A Gallic Jinx

August 30, 2018

On a day when the heat and humidity were merely uncomfortable rather than sapping the will to live, I began my day on Court 17 for the matchup between Naomi Osaka and Julia Glushko. The best entertainment during the contest came from a British couple sitting nearby. They were completing their own version of the Peter Polansky Grand Slam, attending all four majors – plus Indian Wells for good measure – this year. For their home event, they were fortunate enough to win tickets in the Wimbledon ballot, which is by no means a sure thing. Their favorite majors were, to my surprise, the Australian and US Opens. They liked the ease of obtaining tickets for both, certainly a contrast to Wimbledon, and the modern facilities, which, if I may paraphrase them, left Roland Garros in the red clay. Suffice it to say that they were not overly impressed with the state of renovations in Paris. It was delightful to watch a match with them, because they knew the sport so well and also used expressions I’ve picked up from one of the favorite shows of my three-year-old daughter, Peppa Pig. For instance, a bad error on court precipitated a plaintive “Oh, dear.”

There was a lot for Glushko to “Oh, dear” about. After a practice session in which Pierre-Hugues Herbert’s hitting partner served from inside the baseline to prepare his charge for the explosiveness of Nick Kyrgios, and the now familiar junior tennis mayhem, Glushko arrived on the court evidently without a clothing contract (a Nike visor joined tennis clothing with a Hebrew logo) but perhaps with a tape contract, as she was nearly mummified in white. (Italicized links, other than to Peppa Pig, refer to photographs. For good measure, here is a shot that includes the tape around Glushko’s right ankle.)

Osaka and Glushko reached 2-2 in the first set, and then the former rang up ten straight games to seal a 6-2 6-0 win. Osaka appears slight, but she hits a big ball, including serves that exceed 120 mph. Glushko never seemed to get discouraged, but she must have known that she was up against a superior opponent, and her Cinderella story was drawing to a close. With a $93,000 payday for qualifying and reaching the second round, she made her year in any case.

I stayed on Court 17 for Kyrgios and Herbert, who played to a nearly full house in 88-degree conditions. Upon taking his seat, Kyrgios, who wishes he played basketball rather than tennis, changed his shoes from those appropriate to his favorite sport to those he needs professionally. Our knowledgeable British fans recognized the chair umpire, the personable Mo Lahyani, who was to play a noteworthy role in this match.

It’s sometimes hard to tell how hard Kyrgios is trying, because he generates so much power without seeming to exert himself. Indeed, it’s precisely when he summons the power imprudently that one wonders how much he cares. If you could put David Ferrer’s head on Nick Kyrgios’s body, you might just have an unbeatable tennis machine, but the luck of the genetic draw doesn’t tend to go that way.

In the first set, there were flashes of Kyrgios’s brilliance: the serves that exceed 130 mph off an easy motion, the slapshot forehands that leave the opponent flatfooted, even the backhands that seem to be pushed but whip through the court faster than expected. Just as present were the signs that Kyrgios wished to be elsewhere: the towel clenched between his teeth, the weary facial expressions, and the desultory tenth game he played, giving away the set with a double fault on a 129 mph second serve. With the sun encroaching on my seat, I abandoned Court 17 for an air-conditioning break. Leaving, I saw a snaking line of fans waiting endlessly to get in, and thought that it might motivate Kyrgios to try harder if he knew how much people wanted to see him.

Only later did I learn that motivation, or at least a wake-up call, was to come from Lahyani. With Kyrgios down in the second set and seeming not to care, Lahyani descended from his chair and gave Kyrgios a pep talk. Though Kyrgios denied that this turned the match around and Lahyani has been spared discipline, it was not the right thing to do. In any event, Kyrgios, having escaped Herbert by 4-6 7-6(6) 6-3 6-0, is likely to show up more motivated for his next match, against Roger Federer.

My post-break destination was the new Armstrong, with its promise of decent sightlines and welcome shade, where Sascha Zverev had just taken the first set from Nicolas Mahut. This was not quite the mismatch that Zverev’s opener against Polansky had been, but Mahut, at 36 and part of the dying generation of one-handers, doesn’t have the legs or firepower to keep up with the youngster. Mahut frequently served-and-volleyed, but the returns came back hard enough that he was broken five times. Perhaps the most telling statistic was winning percentage on second serve: Mahut mustered 38%, while Zverev won 69%. When the third set was about to begin, the chair umpire announced, in a Freudian slip, “Final set.” She was not wrong: Zverev coasted to victory, 6-4 6-4 6-2, closing the match with a second-serve ace at 116 mph. Zverev has fallen short in the majors often enough to make one wonder when he will break through, but the talent is there, and even his weakness at the net (which is a bit of a mystery in light of his brother’s net-rushing ways) has been mitigated with time.

I stayed on Armstrong for Madison Keys, last year’s finalist, and the left-handed Bernarda Pera. Lindsay Davenport, formerly Keys’s coach, returned on an interim basis for this match. Both players like to hit forehands and will run around their backhands to do so. Keys, who played with physio tape on her right leg, is bigger and stronger than Pera, not to mention ranked much higher, but they played evenly through eight games. In the ninth, Keys saved two break points. In the tenth, with Pera serving at 30-30, Keys nailed a forehand service return down the line to get to set point and then cashed in the opportunity when Pera pulled a forehand wide. With her superiority established, Keys made shorter work of the second set, breaking for leads of 3-1 and 5-1, the latter on a Pera double fault on the fourth break point. Keys closed out the 6-4 6-1 win with a drop shot.

I had planned to look for some doubles afterward, but I found myself walking past Court 17 just before Frances Tiafoe and Alex de Minaur were about to start there, so I grabbed a seat for what I expected to be a good contest. Tiafoe, who arrived on court in a supererogatory hoodie, is 20; de Minaur, generously listed at 5’11”, will leave his teens next February; both are in the top fifty. The match started out in promising fashion, with the players testing each other in long rallies, and both showing proficiency at the net, de Minaur in particular demonstrating soft hands. De Minaur saved two break points in the second game and then broke Tiafoe for a lead that he maintained through the set, closing it out 6-4.

The second set was a very different story, as de Minaur served up a bagel, with the last of his three breaks of serve coming on an overhead that completed the punishment for an ill-advised drop shot from Tiafoe. I left for another break, hoping to catch some air conditioning and recharge my phone, and not expecting much of a match to ensue. In the end, Tiafoe recovered to take the third set, but de Minaur took care of business in the fourth, capturing the match 6-4 6-0 5-7 6-2. It was another match in which second serve was crucial: de Minaur won 54% of his deliveries, while Tiafoe mustered only 29%. The smaller man even edged his opponent in aces, 11 to 10.

The little matter of charging my phone proved more complicated than I had expected. I returned the charger I had borrowed from American Express, only to learn that they were out of substitute chargers. Wading through the crowds, I then tried two of the three Chase kiosks scattered on the grounds, but was told that they were out of chargers for Android phones. Finally, one of the Chase people advised me to try the Ralph Lauren shop, where I was permitted to plug my phone into a wall outlet and get enough of a charge to see me through the evening. Such is life at the US Open.

I was still able to make it into Armstrong for the start of the night match between Kei Nishikori and GaŽl Monfils. (This year, for the first time, night tickets are being sold for both Ashe and Armstrong, but the general admission seats in Armstrong are available to day session customers.) Both players have figured in these dispatches, Monfils memorably in 2013, when he lost a tight match to John Isner but had more fan support than his American opponent; in 2015, when he retired against Illya Marchenko; and last year, when he edged Donald Young by 7-5 in the fifth. I’ve seen Nishikori at the US Open in 2014 and 2016, as well as on my maiden voyage to Wimbledon.

Both players move and defend extraordinarily well. In Monfils’s case, it’s almost a problem: he is so fast and agile, he can get away with playing way behind the baseline, vitiating the power he can muster at will. The first set went Nishikori’s way fairly easily, with two breaks of serve putting him on top by 6-2.

In the second set, Nishikori fell behind by 15-40 in his first service game, and on second serve Monfils hit a rocket of a crosscourt forehand return to grab the break. When Nishikori served at 1-4, he saved four break points in a marathon game that included some thrilling rallies. Monfils still seemed to have the set under control, serving at 4-2, but then, with both players at net, he got hit in the hand by a reflex volley. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, leading me to think that the ball had pinned his fingers against the racquet handle, but after Monfils, hampered by his injury, dropped serve, the trainer taped his right wrist on the changeover. (My editor informs me that the television replay showed the ball hitting Monfils’s racquet, causing the freak wrist injury.) With Nishikori serving at 3-4, Monfils could barely compete, and then at 4-4, he evinced his discomfort, progressively ripping off bits of tape after each point before being broken again. What a reversal of fortunes – from 4-1 (indeed, on the verge of 5-1) to 4-5, with Nishikori about to serve for a two-set lead. It never got that far, as Monfils threw in the towel, his second US Open retirement under my gaze: once on the old Armstrong, once on the new. It’s enough to make a guy wish that I’d stay home when he plays. At any rate, it was enough to send me home at 8:40 p.m., early for a day/night session during the first week of the US Open.