Mahut was the next victim, dropping serve at 1-3 when Ebden nailed an inside-out forehand service return for a winner. Ebden served out the 7-6(3) 6-2 victory at love, with Bopanna putting away an overhead on match point, and the players celebrated with their families, as Bopanna became the oldest player to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era.

 

In the second match, Ram was the only player wearing a cap, while he and his teammate, Salisbury, both sported legacy one-handed backhands. Krajicek was the only lefty on the court, and he played the deuce court Ė keeping his teamís forehands in the middle, but opening himself to the slice serve wide to his backhand, particularly by Ram.

 

Krajicek saved two break points in the fifth game. Serving in the eleventh game, Dodig missed four first serves on five points. On second serve, whatever tactics Krajicek signaled did not work, as Ram and Salisbury came up with winning returns, racing to 0-40. At 15-40, with Krajicek crossing, Salisbury hit an inside-in backhand return from the deuce court that Dodig volleyed into the net for the decisive break. Salisbury served out the set at love.

 

In the second set, one team changed the order of servers, as Dodig opened, while the other preserved its order, as Ram served first. Krajicek wiggled out of a break point in the seventh game, and then his team struck back. With Salisbury serving at 15-30, Krajicek came up with a backhand volley winner for two break points, only one of which proved necessary, as Salisbury double faulted. Dodig served out the set at 30.

 

Ram and Dodig led off for their respective teams in the third set, representing another change of order for Dodig and Krajicek. With Dodig serving at 0-1 30-30, Salisbury caught the sideline with a down-the-line forehand return of second serve. At 30-40, looking at another second serve, Ram pulled his forehand return inside-in, following with another inside-in forehand for the pass and the break. That was the only service break needed: Ram served out the match at love, closing out the 7-5 3-6 6-3 victory with a 114 mph service winner up the middle.

 

Spoiler alert: The next day, Ram and Salisbury defeated Bopanna and Ebden in the final. Oh, remember the ESPN blackout? The day after the US Open concluded, Charter Communications and Disney reached an agreement.