Like Finding a $20 Bill

September 9, 2015


On another steamy day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, I hid out in the American Express Fan Experience for some air conditioning before facing the heat. The facility featured a display case from the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which included a memorable Rosie Casals dress designed by Ted Tinling. It was a long way from today’s Nike and adidas gear.


After projecting a bright future for Reilly Opelka, I felt compelled to see him again, this time on Court 11 against the eleventh seed, Yunseong Chung of South Korea. The diminutive Chung, who will not turn 18 until next March, is listed, perhaps generously, at 5’10” and 165 pounds. Earlier this year, he had reached the second round of the Australian Open juniors, the round of 16 at Roland Garros, and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Perhaps more impressive, at a Challenger event earlier this year, he lost narrowly to Mikhail Kukushkin, 7-5 6-4, the same Kukushkin who defeated Grigor Dimitrov and took Marin Cilic to five sets in this year’s Open.


Chung blunted Opelka’s power brilliantly and made me rethink the American’s potential. Against a player who can return his serve, Opelka still has a long way to go. Opelka would also benefit from eliminating some sloppiness in his game — not just the groundstrokes that go awry, of which there were far more against Chung than in the first-round match against Alejandro Tabilo, but also mistakes that are easier to address: two foot faults in the Tabilo match and another two against Chung.


Opelka served 12 aces, most of them coming not on his boomers, but rather on slices in the deuce court and kick serves in the ad court, which were simply out of Chung’s reach. The effectiveness of these serves is enhanced by deception: Opelka’s toss is consistently above his left shoulder, so it is difficult to read where he is going. But when Chung was able to get a racquet on the ball, he was not intimidated by Opelka’s speed, and returned with authority.


In the third game, while his father watched from a shaded nook in the stands, Opelka saved three break points, but he was back in the soup on his next service game, falling behind 15-40 and then double-faulting. That was all Chung needed, as he served out the set, 6-4, consistently winning the longer points. In the second set, neither player got to break point. (Opelka didn’t get to break point all day.) Opelka was losing patience, muttering “What is wrong with me?” after giving away a point when Chung was serving at 15-30 in the sixth game, and then filibustering the umpire after missing a volley in the seventh game, arguing that Chung had failed to hit the prior shot before the second bounce.


Serving at 1-2 in the tiebreak, Opelka dropped both service points on errant groundstrokes. Chung held the lead, getting to match point with a great forehand passing shot down the line and then putting away a short forehand to clinch the victory, 6-4 7-6(2).


So what do I think of Opelka’s upside now? With the usual provisos for small sample size, he seemed to distinguish himself from John Isner far less when he played Chung than when he had played Tabilo. Withal, Isner has made it into the top twenty with a big serve, a decent forehand, and not much else, and Opelka already has those tools in his kit. At 6’10”, Opelka has a natural advantage on serve — and, as Red Auerbach supposedly said, you can’t teach height. I still see a top fifty future for Opelka, but now I’m hesitant to say much more. As for Chung, there’s a lot to like in his game, not just the groundstrokes, but also the occasional serve that he thumps. If he still has another couple of inches of growth ahead of him, he may make some noise on the tour.


After a break in the Chase Lounge to cool off and eat lunch, I continued to Armstrong to see the unseeded teams of Steve Johnson/Sam Querrey and Leonardo Mayer/Joao Sousa (of Portugal, not to be confused with Joao Souza of Brazil) in a doubles quarterfinal. Johnson came in behind almost every first serve and many second serves; the other three players mostly stayed back. It’s also important to acknowledge the old-school players with one-handed backhands, and Mayer is one such.


There were no reserved seats in Armstrong on Wednesday, leaving plenty of good seats available behind the court, but who wanted to sit in the sun? I hid out in the shade to the right of the TV booth, high above the court.


The American team won routinely, with one break of Mayer in each set, 6-3 6-4. Querrey, whose singles career has settled into mediocrity, is now in the semifinals of the men’s doubles and (with Bethanie Mattek-Sands) the finals of the mixed.


My next stop was the regrettable Ashe, where a loud coterie of fans who called themselves Halepeños were rooting on Simona Halep against the hard-hitting Victoria Azarenka. The loudest of the crew was shouting after every point, fortunately in a language other than English, because who knows what might have happened had everyone understood him?


The entrances to the stadium were like wind tunnels, but there was nary a breeze inside the stifling arena. When I arrived, Azarenka was serving at 3-6 2-0. Halep got back on serve in the fifth game, Azarenka jumped ahead 4-2, Halep broke when Azarenka served for the set, and then Azarenka broke back on an errant Halep backhand to tie the match.


The players took advantage of the heat rule applicable to the women’s singles to take a ten-minute break after the second set. In the third set, Azarenka saved three break points in the opening game and broke in the second game to take a 2-0 lead. On her fourth break point in the third game, Halep broke back. She was serving at 1-2 30-15 when the ballboys were summoned to towel the baselines dry. That’s never a good sign on a hard court: Halep won the next point to go up 40-15, and then play was stopped for rain.


Rumors were flying that the match I really wanted to see, the quarterfinal between Stan Wawrinka and Kevin Anderson, would be moved from Ashe (where it was scheduled to be the last match of the day session) to Armstrong, in order to avoid bumping up against the Federer-Gasquet night match. The imperative for the move was the expectation that it would rain again at night, so the night session needed to start on time.


When the rains came, I made the best decision of the day: to head to Armstrong for the potential Wawrinka-Anderson match. If the match were moved, I had a chance for a great seat — recall that there were no reserved seats on Armstrong on Wednesday — and if not I could always return to Ashe. Good news came shortly after 5:00 p.m., when the doubles net on Armstrong was replaced with a singles net. The Wawrinka-Anderson match would not get started till 6:30, a mystery in its own right, as the process of drying the court with Zamboni machines went pretty quickly, but now I knew I was golden. Fans began to stream into Armstrong about twenty minutes later (and Halep outlasted Azarenka in Ashe), but I had secured a front-row seat behind the court. Not far away, in a corner box, were Wawrinka’s coach, Magnus Norman, and his now-famous girlfriend, Donna Vekic (in the gray top with an orange sweater draped over her shoulders). As between sitting in the nosebleed seats in Ashe or watching this match from the front row of Armstrong — albeit with the risk of getting thumped by one of Anderson’s high, hard serves — the benefits of the rain delay were obvious. It felt, indeed, like finding a $20 bill on the street.


Wawrinka, hard as this would have been to imagine a few years ago, is a future Hall of Famer. Still, the players had faced off four times in the last two seasons, and Anderson had won all four (after Wawrinka had won the first three meetings of their careers). And now Anderson, who wears white ankle braces that are not easily seen on television, was coming off a career-defining victory over Andy Murray for his first trip to a major quarterfinal. Still, there were good reasons for skepticism that he was becoming a top ten player.


That skepticism was borne out when Wawrinka gave a 107-minute tennis clinic. The world knows about Stan’s gorgeous one-handed backhand, which he nailed down the line a few times in almost supernatural fashion. Wawrinka won the match, however, not so much with flash as with a plan: against the 6’8” Anderson, he kept the ball low, frequently using a slice backhand to extract weak replies and errors. Wawrinka also took very good care of his serve, facing only one break point all match, which he saved.


The first break came at 3-3, on an Anderson double fault, when Anderson missed his first serve on all five points of the game. It was in the next game that Wawrinka faced his only break point, which he saved with a crosscourt backhand pass. With Wawrinka serving at set point, the wind kicked up just as he threw in an off-speed (100 mph) first serve, and Anderson couldn’t handle it.


In the second set, the break came with Anderson serving at 4-4. The big man served and volleyed at 15-40, only to be victimized by one of Wawrinka’s superb down-the-line backhands. Wawrinka finished the set with a flourish, on a serve-and-volley point of his own.


In the third set, Anderson was spent. At 30-40 in the first game, he double faulted for the break. Two double faults followed in the third game, including one at 15-40. In the fifth game, Anderson came in behind serve at 30-30, only to watch Wawrinka’s forehand return pass him down the line, and then the South African was long with a backhand approach for a third break of serve. The Swiss number 2 then finished off the third set with a bagel, the last two points coming on rare Wawrinka serve-and-volley forays. Afterward, Wawrinka told his interviewer that he was happy to play on Armstrong because of the atmosphere, and he tossed towels and other paraphernalia to begging fans.


As is often the case, second serve was a key to the match: Wawrinka won 68% of his second serve points, while Anderson could muster only 37%. Wawrinka was tougher on first serve, too, a remarkable 94% versus Anderson’s 70%. Wawrinka made only 48% of his first serves, but on this night it did not matter.


After Wawrinka’s 6-4 6-4 6-0 victory, I ended the day as I had begun it, watching Yunseong Chung. This time, he was playing doubles on Court 13 as part of the third-seeded team, joined by fellow Korean Seong-chang Hong. They faced the Slovak-Czech team of Lukas Klein and Patrik Rikl. I suspected, and later confirmed, that Patrik Rikl is a son of the retired doubles specialist David Rikl.


An instructor with what I took to be an Australian accent exhorted the Koreans with repeated chants of “C’mon, boys.” He addressed Hong as “Hongy,” which might or might not have gone over well. The boys were not coming on, however. When I arrived, the Klein/Rikl team was leading 7-5 3-2, and they would break to give Klein a chance to serve for the match at 5-2. He was broken, however, and then Rikl was broken on the next try after holding a match point. With Hong serving at 5-5 30-40, however, Chung, who was in the I formation at the net, hit a volley that danced along the net cord and fell back on his side. On the unseeded team’s third try to serve out the match, Klein held at 15 for a 7-5 7-5 win.


Thus concluded my 2015 at the US Open, with nary a visit to the Grandstand. The good news I heard on Wednesday, from one of the ushers, was that the old Grandstand would remain standing next year, notwithstanding the expected completion of its replacement, to be held in reserve. Let’s hope the old Grandstand will still be used, and I won’t let another year slip by without a visit.