September 1, 2016
There were a few things I wanted to accomplish before this year’s US Open concluded. Much as I dislike Arthur Ashe Stadium, I wanted to see what it looks like with the roof closed (italicized hyperlinks refer to photos). I wanted to visit the new Grandstand. And I wanted to see a doubles match from start to finish. Check, check, check – all those things happened on the first Thursday of the tournament.
At a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, a shareholder once asked whether the company had key man insurance on Warren Buffett’s life. Buffett responded: “We sell insurance, we don’t buy insurance.” Ordinarily, that’s pretty good advice, and certainly if you’re in a position to self-insure. At the US Open, however, now that there is a roof on Ashe and an ever-present threat of rain, the question is whether it’s worth paying an $8 premium for the right to enter a stadium you don’t want to enter. I did so for the Monday and Thursday sessions in the first week, and the insurance policy paid off on Thursday. (It paid off even better for my brother-in-law, who on Wednesday purchased Ashe tickets for Thursday below face value, on StubHub.)
It had rained overnight and was still drizzling on Thursday morning. Ashe was the only court in business at the 11:00 a.m. start time, though it was hard to tell by the turnout. As Carl Bialik tweeted: “2 former French Open finalists playing great tennis in front of a stadium 10% full. Maybe everyone’s watching other matches. Oh wait…” The former Roland Garros finalists were Simona Halep (2014) and Lucie Safarova (2015). Halep remains the top ten, while the left-handed Safarova just missed being seeded at the Open. Safarova, sporting Nike’s ubiquitous neon yellow, hits harder than Halep, but Halep is a great defender and was able to fend off many of Safarova’s down-the-line attempts at winners.
The problem for Safarova in this match was that she just could not hold serve. She won only 53% of her first serve points and 32% on second serve, and thus was broken seven times in ten service games. While she recovered from a two-break deficit in the first set to get even at 3-3, she then squandered a 40-15 lead and suffered the decisive break. From there, Halep ran out the set, 6-3, closing it out with a backhand service return winner.
Safarova was up an early break in the second set, but Halep broke back for 3-3 and held at love for 4-3. At that juncture, play was underway on the outside courts, and I abandoned the cavernous Ashe. Halep was soon to close out a 6-3 6-4 victory in 87 minutes.
I proceeded to Armstrong, where the 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori was taking on Karen Khachanov, a 20-year-old Russian qualifier new to the top hundred. In contrast to Ashe, Armstrong was nearly full. Were savvy Ashe ticketholders scouting out seats during the rain delay, or was there a large influx of holders of grounds passes?
Khachanov, also in Nike’s neon yellow, has a huge forehand, which he used to good effect in pummeling Nishikori’s second serve. (Eventually, Nishikori managed to kick more second serves to Khachanov’s backhand.) At 6’6” (or 1.98 meters), Khachanov pounds his own serve, setting up fairly wide of the center line in both the deuce and ad courts. I have a feeling that his appearance in the top hundred is hardly the last stop on his elevator ride.
Khachanov was up a break in the first set, but he double faulted to let Nishikori tie the set, 3-3. In the tenth game, Khachanov rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, but another double cost him the set. In the second set, Khachanov broke through in the ninth game, crushing a forehand service return to take over the rally on break point, and then serving out the set at love to tie the match.
In the eighth game of the third set, Khachanov showed fortitude in recovering from 15-40 and a total of three break points. As Khachanov safely arrived at 4-4, pellets of drizzle turned into real rain, stopping play, and ultimately a downpour. I didn’t see the conclusion of the match, but perhaps Khachanov and Nishikori had too much time to think – Nishikori about how to beat the youngster, Khachanov about the gravity of the situation – during the rain delay. Afterwards, the Japanese veteran took eight of eleven games for a 6-4 4-6 6-4 6-3 win. Though Khachanov did substantial damage on Nishikori’s second serve, the sixth seed eked out 41% of those points; Khachanov, for his part, notched only 33% on second serve. Nishikori produced twice as many break points as Khachanov – 16 versus 8 – and cashed in five, which proved enough for the win.
The rain sent me back to Ashe, which filled up substantially now that it was later in the day and the only game in town. Andy Murray had just taken the first set from Marcel Granollers, 6-4. While the latter has reached the fourth round of a major four times (three times at Roland Garros and once at the US Open) and gives the lie to the notion that Spaniards are anchored to the baseline (he came in 34 times and won 22 of those points), he’s just not in Murray’s league. Murray was covering the court very well, and the biggest problem he faced was the noise in Ashe. Not only was the crowd noisy – in my section, a group of bros and their girlfriends were downing beers and conversing loudly throughout play – but the roof holds the sound in. The noise became a “percussive blast,” as the New York Times put it, when the rain turned into a powerful storm. None of this slowed down the lugubrious Scot, who cruised through the second set and got the last break he needed in the ninth game of the third set, the final score being 6-4 6-1 6-4. One cautionary note for Murray: he made only 43% of his first serves. In view of the history of Novak Djokovic abusing Murray’s second serve, the second seed will have to improve that percentage.
I then watched a bit of Venus Williams versus Julia Goerges before departing to hit the outside courts again. Williams was up 3-2, on serve, when I left. From there, it was a rout, and she cruised to a 6-2 6-3 victory over Goerges.
My next stop was a first visit to the new Grandstand, where Dominic Thiem, two days before his 23rd birthday, faced the diminutive Ricardas Berankis, who is listed at 5’9” (1.75 meters) but looks shorter. The good news about the new Grandstand is that it is architecturally pleasing and has a large capacity. The bad news: the seats are further from the court than in the old Grandstand (in part because the stadium is round), the entire lower level of seats is reserved, and there is not much shade to be had.
At the rain delay, the players were tied in the first set, 4-4. When play resumed, Berankis came out cold and was broken at love. Thiem served out the first set and got only stronger as the match went on. He has powerful groundstrokes on both wings, including an impressive one-handed backhand that he can hit down the line, and can crank up his serve. Almost cruelly, he often opted for a kick serve in the ad court, bouncing the ball above Berankis’s head. There’s nothing wrong with the way Berankis plays, but he just doesn’t have the stature or firepower to compete with a player like Thiem.
Berankis had broken Thiem’s serve once, before the rain delay, and that was it for the day. Thiem broke six times and won 47% of return points. To Berankis’s credit, he won 53% of his second serve points. Unfortunately, this means that he won only 53% of his first serve points, too. The final score was 6-4 6-3 6-2.
The final item for my bucket list was a doubles match, which came on Court 7 as the doubles specialists Henri Kontinen and John Peers, the tenth-seeded team, faced off against two Argentine southpaws who rank in the top sixty in singles, Federico Delbonis and Guido Pella. I suppose Pella is a hometown boy, now that I’ve seen him represent the New York Empire in World TeamTennis. Kontinen and Peers had reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon this year, and Kontinen won the mixed with Heather Watson. He was more effective than Peers in this match, albeit with the same limitation that I had noticed (on television, not in person) in the mixed doubles final at Wimbledon: his one-handed backhand can be a forcing shot, but he misses off that wing way too often. On the plus side, Kontinen has a big serve and patrols the forecourt with Úlan, achieving sharp angles on the volley because of his proximity to the net. Each of the Argentines, as one might expect of South American players these days, stayed back on his serve; Kontinen and Peers played in the classic mode of following serve to net, albeit often employing the I formation to try to protect Peers’s serve. Delbonis has a remarkable hitch in his service motion, bringing the ball up to toss it, pausing, and then completing the toss. It is almost as though the ball is too heavy for him to toss it above his head.
Starting the match, Peers and then Delbonis held serve with difficulty, and then both teams held routinely until the tiebreak. Kontinen and Peers pounced when Delbonis missed his first serve at 1-1 in the tiebreak, taking over the net and eliciting a lob that sailed long. With Pella serving at 2-4, Delbonis knocked a volley long. Those two mini-breaks were all that were necessary, as Kontinen and Peers cashed in all their service points and won the tiebreak easily.
The second set was quite another story, as the Argentine team broke Peers twice to lead 5-1. Delbonis could not serve out the set and then Kontinen held serve in a multi-deuce game, but Pella took care of business in the ninth game. At 30-30, he nailed Peers with a backhand volley, and the Aussie was down for a while. I thought he had been hit in the stomach, but in light of the length of time he spent on the ground, maybe not. At any rate, Peers was able to go on, and Pella closed out the set with a backhand passing shot.
Though doubles must be serious business for Kontinen and Peers, since they’re not making any money in singles, there is a lighter atmosphere in doubles matches. As sunset approached, photographers gathered on the top row of Court 7 to take their artistic shots.
In the deciding set, Pella served at 0-1 and was broken at love. Later, he saved three break points at 1-4, but Peers and Kontinen served out the match without incident, the Aussie holding at love and the Finn at 15. The final score was 7-6(2) 3-6 6-3. The Argentines were actually stronger on second serve than on first, winning 69% of their second serve points as compared to 63% on first serve. Kontinen and Peers, who were playing serve-and-volley, depended more on the first serve, and their figures were 79% on first serve and 51% on second.
I had checked off the bucket list, but that did not mean I was finished for the day. I headed to the old Grandstand, where Jeremy Chardy was up a set on Grigor Dimitrov and serving at 4-5 in the second. Chardy quickly fell behind 0-40 and was broken at 15, so the match was tied. Both players have abundant natural talent and style to spare, but Dimitrov, as shaky as he has been of late, has had more success, topping out at number 8 in the world, versus Chardy’s high of 25. Dimitrov, moreover, is still 25, while Chardy is 29 (and showing a touch of gray in his beard).
A few drops of rain fell during the third set, but play continued. Chardy broke at love in the seventh game, capped by a Dimitrov double fault. With Dimitrov serving at 3-5, another double fault (each player would serve eight) made it 30-40, and then he netted a backhand for a second break and the set.
Rather than wilting, Dimitrov immediately broke serve to start the fourth set and added a second break for a 4-1 lead. Chardy broke back and held for 3-4. Dimitrov had a tough hold to get to 5-3 but then an easy one to close out the set, so the match would go the distance.
Dimitrov kept rolling, breaking at love to start the fifth set, helped by a net cord winner on the opening point and gifted with a double fault on the fourth. As in the fourth set, Dimitrov went up a second break, and this time there was no letup. Chardy seemed exhausted, mentally if not physically, as evidenced by a forehand he hit between his legs (unsuccessfully) in the fifth game, as he couldn’t get out of the way of the ball. Though Chardy got on the board, holding serve for 1-4, Dimitrov stayed the course, closing out the match in 3 hours and 5 minutes, 4-6 6-4 3-6 6-4 6-2. On this night, at least, he looked like a mature player who can (and should) be a factor in major championships.
When the match ended and the players hugged, at 10:47 p.m., there were still four singles matches underway on the grounds. (The night session ended just about when Dimitrov had won.) I was tempted to stay, but out of deference to my other responsibilities I headed home, looking forward to one more day at the Open: Monday, when my ticket is in Armstrong, leaving me in Warren Buffett’s no-insurance mode.