A Yogi Berra Kind of Day
by Jerry Balsam

On Sunday, I braved the Labor Day Weekend crowds at the National Tennis Center. (My photo album is available here.) On the weekend, the facility is packed even tighter than during the tumultuous first week. Those of us old enough to recall leisurely strolls around the grounds of the West Side Tennis Club are made to feel our age. You want an easy stroll? Go to the Newport event the week after Wimbledon. At the Open, you’re in loud, brassy, claustrophobic New York, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it, other than enjoy the tennis.


Of course, a return to the West Side Tennis Club (even if its stadium were not crumbling) would hardly solve the problem. That facility is much smaller than the National Tennis Center. The issue is the size of the crowd on a typical US Open day. From the standpoint of the USTA and the sport, it’s a good problem to have.


Sunday, August 31, 2008


Men’s Singles, Third Round, Grandstand

Gilles Muller d. Nicolas Almagro (18), 6-7(3) 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(6) 7-5


Yogi Berra’s most famous line is probably “It ain’t over till it’s over.” I’m not sure whether Yogi is well-known in Luxembourg, but Gilles Muller seems to be familiar with this aphorism.


On Sunday, he pulled off another comeback from two sets down. In the second round, his victim was Tommy Haas (who absolutely smoked Muller in the first two sets), and this time it was a very solid Spaniard, two years his junior, Nicolas Almagro.


On September 9, 2001 — yes, two days before 9/11 — I had seen the southpaw Muller defeat Yeu-Tzuoo Wang of Taiwan for the boys’ singes championship. His distaff counterpart that year? Marion Bartoli. Muller has not done much as a pro, other than his memorable all-tiebreak upset of Andy Roddick in the first round of the 2005 US Open. This year, he had to qualify for the Open.


As the match went on, I thought to myself: At no point has Muller looked like the better player. Maybe this is because Almagro took an early lead, but probably it’s because Almagro just looks better, as owner of a big forehand and a penetrating one-handed backhand, as well as a powerful serve that Muller could not do much to return. Even if Muller got the ball back in the court, Almagro was on the offensive and would dictate points. The only department in which Muller had an edge was his ability to attack the net with relish. Not that Almagro was afraid of the net, but he hoped to hit winners from the baseline. Muller gave himself chances at more angles and tactics. In the end, the impression of Almagro’s superiority was not an optical illusion: in this closely fought, four-hour match, he won 187 points to Muller’s 175. Cold comfort for Almagro: Haas had also won more points than Muller, 148 to 140. (What’s more, Muller served 38 aces to Almagro’s 24, so the points that were played out truly leaned in Almagro’s direction.)


The problem for Almagro was that he could not make Muller go away. Perhaps the most salient statistic demonstrating Muller’s persistence was Almagro’s ability to cash in only one of ten break points. For his part, fresh off the comeback against Haas, Muller must have believed in his chances long after most of the fans had written them off. He kept attacking and coming to the net, and he wisely cut down the drop shots that Almagro was eating for breakfast.


There were no breaks of serve in the first set — indeed, there were only two in the match — and the players exchanged mini-breaks in the tiebreak before Muller served at 3-4. The wheels promptly came off. Muller served and volleyed on the second ball, winning points for courage if not necessarily for prudence, and was victimized by Almagro’s forehand crosscourt pass. Then Muller double-faulted to put himself in the deep hole of three set points. Almagro needed only one, as Muller deposited a backhand volley into the net.


In the second set, Muller fell into a 15-40 trap at 3-4. He saved one break point with a fine forehand volley, but on the second tried one of his ill-advised drop shots, followed by a lob that Almagro smacked away for a winner. Almagro served out the set at 30 and seemed to be on cruise control.


In Almagro’s first service game in the third set, he was down a break point, and Muller came in behind a good slice backhand approach. Almagro hit a wonderful crosscourt backhand passing shot for a clean winner, as Muller could do nothing but applaud. Almagro topped off that effort with two aces, the first a 136 mph screamer, to hold serve.


At 4-4, Muller fought off two break points — practically match points — with fine serving, and the set wended its way to a tiebreak. Muller raced to a 6-2 lead, and he needed all four set points, grabbing the set on his final try with a service winner up the T.


In the fourth set, I noticed Almagro’s tendency to take five balls from the ballboys before choosing two to play with. You need big hands (or help from your racquet) to make such a selection. The chair umpire called for a ball change after the first game of the fourth set, even though this was not consistent with the 7+9 rule, as mentioned in my last dispatch. It has since been explained to me that if a ball change is due at the tiebreak, it is delayed to the second game of the following set. I guess we really can learn something new every day.


Muller saved a break point in the second game of the set, while Almagro averted two in the third game. Muller found himself in desperate trouble in the tenth game. A brilliant crosscourt forehand pass from Almagro made the score 15-30, and that was followed by a Muller backhand volley that sailed long. Suddenly, Almagro had two match points. On the first, his backhand return of a second serve went long. A Muller forehand volley made the second go away.


Before long, we were in a tiebreak. Muller raced to a 5-3 lead, but a forehand pass by Almagro grabbed the mini-break back and evened the score at 5-5. Almagro saved one set point, at 5-6, when Muller hit a forehand long. Still serving at 6-6, Almagro missed a backhand, and Muller had a second set point, the first on his serve. He made no mistake. He placed a backhand volley short in the court, and Almagro’s attempt at a backhand pass found the net.


So now the match was tied, but only in a technical sense, it seemed. There was still a perception that Almagro was much the better player and now he would take care of business in the fifth set. The feeling was accentuated when Muller tried another drop shot to start the fifth set, and it found the net. But after that, we did not see any more foolish drop shots from the lefty.


The first break opportunity of the set came with Almagro serving at 3-4. His second serve looked long — there were many ahhhhs from the crowd — but there is no Hawkeye on the Grandstand. A long rally ensued, capped by an Almagro forehand down the line for a winner. Almagro would save two more break points on errors by Muller, and the struggle went on at 4-4.


Almagro stared at another break point in the 4-5 game, and this time it was a match point. He saved it when Muller misfired on a backhand that went wide.


It was Muller’s turn to face a break point, albeit not a match point, at 5-5. He came through with a big serve up the middle to Almagro’s forehand, the return ending up in the net. On a second break point, Muller came through with an ace wide to Almagro’s backhand. The ball looked long to Almagro (and to me), but of course Hawkeye was unavailable. From there, Muller held, and the players changed ends for what had to be the final time in the match.


I expected Almagro would hold serve and force a decisive tiebreak, but Muller had other ideas. Though Almagro was up 40-30, Muller got back to deuce when his opponent’s forehand went long. Muller conjured up a crosscourt backhand pass to reach his second match point. Muller concluded the next point, his eighth break point of the match, with a successful backhand drop volley. After four hours of play, he had finally converted a break chance, and he fell to the court with joy as he savored an unlikely victory.


Men’s Singles, Third Round, Arthur Ashe Stadium

Andy Roddick (8) d. Andreas Seppi (31), 6-2 7-5 7-6(4)


Can an American say this? I find Andy Roddick’s tennis boring. I watched the first set in the hot sun at Ashe and had enough. The match got closer thereafter, but I didn’t regret missing Roddick’s uninspiring game, let alone the cavernous surroundings of Ashe, let alone its frying pan-like seats.


Boys’ Singles, First Round, Court 15

Marcelo Alevaro (14) d. Richard Becker, 6-4 6-4


We’ve heard of tennis players from Germany named Becker, but players from El Salvador? That’s where Alevaro comes from. Becker was a lucky loser (the draw identified Alevargo’s opponent as Ilija Vucic of Serbia). Becker is tall and tries to serve and volley on occasion. Alevaro somehow wore all black on this sunny day — I suppose his mother did not pick out his clothing in the morning — and he prevailed. From the few games I watched at the end of the first set and the start of the second, it was hard to guess which of these players might have a future on the tour. Becker’s record suggests he won’t be joining Boris and Benjamin as a pro. Then again, I always find it hard to guess.


Men’s Singles, Third Round, Grandstand

Igor Andreev (23) d. Fernando Verdasco (13), 6-2 6-4 6-4


Coming in, the southpaw Verdasco had enjoyed a 3-0 career edge on Andreev. I saw the last set and a half of this match, and it was a comprehensive win for Andreev. He never faced a break point, he served and pounded forehands with gusto, and he surely was pleased to see Verdasco’s very obvious frustration. The highlight for Verdasco came at 3-5 in the final set. He fell behind 0-40 and then his first serve was a fault. Having had his fill of frustration, Verdasco took the spare ball from his pocket and rocketed it into the far end of the bleachers, where two fans raced after it. (The bleachers were aptly named today. Anyone who sat in the sun long enough probably turned lobster red, while his clothing would be bleached a new shade of ecru.) The umpire gave Verdasco a warning — and then he reeled off five straight points to hold serve. No matter, as the Russian served out the match at love.


It was not yet 6:00 p.m., and I tried to watch another match, but the ones I wanted to see, Robredo v. Tsonga, followed by Gonzalez v. Nieminen, were literally inaccessible, as Armstrong was packed to capacity, and a line of at least a thousand fans waited to get in. I decided to brave the crowds no more and headed for the 7 train.


Returning to my opening point, it’s not a simple problem to make the Open accessible to fans, maximize revenue for the USTA, and be television-friendly at the same time. These days, the approach is to sell a lot of tickets and hope for the best. Today, that meant a lot of fans could not see as much tennis as they wanted. What will happen when the quality of streaming video is good enough that you can sit at your computer (or television) and whip from one court to another to follow the action? The prospect may be fairly enticing, when it can take half an hour or more to get from one court to another on terra firma and when ordinary television focuses on the stars and their easy wins over some more interesting matches. Ever the pioneer, Wimbledon has made strides to provide this kind of coverage. We can be safe in assuming there will be more of that to come. If so, perhaps we will no longer experience a variation of Yogi Berra’s famous explanation: “That restaurant’s too crowded. No one goes there anymore.”