New Armstrong

August 28, 2018

On my first visit to the 2018 US Open, New York’s summer blast furnace was in peak operation. I took refuge in air-conditioned lounges for about 90 minutes in the afternoon, drank lemonade and water throughout the day, and still dropped about three pounds (or 1.4 kilos for our European readers). To state the obvious, the players had it worse, leading the tournament organizers to implement a discretionary Extreme Heat Policy.

Under the circumstances, there was no way I’d be getting up close and personal with the foot soldiers of tennis on the outer courts – at least not while the sun was beating down. Nor was I prepared for the rigors of Arthur Ashe Stadium; let’s say it again: great man, terrible stadium. The shady solution that offered a modicum of proximity to the action was the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, which I recommend highly. Though seats in the lower bowl are reserved (as is the case with the new Grandstand), there are enough decent seats above that to make the visit worthwhile. Moreover, a significantly higher percentage of the general admission seats are in the shade, and the terracotta louvers on the north and south sides of the building allow for something of a breeze. Because the louvers were placed at the ends of the court rather than on the sides, there are fewer good seats behind the court than one might like. (Italicized links, except for one connected to a newspaper story, refer to photographs.) My hunch is that it would have been too difficult architecturally to place the louvers on the sides of the court.

In the thank-goodness-for-small-favors department, this year the so-called mobile tickets that have largely replaced paper (and completely replaced PDF) may be stored in an Android wallet. Last year, that privilege was limited to iPhone users. What of people who don’t have smartphones? Well, maybe the US Open doesn’t want their business that badly.

My main refuge from the heat was the Chase lounge. I had hoped to use the new American Express Centurion Lounge in Armstrong, which is limited to holders of platinum and centurion cards. I learned that platinum cards from Amex partnerships – in this case, with Delta Airlines – did not fit the bill. Even for those who had the proper cards, there was a wait to get into the lounge, which in any event did not open until noon. Another Amex lounge, adjoining the Chase lounge, is open to the general public. It doesn’t offer much except air conditioning, which was certainly not to be sneered at. It also offered external batteries for cell phones that, at least in my case, worked better than the Chase offering. Oh, and for those who wanted to get their hair blown out, a Drybar salon.

Having scouted out a seat behind the Armstrong court well before the 11:00 a.m. start of play, I saw Angelique Kerber and Margarita Gasparyan practicing as a prelude to their playing the second match on the court, and then a riot of little kids, mostly from Connecticut, playing mini-tennis and trying to avoid bopping each other in the head.

The first match featured the 2017 Roland Garros champion and tenth seed, Jelena Ostapenko, against the former top-tenner Andrea Petkovic, who will turn 31 on the final day of the tournament. Ostapenko came out of the gate slowly, losing the first six points she served. The first six games featured four breaks of serve. With Petkovic serving at 4-5 0-30, Ostapenko teed off on a second serve return, pulling a backhand down the line from the deuce court for a winner. A double fault, one of eight on the day for Petkovic (Ostapenko was to offer up 11 of her own, as well as countless tosses that she caught), sealed the set.

Ostapenko scampered to a 3-1 lead in the second set before Petkovic grabbed five of six games to steal the frame. Neither player was wont to run around her backhand, as seems de rigueur these days (at least on the men’s tour), and Petkovic’s toss varied from a little bit to the right of her serving arm to way right. In the latter instances, Ostapenko did not seem to do a very good job of anticipating the inevitable slice serve.

After the second set, the players got a ten-minute break, which did more good for Ostapenko than Petkovic, as reported in the New York Times:

She drank some cold water and draped herself in ice towels, changed her drenched socks and wet shoes. She was not permitted to talk to a coach, and didn’t have time to open a David Foster Wallace novel that was packed in her bag.

“When I came back out, it felt like five billion degrees,” Petkovic said. “Next time, I would stay out there, chill on the bench.”

Ostapenko was the far more aggressive player. The official statistics showed her with 38 winners and 60 unforced errors, compared to Petkovic’s 17 and 32. The question at any moment was whether Good Ostapenko or Bad Ostapenko would show up. In the third set, Good Ostapenko got to 5-3 40-15, but Bad Ostapenko lost the two match points and two more to boot, putting Petkovic back on serve. At 5-5, Ostapenko saved two breaks points; at 5-6, Petkovic was able to save a third match point but not a fourth, and the match went to the tenth seed, 6-4 4-6 7-5. Thus, we did not get to see the Petko dance, but I took the first of my air-conditioning breaks.

When I returned to Armstrong, Kerber, the winner of three major titles, including this year’s Wimbledon, was up a break on Gasparyan, 3-2, a six-footer with a prodigious one-handed backhand who came into the event ranked number 370, admitted to the draw with a protected ranking. Kerber took care of business all the way to 5-4 40-15, whence Gasparyan saved three set points and broke serve with a backhand winner off a Kerber drop shot. In the tiebreak that eventually ensued, Gasparyan earned the first mini-break with a wonderful combination of a drop shot and stab backhand volley. A down-the-line forehand winner gave her a second mini-break and a 3-0 lead, and the players later changed ends with the underdog ahead by 4-2. But Kerber – less spectacular, but much steadier – righted the ship, taking five of the following six points and, with them, the set.

Gasparyan broke serve to start the second set, but Kerber broke right back and then held for a 2-1 lead. I was really feeling the heat and humidity, so I took a second air-conditioning break. Kerber would eventually prevail, 7-6(5) 6-3, the most significant difference perhaps being second-serve points, of which she won 53%, while Gasparyan could muster only 39%.

I braved the sun on Court 14 for a few minutes of what would ultimately be a five-set win for Jaume Munar (seen here) over Ruben Bemelmans (putting away a sitter here) (5-7 6-3 7-6(3) 2-6 6-1 in 3 hours and 58 minutes), but prudence sent me scurrying back for more air conditioning.

Eventually, I returned to Armstrong when the temperature was merely hot, rather than scorching, arriving as Sascha Zverev was up 6-2 3-0 over the ultimate lucky loser, Peter Polansky. The rest was a light workout for the fourth seed, who eased to a 6-2 6-1 6-2 victory over Polansky without facing a break point. Zverev’s new coach, Ivan Lendl, watched the proceedings impassively, barely glancing at the video monitor when it showed some highlights of his US Open play. Zverev is an impressive horse for Lendl to ride, but he’s yet to prove his mettle in a major. I imagine he will someday, but I’m less certain of it than I was a year ago.

I was now ready for the outside courts and some foot soldiers, as Philipp Kohlschreiber took on his fellow German Yannick Hanfmann on Court 11. Well, let’s not make light of Kohlschreiber: he and his one-handed backhand have been in the top hundred for fourteen years. As I arrived, Hanfmann was offering up his big serve at 4-5 in the third set, the first two sets having been split. Kohlschreiber, who varied his return position from far behind the baseline to nearly bumping into the line judges, retreated all the way back on Hanfmann’s second serve at 30-40 – and drew a double fault that gave him the set. The players got a ten-minute break under the heat policy, followed by a fourth set in which Hanfmann was continually in trouble in his service games. In that set, Kohlschreiber won 41% of his return points, as compared to 13% (3 of 23) for his opponent. Hanfmann saved four break points during the course of the set, but not the fifth, which came at 4-5 15-40, giving Kohlschreiber the win, 7-6(3) 5-7 6-4 6-4. (Meanwhile, in the distance, Robin Haase was over on Court 12, pulling off a win from a two-set deficit to Mackie McDonald, a result saluted with a display of the Dutch flag.)

The heat persisting into the night, the path of least resistance appealed to me, and I stayed on Court 11 for the match between Sorana Cirstea and Alison Riske. A substantial Romanian contingent cheered on Cirstea, looking for something to celebrate after their nation’s two seeded women, Simona Halep (No. 1) and Mihaela Buzarnescu (No. 21), had crashed out. Both players pounded their groundstrokes, Cirstea perhaps somewhat harder, with a more natural whipping motion on her forehand, as opposed to Riske’s stiff-armed slingshot approach. Riske gets her tall frame low for groundstrokes, and follows almost every shot with a grunted “Oy!” (Riske is either engaged or married to Stephen Amritraj, son of Anand, the back of whose head I believe appears in this photo. Readers of these dispatches will recall my being interviewed by Stephen’s cousin Prakash, son of Vijay, at Wimbledon in 2016.)

The chair umpire pronounced the American’s name “Risky,” though I believe the correct pronunciation is “Risk.” As the match progressed, the umpire faced a rather more controversial issue, as you’ll see shortly. The Court 12 diversion during this match was Genie Bouchard, who scored an easy win over the French wild card Harmony Tan.

Cirstea, who has been ranked as high as number 21 and reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2009, broke serve in the eighth game and served out the first set at 30. In the second set, Riske saved a break point at 3-3 and then broke for 5-3 before serving out the set.

Riske jumped out ahead in the third set with the help of a lucky net cord winner that set up break point. Serving at 2-1, she climbed out of a 0-40 hole to hold serve. On the first point of the ninth game, with Cirstea serving at 3-5, Riske’s shot was called long. Riske challenged the call successfully, and the umpire called the score “0-15.” Cirstea went medieval on the umpire, yelling “No, no, no!” and explaining – with a reasoned basis, so far as I can recall where she had been relative to the ball when it was called out – that she did not play the shot in deference to the erroneous call. The crowd, or at least the Romanians, shouted: “Replay the point! Replay the point!” The umpire could not back down at that point, and she rejected Cirstea’s pleas.

So what happened after this hubbub? Cirstea reeled off nine consecutive points – so much for Riske serving for the match at 5-4 – and eventually took a 6-5 lead. Serving at 5-6, Riske fell behind 0-30 and saved match points at 30-40 and ad-out with two crosscourt forehand winners. On the third match point, Riske sprayed a forehand long, and Cirstea had a comeback victory, 6-3 3-6 7-5. If it’s any consolation to Riske, an observer noted that both players in this match had been better than either player in the Ostapenko-Petkovic match. It was 9:18 p.m., and I hauled my limp body to the subway. The good news: when I return on August 30, the temperature is supposed to top out at only 90°F or – for our European readership – a mere 32.2°C.