Sometimes, the Actuary Beats the Adonis

September 2, 2015


It was another steaming day at the US Open on the first Wednesday. I attended with family members who knew about a semi-secret aerie in the shade, to the right of the television box on Armstrong. The top three rows of the section attract a crew of regulars who arrive early and camp out for the day. One leather-lunged fan has dubbed himself the mayor of the section, and who is really to argue?


We arrived in time to scout out the shaded seats and saw Milos Raonic practicing with Fernando Verdasco in advance of their match later in the day on the Grandstand. Thereafter, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Coco Vandeweghe also practiced on the court, but each with her own hitting partner.


Finally, it was time for the first match of the day, between Feliciano Lopez and Mardy Fish. Fish’s travails have been well-documented, as were his retirement plans, and, indeed, this match. Thus, spectators knew that they could be watching the final match of Fish’s career, especially if form held and the 16th-seeded Lopez prevailed.


Lopez, who turns 34 later this month, reached his highest career ranking earlier this year, at number 12. Earlier in his career, his one-handed backhand was purely a defensive shot, but over time he added topspin to the stroke. He remains a strong server and not shy about playing serve-and-volley.


Fish came out strong, breaking Lopez twice to take the opening set, 6-2. In the second set, Lopez donned a baseball cap over his flowing locks; the cap was to come on and off throughout the match, in no pattern that I could discern. Lopez pulled off a break in the sixth game, and that was enough for him to capture the set, 6-3. Fish cruised through the third set, 6-1, and the fourth set proved pivotal. Fish went up an early break, but Lopez broke back in the fourth game. Fish broke in the ninth game, giving himself an opportunity to serve for the match. Instead, he was broken at love, capping off the disappointment with a double fault. As the New York Times quoted him: “I didn’t pick a great time to play the worst game I played all day.” Lopez broke Fish again in the twelfth game, at 15, to capture the set, 7-5.


After such a disappointment, it looked like Fish would go quickly in the fifth set, but he stayed around for 38 more minutes in the heat. Fish’s legs were already going toward the end of the fourth set; by the end of the fifth, he could barely move, and Lopez pulled away, 6-3, lucky to have avoided the upset.


Delightful though the shaded seats had been as a relative matter, in absolute terms it was still terribly hot in Armstrong, so I strolled over to the Chase Lounge to guzzle lemonade and cool down in the air conditioning. I then ventured over to Ashe – not, heaven forbid, to watch tennis, but to see the semi-finished roof from inside. While there, I had a nice view of Terrace on the Park, where I’d gotten married. The Unisphere is also a popular site. And here’s what you’ve been waiting for: some views of the roof. Click here, here, and here for some samples.


Well, so much for Ashe, as it was time to stroll the grounds somewhat aimlessly, addled by the heat. I visited the home of the future Grandstand, which is under construction. I once again wondered how Taylor Townsend can hope to make an impact on the game when she is carrying around so much extra weight, though the question seems to be considered inappropriate. I then settled in on Court 11 to watch Kei Nishikori’s conqueror, Benoit Paire, play Marsel Ilhan. I arrived with Paire leading 4-1, and he closed out the first set, 6-3. Ilhan raced out ahead in the second set, breaking Paire in the second game. Perhaps I should have been more interested, but it was too hot and the seats on Court 11 were too unforgiving, so I moved on. (Paire eventually prevailed in four sets.)


I then found a shade tree akin to the gourd — or was it a gourd? — that shielded Jonah in the Bible. On Court 12, there was even a bit of a breeze as I sat under the tree and watched doubles played the newfangled way, with three of the four players resolutely staying back on serve. Radu Albot, who had given David Ferrer a scare for two sets in singles, teamed with Janko Tipsarevic against Denis Istomin and the giant Aliaksandr Bury. The tall Bury — featuring a one-handed backhand and too tall for his height to be measured on the ATP website — was the one player who consistently served-and-volleyed.


I arrived in time for the second set, Bury and Istomin having taken the first, 6-3. In the sixth game of the second set, Istomin won five straight points from 0-40 down. In the team’s next service game, however, Bury, serving at deuce, netted forehand volleys on two consecutive points for the break, and Tipsarevic served out the set, 6-3.


The match was mostly watched by family and friends of the players. I found myself sitting next to a guy with floppy blond hair who wore a credential that identified him as Sergey Betov: a doubles player in this year’s tournament and a Belarussian compatriot of Bury. If you’re wondering what a journeyman pro would wear and carry to an outside court at the US Open to watch his countryman play, here is the answer in Betov’s case: flip-flops with a Hilton Hotels logo, Nike shorts, a T-shirt without a logo, Prada sunglasses, and an iPhone.


In the third set, Istomin averted a break point in the fifth game thanks to Bury’s acrobatic net play. Immediately thereafter, Istomin and Bury broke Tipsarevic’s serve on the third break point of the game, and they held on the rest of the way to win the decisive set, 6-3.


After that pleasant interval, it was time to head back into the sun, whose power had diminished somewhat by 5:00 p.m. I headed over to Court 17, where the enigmatic Grigor Dimitrov was trailing Mikhail Kukushkin, by two sets but up a break in the third. This was surprising, because Dimitrov is famous, talented, and looks like an Adonis, while Kukushkin is little-known, has never been ranked higher than number 48, and looks like an actuary.


Like Mardy Fish, Kukushkin must be an optimist: before serving, he accepts only one ball from the ballboy. This engenders a delay before second serve, which most players would find disconcerting. The optimism might have been unwarranted, as Kukushkin made only 51% of his first serves. Who among us is old enough to recall the days of universal one-handed backhands, when servers held two balls in their tossing hands on first serve?


After I arrived, Kukushkin broke back to get to 2-3 in the third set, but Dimitrov immediately broke again and yet again to run away with the set, 6-2.


The fourth set saw only one break of serve, which came at an inopportune time for the actuary from Kazakhstan. (Actually, Kukushkin is Russian, and was recruited by Kazakhstan as part of that country’s moneyball approach to tennis.) In the tenth game, he was serving at 15-15 when Dimitrov unleashed a winner off his one-handed backhand. Kukushkin then double faulted. He saved one set point with a backhand pass but then sprayed a backhand wide, and the match was headed to a fifth set.


At this point, you’d have to figure that order would be restored and Dimitrov would prevail. In the third game of the fifth set, the lights went on at 6:50 p.m., the sun, fortunately, no longer a problem. But it was Dimitrov who faltered in the fifth game, a double fault setting up break point and, after he recovered to deuce, misses on a backhand volley and a forehand for the break. Kukushkin held his nerve, never facing break point in the fifth set and serving out the match at 15, with the final score a roller-coaster 6-3 7-6(2) 2-6 4-6 6-4.


My next stop was Court 6, where Sergiy Stakhovsky, whose claim to fame is a Wimbledon win over Roger Federer, faced his countryman, Illya Marchenko, whom I’d seen defeat Gael Monfils on Monday. Marchenko again wore his country’s blue and yellow colors. Stakhovsky is one of the dying breed of one-handed players, and also the dying breed not reluctant to serve and volley. In his case, the tactic was seen on many first serves and a fair number of second balls, albeit with middling results.


Stakhovsky was up two sets to one and a break when I arrived, but Marchenko broke back for 2-2 in the fourth set. Stakhovksky immediately surged back ahead with a break for 3-2, only to be broken for 3-3. The next and decisive break came in the ninth game, when Marchenko tried a drop shot while serving at 15-40. Stakhovsky ran it down and then put away a forehand volley for the game. After serving out the match, Stakhovsky kissed the court, as he had reached the third round of a major for the sixth time in his career.


I then hustled over to Court 10, where the superstructure of the future Grandstand loomed in the background and the second-seeded men’s doubles team, Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo, who won Roland Garros this year, was on serve in the second set after dropping the opener to Dominic Inglot and Robert Lindstedt. Dodig’s claim to fame is probably his 2011 defeat of Rafa Nadal, while Melo is a giant whose height, unlike Bury’s, is well-established, at 6 feet, 8 inches. Lindstedt, at 38, is a former Australian Open doubles champion and a three-time runner-up at Wimbledon. Inglot, at 6’5”, is a big server with a one-handed backhand.


Unlike the doubles match I’d seen earlier in the day, this one was played in the traditional style, with all four players following nearly all their serves to net. The second set stayed on serve till 5-5, when Inglot dropped serve as Dodig nailed a backhand return down the line with Lindstedt stranded in the I formation and unable to cover the line. Dodig served out the set at 15, and the second-seeded team went into the decisive set.


In that third set, Lindstedt had a devil of a time on his serve. In the fifth game, he saved four break points, and there were three more in the ninth. By contrast, Dodig and Melo faced only one break point in the set, and it arrived in a hurry. Melo was serving at 4-5 30-0 when he dropped three straight points, the last on a Lindstedt winner on a return down the line. At break point — match point — Melo pushed a forehand volley over the baseline, and the second seeds were out of the tournament by the score of 7-6(5) 5-7 6-4.


Nearby was Court 13, where I arrived to find Andreas Seppi leading Teymuraz Gabashvili by two sets to one. Each player has celebrated his thirtieth birthday, yet each wore a backward Fila cap. I found Gabashvili serving at 1-2 in the fourth set; he was not to win a game. On match point, Seppi nailed a crosscourt forehand that must have come close to hitting both the sideline and baseline, closing out the contest, 3-6 6-3 7-6(3) 6-1.


Moments later, as the day session ended, I saw the final points of the defeat of the top-seeded men’s doubles team. On the big screen outside Ashe, the view was from Armstrong, where Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey closed out Bob and Mike Bryan, 7-6(4) 5-7 6-3. Now the men’s doubles event is wide open, assuming anyone cares. I wish they would.