A Grandstand Day

August 28, 2014


Everyone knows by now that Arthur Ashe Stadium is a horrible structure named for a great man. Especially during the first week of the US Open, Ashe is to be avoided. This means that one must be strategic about finding a place to camp out. For the opening Thursday of this year’s Open, my solution was to make the Grandstand my home. Others arrived very early on Court 17 to wait for CiCi Bellis, nursing their seats all day long till she finally took the court after sunset. It was quite a tribute to a player few had heard of a week ago.


The Grandstand offers seating close to the action and all-important shade – and there was also a sentimental aspect to my choice, as the court is slated to be demolished and replaced. We can only hope that the new Grandstand will be as welcoming and comfortable a venue as its predecessor. Please, USTA, think about providing shade.


Before setting up shop on the Grandstand, I reminded myself to return to the Chase kiosk, scene of Monday’s misadventure, to see if they had the tennis ball luggage tags they’ve given out in past years. Perhaps I should have known better: the luggage tags are a thing of the past. The friendly people at the kiosk were happy to give me a blue plastic bracelet with Chase’s logo, but they were stumped when I asked what it would do for me. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t phrase my question as “What can I do with this bracelet?” because they would have given me a snappy reply.


I grabbed three seats in the Grandstand – for my uncle, cousin, and myself – at 9:45. By 10:20, the shaded seats were nearly filled. (As in Monday’s report, hyperlinks in red refer to photographs available on my Twitter feed.) I was pleased to see that my favorite usher at the US Open, an animated fellow with dreadlocks who’s light on his feet and keeps the traffic moving, was back this year.


The opening match featured Kei Nishikori of Japan against Spain’s Pablo Andujar, whom I had seen Milos Raonic overwhelm last year. Nishikori, the tenth seed, wore a brace on his right ankle, with physio tape running up the outside of his lower leg.


Nishikori hardly played a spotless match, but he had way too much game for Andujar, who is ranked a very respectable number 48 in the world. The first set remained on serve till Nishikori broke Andujar at 4-5, using a combination of a drop shot and a forehand pass on set point. The second set went quickly, with Nishikori coasting to a 6-1 victory, and then suddenly Andujar retired. Spectators had no idea why: it was not a particularly warm day and Andujar had not seemed to be in any distress. A subsequent press account stated, “Tournament officials did not immediately detail the nature of the Spaniard’s injury,” while another quoted Nishikori as having been surprised by Andujar’s retirement. So, while I’m not in a position to shed more light on why the match ended, I’ll link to two photos of Nishikori hitting a backhand volley and following through, and one of his stance for return of serve, which features his left foot in front of his right.


The next match, which did not begin until nearly an hour had elapsed from the abrupt termination of the first, featured the ninth seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, against Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan. The latter is one of Kazakhstan’s “rented” players; he is really Ukrainian. Though he’s 27, he first appeared in a Grand Slam singles draw this year in Australia, and he is ranked number 107 in the world. Tsonga gave hope to nerds the world over by tucking his shirt into his shorts, as everyone did in the old days before it became uncool. Early in the match, Nedovyesov berated himself on occasion, giving the impression he thought he could win. As the weight of Tsonga’s shots sank in, Nedovyesov, while still trying gamely, seemed to give up hope. In the first set, Nedovyesov came back from an early break to tie the score, but that was the only one of eight break points he was to cash in. Tsonga jumped back out in front and then cruised through, 6-3 6-4 6-4. While his backhand remains a liability, or at best a neutral shot, Tsonga was able to take over points when he got onto his forehand. It was as though a switch had been flicked, with Tsonga announcing: “Now I’ve got a forehand, and I’m going to keep on pounding it and running you until I hit a winner or you miss. I am hitting no more backhands on this point.” Time and again, that worked, and it didn’t hurt that Tsonga was raining down very powerful first serves.


While this was going on, I saw a score from the first match on Court 10: Scott Lipsky and Rajeev Ram had defeated Jamie Murray and John Peers in a final-set tiebreak. Last year, I had seen three of the same four players, with Lipsky’s place occupied by the injury-jinxed Brian Baker, and that time it was Murray and Peers winning the match in a third-set tiebreak.


Two Petras from the Czech Republic followed, though their résumés are hardly identical. Petra Kvitova is ranked number 4 and has two Wimbledon titles on her record, while Petra Cetkovska, closing in on her thirtieth birthday, had a 16-18 record in the majors coming into the US Open and is ranked number 63. Kvitova went up an early break but – hitting flat and deep, and often inaccurately – allowed Cetkovska to tie the set at 4-4. Kvitova nevertheless secured the set by breaking Cetkovska in the tenth game with a forehand winner down the line, followed by a yelp of satisfaction (or perhaps relief). The second set went easier for Kvitova, as the stands filled up in anticipation of the fourth match. From 4-4 in the first set, she ran off five straight games to 3-0 in the second and then coasted to the finish line, 6-2, before hitting some balls into the stands for souvenirs.


Before the anticipated fourth match could begin, the staff had to take down the singles net and put up the doubles net. Yes, the big attraction on the Grandstand was doubles – but not any doubles match. It was the Williams sisters against the unfortunate seventh seeds and this year’s Wimbledon finalists, Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic of France. Babos possesses a big serve but has fallen to number 114 in the singles rankings, while Mladenovic sits at number 73. Serena and Venus Williams need no introduction – or, if they do, you probably should not be reading this blog.


This match filled the Grandstand to capacity. The only player to come in behind serve with any regularity was Serena. The first set saw six service breaks before going to a tiebreak. The problem for the European team was that they garnered all of the service breaks they were to get in the first set, though this did not stop the second set from also going to a tiebreak. In the first tiebreak, the Williams sisters blitzed their opponents, 7-0. There were many shifts of momentum in the second set, which included Serena’s saving a set point at 4-5 with a 110-mile-per-hour ace, before the younger team prevailed in the tiebreak, 7-4. Mladenovic presented some extraordinary contrasts, netting some high forehand volleys that seemed hard to miss even if one had tried, and yet making some effective volleys at shin level. It was entertaining doubles, often with multi-volley exchanges and with many games seesawing back and forth from break point to deuce.


The turning point in the third set came when Serena saved a break point in holding for 2-1. With Mladenovic serving at ad out in the following game, Venus jumped on a second serve and hit Babos with a forehand return for the break. The seventh-seeded team folded up from there, with Babos double-faulting on break point in the sixth game and Serena serving out the set and the match, 6-1.


Thus ended the day on Grandstand. My contingent hustled to Armstrong to catch a little bit of Milos Raonic’s match against the German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk, ranked number 124, favoring the tight shorts of a bygone era, and playing a major singles tournament for only the fourth time at age 25. Armstrong was not crowded, and the ushers allowed spectators into the box seats, where a noisy crew cheered Raonic on in a Slavic language that I could not identify. Also in the boxes, though silent, was Raonic’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic. We also saw a couple of fellows in red checked shirts and some kind of leather harnesses that I couldn’t begin to explain, but it might have been a German thing.


The match was tight, which perhaps should not have been a surprise despite the disparity in the players’ rankings, as Gojowczyk owned a grass-court victory over Raonic. When I arrived, Raonic was serving at 7-6(4) 5-7 4-3, and he held onto the lead, serving out the set at 6-4 with a 130 mile-per-hour ace. Gojowczyk jumped to a 2-0 lead in the fourth set, but Raonic quickly broke back. While there were some break points from that point on, none were converted, and the players went to a tiebreak. On his first three service points, Raonic served aces at 138, 120, and 135 miles per hour, respectively. For the match, he had 26 aces against 3 double faults, while the numbers for Gojowczyk were 8 and 5. You’d have to say that Gojowczyk was the better player: better, that is, if serve were taken out of the equation, which it decidedly is not. Each player broke serve three times in the match, and Raonic’s 147 points outweighed Gojowczyk’s 138 only because of the difference on serve.


At any rate, while Raonic was peppering his opponent with aces in the tiebreak, Gojowczyk opened with a double fault and allowed Raonic to return a second serve for a winner. Raonic nursed that 4-0 lead all the way to the finish line, concluding the tiebreak a 7-3 winner and, with it, the match. His celebration was muted, as well it might have been: this was not an auspicious performance. But he pulled through a tight contest, which is what the better players tend to do.


My contingent debated trying to squeeze into Court 17 to see CiCi Bellis, but we wisely decided to go home instead. I later learned that Court 17 had been jammed all day, and I got to see the end of Bellis’s match on television. Let’s hope we’ll be seeing more of this poised youngster in the years to come – perhaps on a new and (dare we hope?) improved Grandstand court.