The Old Grandstand Lives

August 29, 2016


Last year, I failed to visit the US Open’s old, cozy Grandstand, and I promised myself that I’d visit the court if it was in use in 2016. If all had gone according to plan, that would have been impossible, as the old Grandstand was supposed to be limited to practice duty this year, under the moniker Practice Court 6. Fortunately, all did not go according to the USTA’s plan: Court 10 had imperfections in the playing surface, and the old Grandstand would be used again, albeit perhaps not for long, should Court 10 prove ready for play.


With the temperature in Queens topping out at 94 degrees Fahrenheit (or 34.4 Celsius for our non-US readers) on the first day of this year’s US Open, a seat in the shade was at an even greater premium than usual. Supposedly, the new roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, even when open, leaves 60% of the seats in the shade. (Now that a roof is in place, I had purchased an Ashe ticket rather than my usual grounds pass, as a form of rain insurance. The rains did not come, and I did not set foot in Ashe.) The new Grandstand was sold as offering copious shade, though I’ve heard otherwise from people who’ve been there. The old Grandstand – or Practice Court 6 (italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs) – offers comfortable seating in the shade for thousands of spectators. That venerable court thus became my outpost for much of the day, even though the organizers of the tournament did not schedule marquee players there.


My day began, however, on the shaded end of Court 17, where Belinda Bencic, the 24th seed, took on the American Samantha Crawford. The two had met in the second round in Brisbane earlier this year, with Crawford taking a 7-5 7-5 victory. In 2012, Crawford, a wild card, won the US Open girls’ singles, knocking out Bencic in the second round, 7-6(5) 3-6 7-5. On the pro tour, Bencic has been far more successful, having spent time in the top ten, while Crawford entered the top 100 for the first time this summer. Crawford stands 6’2” (or 1.9 meters) and hits a hard, flat ball. Bencic inevitably provokes comparisons to her compatriot Martina Hingis, especially as she has been coached by Hingis’s mother and to some extent by Hingis herself. She always seems to know where the ball is going and often was running to the right spot before Crawford had completed her swing.


In the first set, Bencic twice went up by a break of serve, only to have Crawford break back. Bencic saved a set point in the twelfth game and took a 4-0 lead in the tiebreak. Though she faltered, she still served at 5-4 and had the chance to close out the set. Two Bencic errors, however, gave Crawford her second set point; on Crawford’s third chance to close out the set, she prevailed when Bencic double-faulted, the Swiss star punctuating her frustration by whacking a ball out of the stadium.


Crawford broke serve in the first game of the second set, but Bencic played an excellent return game to even the score. Bencic scored the decisive break in the eighth game and served out the set at 15 to even the match.


Bencic fell behind again in the third set. She squandered a 40-15 lead in the second game and was broken on a double fault, one of a dozen in the match. Bencic got back on serve in the third game on a Crawford double fault, and she broke again for a 3-2 lead when, anticipating that Crawford would approach to her backhand, she nailed a passing shot. Crawford immediately broke back to get even, 3-3, but Bencic returned the favor for a 4-3 lead. From there, Bencic held serve the rest of the way, albeit with some drama in the final game: the Swiss reached match point at 5-4 40-15, then double faulted and netted a backhand. On Bencic’s third match point, Crawford, who’d shown a potent backhand all day, went down the line for a winner and missed. The final score was 6-7(6) 6-3 6-4.


It was time for an air conditioning and lemonade break in the Chase Lounge, and I chilled out for a while before heading to the old Grandstand. Things were different from Court 17: there was no speed gun, no Hawk-Eye review, and no scores of other matches shown on the scoreboard during changeovers. (At least on this day, the US Open was far more generous about showing such scores than in recent years. It makes a difference for those who are loath to drain their cellphone batteries on the US Open app.) Even my favorite usher on the court, who had sported luxurious dreadlocks in past years, was shorn. Let’s hope that’s just a fashion statement and nothing more serious.


Steve Darcis, 2013 Wimbledon conqueror of Rafael Nadal and owner of an increasingly rare one-handed backhand, was heading into a fifth set versus an Australian ten years his junior, Jordan Thompson. The Aussie had taken the first two sets and Darcis the third and fourth. In the opening game of the fifth set, Thompson won five straight points from 0-40 to hold. His outstanding get at 0-40 prompted cries of Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi.


Thompson faced another crisis in the ninth game. He saved a break point after Darcis had scored a lucky net cord winner. From deuce, however, he missed two backhands for the break, and now it was Darcis’s turn to serve for the match. The Belgian reached match point at 5-4 40-30, but Thompson fought him off and eventually broke serve to tie the set, 5-5. When Thompson next served, he saved one break point with an excellent kicker on second serve, but he could not stave off another, as Darcis passed him off the backhand side. The second time Darcis served for the match, Thompson was visibly cramping, and Darcis closed out the match with an ace wide in the deuce court, 5-7 3-6 7-6 6-4 7-5.


The loss must have been particularly tough for Thompson. I later learned that he’d had two match points in the third set. Not without reason, he compared the heat to “something like Vietnam or Bangkok.” Here’s a look at the empty seats on the sunny side of the court. (Later in the day, some ballboys lay flat in a shady part of the old Grandstand for a nap.)


The next match on the old Grandstand featured two players close in the rankings but not in career achievement: Vasek Pospisil, who was supported by a vocal Canadian contingent, and the Slovakian lucky loser Jozef Kovalik. Kovalik has never been in the top 100, while Pospisil has reached number 25 in the world. Coming into the US Open, however, Pospisil was at number 123 and Kovalik at 126. On paper, it would be a close match; on court, not so much.


Kovalik has a quirky game. He is nearly flat-footed on his serve, reminiscent of Sjeng Schalken, and this robs him of power. He has a short backswing on his forehand, which enables him to disguise the shot, but he never really hurt Pospisil. For extra quirkiness points, he wears tennis clothing by Hydrogen, with the now-familiar and always ugly skull logo.


Pospisil ran away with the first set, 6-1. Kovalik made the second set into more of a contest, holding three times before being broken with the assistance of two double faults, and then dropping serve again in the final game of the set. In the third set, as well, Kovalik held three times before losing serve. Pospisil closed out the match with a forehand volley down the line, 6-1 6-3 6-3.


My next stop was Armstrong, in its final year of existence, for a match between Pospisil’s usual doubles partner, Jack Sock, and Taylor Fritz. Fritz has had precocious success on the tour, not to mention his following the ancient rabbinic dictum that one should marry at age 18. Sock puts fierce topspin on his forehand, as can best be appreciated when you see him play in person and sit behind the court. The players wore identical neon yellow Nike kits, of a variety seen around the grounds much of the day. (Samantha Crawford wore the women’s version.)


Sock took an early lead with a break in the first game of the match, but Fritz got even in the sixth game and then took five consecutive points from 0-40 to hold in the seventh game. The set went to a tiebreak, which Sock took comfortably, 7-3.


Fritz saved two break points in his first service game of the second set and another in his second. The third time was the charm for Sock, who broke for a 4-2 lead with a barrage of forehands. Fritz was undaunted, however, and broke right back. His set of living dangerously ended badly, however, as he netted a backhand volley on break point in the twelfth game, giving Sock the set, 7-5.


I thought it was time to look at some other action. I tried to get onto Court 17 for Milos Raonic versus Dustin Brown, but that was impossible, so I settled in on Court 12 for Ryan Harrison and Adrian Mannarino. Harrison, who has something of a McEnrovian reputation (albeit without the results), qualified for the Open this year along with his younger brother, Christian. He is engaged to marry Lauren McHale, older sister of the touring pro Christina. If you want to buy them a gift, you may visit their registry here. Harrison was supported by a boisterous group of fans who sang and chanted in uninhibited fashion but had the good taste to settle down when it was time to resume play.


Mannarino calls to mind another prematurely balding pro, but as an opposite. When I saw Nikolay Davydenko on Court 7 in 2005, I was struck by how hard he swung at every ball. Mannarino, a lefty, doesn’t swing hard at anything. He uses the whole court and wins with finesse, as when I saw him knock Sam Querrey out of the US Open in 2013. The contrast between the graceful Mannarino and Harrison’s bludgeon-the-serve-and-forehand style made for entertaining play, especially because Harrison is not good enough to end points quickly. Instead, there was plenty of scrambling by both players, with many points featuring drop shots, lobs, or both.


When I arrived, Mannarino was serving to force the second set into a tiebreak after he had dropped the first. He accomplished that goal and led the tiebreak 5-4 with two serves coming. In moments, his purchase on the match slipped away: he missed a forehand, then a backhand, and then, with Harrison serving for the set at 6-5, sprayed a backhand approach wide. Now the American was in control with a two-set lead.


Mannarino seemed deflated, dropping serve twice to start the third set. He got back one of the breaks in the fourth game, but could draw no closer. Serving at 3-5 30-40, he approached the net. Harrison passed him with a forehand, and Mannarino could only fling his racquet at the ball ineffectually. The final score was 6-4 7-6(5) 6-3, and the decisive statistic was probably Harrison’s success on Mannarino’s first serve, with the Frenchman taking only 55% of such points. It is unlikely that Harrison will do nearly as well against the first serve of his second-round opponent: Milos Raonic.


After I had left Armstrong, Fritz was rejuvenated, taking the third and fourth sets with the loss of only four games. If Sock was on the ropes, he didn’t show it, breaking quickly to take a 2-0 lead in the fifth set. That felt so good, he did it again, going up 4-0, but then he played a loose service game and was broken for 4-1. In a long and tough game, Sock held for 5-2. With Fritz serving at 2-5 and Sock at the net, Sock landed awkwardly on his hand after diving unsuccessfully after a Fritz passing shot. After the match, he told Pam Shriver that he had slipped on a line, though it looked as though he had been doing the old Boris Becker leap.


In any event, Sock was hurting. He served for the match at 5-3 and reached match point, only to miss a short forehand. When Fritz got to break point, Sock double-faulted for the seventeenth time in the match, and now the players were back on serve. A trainer worked on Sock’s hand (you can see the bandage here) while Fritz prepared to serve at 4-5. At 30-30, the game became a tightrope walk – and Fritz fell off. He pulled a backhand wide to go down match point, and then Sock used his forehand to control the point before whipping a winner off that wing to close it out, 7-6(3) 7-5 3-6 1-6 6-4.


This was a Simpson’s Paradox match: the winner, Sock, took 163 points, while the loser, Fritz, captured 164. The match ended at 9:12 p.m., so I left the grounds a few minutes earlier than I had left Wimbledon this June – not that anyone is about to confuse the two tournaments, not for noise, crassness, or punishing weather. One cannot expect the US Open to become more genteel for my upcoming visits, but here’s hoping the heat and humidity ease.