Last Day on Armstrong

September 5, 2016


Last year, I lamented the demise of the old Grandstand, only to have it survive for another year, but I don’t think we’ll be so lucky with Armstrong, which, to all accounts, is really going to be demolished – along with the old Grandstand – this year. On the second Monday, my wife and I had the opportunity to attend Armstrong for our last time, with the stadium scheduled to be used only one more day.


Our first match featured Simona Halep and Carla Suarez Navarro. When play started, the unreserved portions of Armstrong were already crowded (italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs), while the reserved seats behind the court, where we were fortunate to be, were not.


Though the players had split ten previous matches, Halep, with coach Darren Cahill sitting courtside (in a green sweater and black Adidas cap), raced to a 4-0 lead, albeit needing a marathon game to secure her second break of serve. Suarez, owner of a beautiful one-handed backhand, drew to within 2-4, but the first set slipped away in the seventh game, when she recovered from 0-40 all the way to ad in, before being broken. Halep closed out the set, 6-2.


The second set was far more competitive. Halep’s power hitting gave her a break for 2-1, but Suarez broke back right away. Halep registered a seemingly decisive break in the seventh game and later served for the match at 5-4. Suarez cranked up her groundstrokes at 30-30, with a big service return setting up break point and then a backhand that hit the line – as confirmed when Halep expended her final challenge – squaring the set at 5-5.


This, however, was Suarez’s last hurrah. Halep broke at 15 for a 6-5 lead and then, in her second try at serving out the match, recovered from 15-30 to prevail, 6-2 7-5.


Usually, I roam the grounds, but we had good seats in Armstrong, so I stayed for Stan Wawrinka versus Illya Marchenko. Had Nick Kyrgios not pulled up lame in the prior round (which is becoming a habit for Marchenko, who benefited from a Gael Monfils retirement at last year’s Open), he would likely have faced Wawrinka in a reprise of their famous sledging match. Perhaps the ghoulish skulls on Marchenko’s shirt, part of the same ugly Hydrogen outfit previously seen on Jozef Kovalik this year, are associated with his ability to elicit injuries from his opponents.


Wawrinka took an early lead, breaking serve in the second game on his fourth try. In the fifth game, Marchenko broke back, but he fell behind 15-40 in the tenth game and dropped the set on the second break point, when his inside-out forehand sailed wide.


Wawrinka raced to a 5-1 lead in the second set, breaking twice on Marchenko double faults. (The Ukrainian served 5 aces and 8 doubles; for Wawrinka, the numbers were 8 and 0.) Wawrinka served out the set at 6-1, and I took a Chase Lounge break. On my way out of Armstrong, an usher announced that those who departed could not be guaranteed readmission unless they had reserved seats. To my delight, I noticed the usher’s name tag: my formerly dreadlocked favorite is named Benjamin Johnson. When I least expected it, one of life’s little mysteries had solved itself.


While I was cooling off, Wawrinka had held serve from a 15-40 deficit and then broke for a 3-2 lead in the third set. I was back in my seat by the time Wawrinka served for the match at 5-4, and he quickly went ahead 30-0. The Swiss abruptly went off the rails, dropping four consecutive points to allow Marchenko to tie the set.


In the next game, Stanimal held two break points, but Marchenko fended them off to lead 6-5. Wawrinka held serve to force a tiebreak, and he grabbed a mini-break on the first point when he opened the court with a backhand down the line and then put away a forehand down the line. Wawrinka’s grip on the match was weak, however. He gave back the mini-break on the third point, and on the last point with the wind at his back pulled a backhand wide to fall behind, 4-2. There were no more mini-breaks after that, which meant that Marchenko captured the tiebreak, 7-5, after Wawrinka had saved two set points on his serve.


Wawrinka continued to struggle in the fourth set, first holding in a long game, then unable to cash two break points in the second, and then broken in the third. Stan snapped his racquet in frustration, then demolished it against the court.


The temperamental display seemed to snap Wawrinka out of his funk. He broke back for 2-2, abetted by one of Marchenko’s double faults, and then broke out love for 4-2. Wawrinka staved off a break point in the seventh game and then served out the match at 30, the final tally being 6-4 6-1 6-7(5) 6-3. The match was more dramatic than the box score might suggest: Wawrinka captured 143 points to 112 for Marchenko. When a player wins 56% of the points, he usually wins the match easily, but it was not that kind of day for Wawrinka. After his five-set ordeal against Daniel Evans, in which he had to save a match point, who knows how much he’ll have left for a resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro?


After Wawrinka had sealed his win, it was time to roam the grounds. I didn’t make it back to Armstrong that day, which means my next time on that court is…never. Oh, well.


My next stop was Court 9, where Egypt’s Youssef Hossam and Turkey’s Ergi Kirkin faced Liam Caruana of Italy and Sam Riffice of the United States in boys’ doubles. While the schedule of play referred to Karim Hossam, the ITF and other sources show a 22-year-old Karim Hossam, which would be old for junior tennis by any standard. The Hossam I saw looks like the Youssef shown in the photos here, had a one-handed backhand, and generally stayed back on his serve. (At least once, we were fortunate enough to see all four players at net.) He’s also seeded twelfth in the boys’ singles and has ranked as high as number 8 in the juniors. Kirkin will be 18 in January. Caruana is 18 and accomplished enough to be in the top thirty in the juniors, which doesn’t necessarily bode a professional career. The same is true for Riffice, who is still 17 and has topped out at 26 in the junior rankings.


The junior matches this year feature a “serve clock” that counts down from 20 seconds, theoretically obliging the server to start the point before the clock hits zero. I saw the clock strike zero several times in this match and in a junior singles match next door to me, and there were no consequences. In addition, the clock freezes between first and second serves, which leaves a pretty big loophole.


The junior doubles matches are played with no-ad scoring and a match tiebreak in lieu of the third set, so anything can happen. Caruana and Riffice ran away with the first set, 6-1, and were blown away in the second set by the same score. The contest came down to a match tiebreak. Kirkin opened with a double fault, but Caruana gave the mini-break right back with a forehand volley into the net. The next mini-break came at 4-5, when Kirkin’s forehand pass hit the net and skipped over Caruana’s head. Kirkin gave back a mini-break when he poached and netted a backhand volley, but he still got to 9-7 on his serve. A Hossam poach resulted in a forehand volley flying long, so Caruana got to serve at 8-9, but Riffice lifted a backhand volley long, and the match was over, 1-6 6-1 [10-8].


I then went to the new Grandstand, which is redundant, I suppose, now that the old Grandstand (or Practice Court 6) is out of action. There, the fourth-seeded men’s doubles team of Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares, current holders of the Australian Open crown, was up a set on Brian Baker and Marcus Daniell. With six surgeries behind him, Baker’s career has been, for want of a better word, tragic. By making the third round in doubles, he and Daniell earned $40,000 as a team, but that number would go up to $75,000 if they were to win this match. (The winning teams in men’s and women’s doubles make a handsome $625,000; in mixed doubles, the top prize is only $150,000.) One would have to be stone-hearted to begrudge Baker a handsome payday, but he and Daniell were up against a very skilled team.


Murray (see any familial resemblance to Andy?) and Soares received serve with their forehands up the middle: the left-handed Murray played the deuce court, while Soares played the ad court. As the wind kicked up in the second set, Baker and Daniell had a golden opportunity: with all four players at net, Baker put away a forehand volley to get to break point as Murray served at 4-4. The crisis passed when Murray and Soares ran off three straight points to hold, and eventually the set went to a tiebreak.


When the teams changed ends, the underdogs were leading by 4-2, but Baker netted a forehand volley to give back the mini-break. Baker put his team back in front, 5-4, with a return of a Murray second serve that hit the line, as confirmed when Murray challenged the call unsuccessfully. Immediately thereafter, however, Baker netted a backhand volley. With the teams on serve, Daniell served at 6-7, and Baker saved the match point with a forehand volley. On Daniell’s next service point, Soares put away a backhand volley for a mini-break setting up match point, and then Daniell missed a service return to conclude the match, 6-3 7-6(7). The difference in the match was second serve: Murray and Soares won 55% of their second serve points; Baker and Daniell garnered only 39% on theirs.


I concluded my attendance at this year’s US Open with a boy’s doubles match that featured a real pro prospect, 16-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada. Among his accomplishments, he is half of the defending championship team in the event, having won last year with Denis Shapovalov, who won junior Wimbledon this year and is now making noise on the pro tour. Auger-Aliassime is part of the third-seeded team with his countryman Benjamin Sigouin. The two are seeded sixth and ninth, respectively, in the boys’ singles. On Court 14, they faced the Americans Adam Neff, who’s only 15, and Sangeet Sridhar, who is 16 but looks younger with his pipe-cleaner arms and legs. Sigouin and Neff featured the neon yellow Nike outfit that’s been ubiquitous at the Open this year. (And Auger-Aliassime was in Babolat yellow.)


When I arrived, the Canadians led by 4-1, with one break of serve. Auger-Aliassime served for the set at 5-3. When preparing to serve, he holds his hands apart in an unusual manner. Two double faults helped the Americans get to a 40-40 deciding point, and Auger-Aliassime missed his first serve. But Sridhar’s return sat up enough for Sigouin to put away a forehand volley, and the Canadians were one set to the good.


In the second set, Sridhar, the one player who consistently stayed back on his serve, was broken in the opening game on a deciding point; Sigouin returned the favor with a double fault on the deciding point in the second game. The Americans broke Auger-Aliassime for 3-1 when Neff hit an excellent lob, followed by an overhead winner. Neff saved two breaks points (30-40 and 40-40, that is) to hold for 5-2.


At 5-3, Sridhar served for the set but was broken at 40-40 when Auger-Aliassime planted a backhand volley between the Americans. The teams held serve from there, sending the set to 6-6. Auger-Aliassime suffered the first mini-break in the tiebreak, as he netted a forehand volley. The Canadians got back on serve when Neff missed a forehand volley on Sridhar’s 5-3 point. Shortly thereafter, Neff served at 5-6, and Sigouin nailed a forehand return. Sridhar couldn’t handle the volley, and the match had ended, 6-3 7-6(5). The Americans had had ample opportunities, despite winning only 57 points compared to their opponents’ 73, but the third seeds were through – and so was I, as the rest of my US Open this year will be followed remotely.


It’s been a good year at the Open, and the grounds are in better shape than they have been, with wider walkways and more good seats on the outside courts. There are even water fountains that will enable you to refill a bottle easily, something I had seen at Wimbledon in June but not previously at Flushing Meadow. Still, I wish the US Open were not so heavily weighted in favor of money: the new Grandstand joins the soon-to-be-defunct Armstrong in reserving all the best seats. If anything, the Grandstand turns up the plutocracy a notch: all the seats on the lower level are reserved, and only those seats have decent backs. Neither was true of the old Grandstand.


The days of wandering through the West Side Tennis Club and brushing shoulders with pros are over, and that’s mostly for a good reason: there is greater interest in tennis now. To the extent that interest is driven by corporate box-holders who buy tickets but leave their seats empty, however, the spectator experience is diminished. One can only hope that the next iteration of Armstrong will take these considerations into account and create a balance between maximizing revenue and enhancing the experience of attending the Open.