Candlestick Park in Queens
by Jerry Balsam

On a typical day at the US Open, the medical staff at the National Tennis Center must deal with dehydration and heat exhaustion. On the second Thursday of this year’s Open, they might have needed hypothermia specialists. It was a cool and overcast day in New York, and I learned that prolonged exposure to cool temperatures and high winds can make you shiver if you don’t bring a sweater. This was a first for me at a day session of the Open. As far as I could see, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream stands were doing no business at all, but the coffee vendors had a field day.


For my third and last trip to this year’s Open, I was put in mind of the legendary windy and cold days at Candlestick Park, erstwhile home of the San Francisco Giants. World-class players found it difficult to effect a workable service toss, and fans huddled under sweatshirts, hoodies, and even blankets.


As in my two prior dispatches, my report is supplemented by photos, the full album of which may be accessed by clicking here. Italicized hyperlinks in the report refer to individual photos in my album.


Ashe: Serena Williams/Venus Williams (USA) (4) v. Alisa Kleybanova/Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) (13)


The Williams sisters had a more difficult semifinal match than most would have expected. The Russians, who never followed serve to net so far as I can recall, were tenacious baseliners. The American sisters also played a lot of one-up, one-back, so it was not a match for doubles purists.


The Russians opened the match with the left-hander Makarova serving, though Kleybanova is a harder server. Venus Williams was the first to serve for her team, and she was broken in her first effort. The Williams sisters broke back against Kleybanova’s serve, and Serena Williams got out of trouble at 5-6 15-40 with three aces (119, 113, and 116 mph, respectively) and then a backhand drop volley.


The first-set tiebreak went as follows:


  1. Serena Williams’s forehand return of Makarova’s serve landed in the net. 1-0, Kleybanova/Makarova.
  2. With Venus Williams serving, Kleybanova’s forehand return went long. 1-1.
  3. Serena Williams put away an overhead. 2-1, Williams/Williams.
  4. With Kleybanova serving, Makarova picked off a crosscourt forehand from Venus Williams and put away a forehand volley. 2-2.
  5. Venus Williams missed a backhand volley into the net. 3-2, Kleybanova/Makarova.
  6. Serena Williams served, and Venus poached with a backhand volley and finished the point with an overhead. 3-3.
  7. As Venus Williams moved to poach, Makarova tried to go behind her with a backhand, but it found the net. 4-3, Williams/Williams.
  8. Makarova, serving into the sun for the first time, dropped the first mini-break, as the Williams sisters took over the net and Serena ended the point with an overhead. 5-3.
  9. Another mini-break, on a Venus Williams poach with her forehand volley. 6-3.
  10. With Venus Williams serving for the set, she netted a backhand to give back one mini-break. 6-4.
  11. Serena Williams put away a forehand volley for the set. 7-4.


I left the frigid upper reaches of Ashe to watch some junior action on the field courts, about which more below. The Russian team captured the second set in my absence. When I returned to Ashe to catch the end of the doubles match, Makarova missed two forehand volleys to give the Williams sisters a break in the opening game of the final set. The Williams sisters had Serena rather than Venus serve first in the set, and the Russians broke her. The Americans broke the Russians the next two times they served, for a 4-1 lead, were broken for 4-2, broke Makarova for 5-2 (with Serena Williams nailing Kleybanova with a volley on break point), and served out the match behind Venus Williams, 6-2.


Final Score: Williams/Williams d. Kleybanova/Makarova 7-6(4) 3-6 6-2


Court 14: Andrea Collarini (ARG) (7) v. Tiago Fernandes (BRA)


This third-round match in the boys’ singles featured two Latin Americans, with the Argentine seventh seed a southpaw who was born in, of all places, New York. Both players are power baseliners with two-handed backhands. You don’t see youngsters serving and volleying these days, let alone playing like Fabrice Santoro. The good news is that these two were fairly adept at taking short balls and finishing points at the net. Fernandes will not turn 17 till January, so his success in this event might bode well for his future.


When I arrived, Collarini was serving at 4-6 3-4. He held, and had a break point at 4-4, but Fernandes, cheered on by a Brazilian contingent, pulled through for 5-4. Collarini saved three match points in the 4-5 game. Along the way, Fernandes received an audible obscenity warning, but my Portuguese is exiguous, so I have no idea what he said. When Fernandes squandered the third match point by missing an easy backhand, he threw his racket to the court. As this was happening, I noticed a light tower on Court 13 swaying in the wind. The favored Collarini, who was fighting to avoid an upset, seemed much the calmer of the two players.


Fernandes held serve at 15 for a 6-5 lead. Collarini, serving at 5-6 30-30, missed a backhand to set up Fernandes’s fourth match point. The Brazilian tried an audacious drop half volley, which Collarini sprinted to track down, but he put the ball into the net. Collarini then hugged the victorious Fernandes and soon thereafter stood, with apparent equanimity, for an interview by ESPN.


Final Score: Fernandes d. Collarini 6-4 7-5


Ashe: Carly Gullickson/Travis Parrott (USA) (WC) v. Cara Black (ZIM)/Leander Paes (IND) (2)


Carly Gullickson is not related to the famous tennis family the Gulliksons, but she does come from an athletic family. Her father, Bill, was a major league pitcher who won twenty games in 1991. Bill pitched in the National League for nearly the entire period of 1979-90, so he undoubtedly got used to the vicissitudes of Candlestick Park. Perhaps he passed the ability along to his daughter.


The Gullickson/Parrott team was adventitious. As Parrott said in his post-match interview, he had been prepared to play with Abigail Spears, but she withdrew and suggested he invite Gullickson to be his teammate. I am not clear on how the team came to be a wild card entry, especially because Parrott’s doubles ranking was good enough for his team to be seeded in the men’s doubles [Ed.: they missed the deadline for entry, and so needed the wild card]. Gullickson entered the Open ranked 72nd in doubles on the WTA Tour, while Spears was ranked 46th. It could be that Parrott and Spears were ranked high enough to get into the mixed draw, but Parrott and Gullickson needed a wild card. Regardless, Gullickson and Parrott had to be underdogs in the mixed doubles final against the seasoned team and defending champions Black and Paes.


Unlike most mixed doubles teams, Black and Paes stationed the male player in the deuce court. It might be that the standard strategy of placing the man in the ad court will fade, as mixed doubles is now played with no-ad scoring, so that the receiving team has its choice on the “deciding point” (formerly known as deuce).


Once the match got underway, it was hard to believe that Black and Paes were the heavy favorites. Gullickson and Parrott pounced on Black’s service games, and Paes’s use of the I formation proved unavailing. Black served four times and was broken each time. As there was only one other break of serve in the match, with Gullickson serving at 5-2 in the second set, this was the decisive factor.


Gullickson seemed the star of the match. She was not intimidated playing against a man, even acing Paes twice as she served out the first set, and showed off an excellent volley. In Black’s final service game, which went to the deciding point, Parrott and Gullickson went with an unusual strategy, deciding to have the latter receive, and it worked, as her return elicited a floater that Parrott volleyed away.


The only hiccup came when Gullickson served for the match, and Black and Paes started lobbing the service return, which disrupted their opponents. As is possible in no-ad scoring, the game reached simultaneous break and match point. Paes sealed the break by running down a dink near the net post and guiding the ball between Gullickson and Parrott. Paes then held serve, but Parrott served out the match at love, with the final point secured, fittingly, on a winning volley from Gullickson.


As Gullickson closes in on her 23rd birthday, the cruel logic of tennis, particularly women’s tennis, suggests that she will not become a force on the tour. What’s more, winning this major title will not improve her ranking in singles or even in doubles. But she now has a major on her résumé, which not that many players can claim, and the $75,000 in prize money that she won will undoubtedly be welcome. Not bad for five matches’ worth of work as something of an afterthought.


Final Score: Gullickson/Parrott d. Black/Paes 6-2 6-4


Ashe: Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG) (6) v. Marin Cilic (CRO) (16)


My last match of the day, and of this US Open, featured two talented youngsters who will turn 21 on September 23 (Del Potro) and September 28 (Cilic). This was only their second meeting, and it ended up duplicating the theme of their first, at this year’s Australian Open, where Cilic took the opening set and Del Potro stormed back to win in four. Surprisingly, though they are contemporaries, the two have never met in qualifying or at a Challenger or Future event.


The match was on television and has been covered well in the New York Times, so there’s only so much to say about it. I did not see anything unavailable to television viewers or newspaper readers. (As for live viewers, I’d estimate that attendance in Ashe crested at about 12,000 souls.) Something happened to shift the momentum when Cilic was up a set and a break, playing immaculate tennis. Down 3-2 in the second, Del Potro reeled off six straight games. Indeed, from that juncture, Del Potro won 18 of the final 21 games, and would have put up a bagel in the final set, but for a Cilic break when the Argentine served for the match at 5-0 in the fourth.


What I like about Cilic’s game is the way he hugs the baseline while in control of a point rather than hovering a few feet behind it. He gets better angles and deprives his opponent of time. His backhand is flatter than Del Potro’s and very smooth, while his forehand features a wrist snap that propels the ball to the corners with a lot of zip. When the momentum shifted, however, Cilic lost a bit of his accuracy and his serve, which is not as fast as Del Potro’s, began to lose its accuracy and bite. Meanwhile, Del Potro seemingly did everything right, including mixing in drop shots and playing some remarkable defense, which he was adept at converting into offense. By the fourth set, a desperate Cilic was mixing in serve-and-volley, but nothing was going to work at that point. One came away from the match with the sense that Cilic can easily become a Top Ten player, but Del Potro is a potential No. 1.


Final Score: Del Potro d. Cilic 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-1


As the match ended, there was a little bit of activity continuing on the outside courts, but I was shivering too much to stay. In maddening fashion, the organizers had everyone above the luxury boxes — i.e., just about the entire crowd — leave via one staircase. One fan surmised this was intended to assure that nobody hid inside the stadium to stay for the night session. I’m not sure how much this method would contribute to that goal, let alone its feasibility when the stadium is full. It’s good that this was a tennis crowd, so we did not end up in a stampede. As I got to ground level, the official at the gate was unaware that this staircase was the only one in use. At a minimum, the USTA could have done a better job of communicating with its own people.


Not to end on a sour note, it bears reminding oneself that the US Open offers an opportunity to see topflight athletes, sometimes up close, and to a feel something of a partner in their artistry. I’m looking forward to next year.