Only Three Matches?

August 27, 2019

My contingent camped out early in Armstrong to get good seats behind the court and in the shade for the match between Stefanos Tsitsipas, the eighth seed, and his contemporary Andrey Rublev. Tsitsipas (italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs), followed by Coco Gauff and Simona Halep as well as a large contingent of local juniors, practiced on the court before play began at 11:00 o’clock.

The first thing I noticed was that Armstrong appears to have ditched the ceiling fans that last year hung on the underside of the roof. Last year, the fans were pitched as part of the new stadium’s natural ventilation program. It is hard to tell how much good the fans did, as last year’s Open was played in blast furnace conditions, whereas the temperature barely cracked 70° (or 21° Celsius) during my visit on Tuesday. (This is not a complaint.)

When play began, it was apparent that Rublev – who defeated Roger Federer this summer in Cincinnati – was not going to be outhit. He hits the ball hard off both wings, with the only evident weakness in his game being a second serve that sometimes dipped below 80 mph (or 129 kph). Tsitsipas spent much of the match trying to figure out how to attack that delivery, and ventured to the net far more often than Rublev, but was unable to apply consistent pressure to Rublev’s service games.

In the opening game, Rublev added injury to insult: on break point, he passed Tsitsipas, who lunged unsuccessfully for the ball, jamming the fingers of his left hand on the court as he stopped himself from falling. If anyone can get over an injury to his non-dominant hand, it may be Tsitsipas, who is old school with his one-handed backhand. In any event, what looked at first like it might be a serious injury passed without incident, and Tsitsipas played on, though perhaps the mishap foreshadowed physical problems to come.

Rublev soldiered on through the first set, saving two break points in the sixth game – the second when Tsitsipas tried to jump on a 78 mph second serve, but instead shanked his forehand and hit the return into the stands – and eventually served out the set, 6-4.

In the second set, Rublev broke serve for a 2-1 lead, but Tsitsipas broke right back. In the tiebreak that eventually ensued, Tsitsipas surged ahead 5-2 and had two service points coming up, but he missed two forehands to cede the mini-break advantage. No matter: Rublev mishit a backhand while serving at 4-5 to level the tiebreak. On his second set point, Tsitsipas evened the match with a crosscourt forehand winner.

In the third set, Rublev saved a break point in the third game and then squandered six break chances in the fourth. Tsitsipas, serving at 2-3, 40-15, dropped four consecutive points to fall behind in the set, but then broke back to get to 3-4. From there, the players held serve until they played another tiebreak. Tsitsipas drew first blood, moving from defense to offense and winning the point with a drop volley to seize a mini-break and a 3-1 lead. He returned the mini-break when he netted a backhand on the seventh point. Serving at 5-5, Tsitsipas worked his way to net, but – as happened several times in the match – Rublev anticipated where the approach shot would go, and Tsitsipas could not handle his backhand pass. Now it was set point for the Russian, on his serve. Tsitsipas punished an 83 mph second serve to get to the sanctuary of 6-6. He took yet another point off Rublev’s serve with a big inside-out forehand, giving himself a set point on his own serve. After a long rally, however, Tsitsipas sailed a backhand volley long to make it 7-7. On his next service point, he dropped a makeable backhand volley into the net, giving Rublev set point on his serve. This time, Rublev got the job done, as Tsitsipas’s forehand return of serve went long.

After the third set, Tsitsipas called for the trainer, and he visibly cramped during much of the fourth set. Tsitsipas saved three break points in the third game and another in the fifth, after which the trainer returned to work on him. Tsitsipas’s best chance to fight on came and went in the sixth game, when he came up empty on seven break points, allowing Rublev to reach 3-3.

Tsitsipas, moving gingerly, was called for a time violation in the seventh game, and eventually dropped serve. Another time violation in the next game gave Rublev a free point coming out of the changeover. The time violations provoked a tirade, which I did not hear, in which Tsitsipas told the umpire that he was a weirdo. (As is well known, the Greeks don’t want no freaks.) With the finish line in sight, however, Rublev faltered. Serving for the match at 5-4, he opened with two double faults, the latter including a second serve that hit the bottom of the net. Tsitsipas grabbed the next two points to break at love and stay alive at 5-5.

In the ensuing game, however, Tsitsipas’s difficulty moving came back to bite him. Serving at 30-0, he dropped four consecutive points, the penultimate one when he could not run for a Rublev down-the-line backhand. Given another chance to serve out the match, Rublev made no mistake, dropping just one point and closing out a 6-4 6-7(5) 7-6(7) 7-5 upset victory.

The match had lasted two minutes short of four hours, so I took a lunch break in the Chase Lounge before snagging a seat at Court 10, where Hyeon Chung was facing Ernesto Escobedo in the shadow of the venue where my wife and I got married seven years ago. Both players are members of the class of 1996, Escobedo having been born a month and a half after Chung, on July 4. Chung has had the more accomplished career, breaking into the top twenty last year after defeating Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic on the way to the semifinals of the Australian Open. After struggling with injuries, however, he entered this year’s US Open as a qualifier, ranked 170th in the world. Escobedo, whose high-water mark came at number 67 in 2017, is now number 206, making the tournament by virtue of his success in the wild card challenge. The only prior meeting of the two, last year, resulted in an easy victory for Chung in Acapulco.

As I arrived, Escobedo broke Chung to take a 5-3 lead in the first set, then served it out. Escobedo was wearing ugly shorts, perhaps hoping they would serve as a talisman, as they had for Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros in 2015. Slightly shorter than Chung but serving harder, Escobedo broke again to start the second set and cruised to a 4-2 lead. He had two break points to make it 5-2, but Chung captured four straight points to hold. In the next game, Escobedo was up 30-0 before Chung pulled off another string of four points to break serve and level the set. In the tenth game, Chung broke at 15 to cap a run of four consecutive games and steal the set.

In the third set, which featured a middle-aged ballboy who was not quite so spry as his younger colleagues but brought back memories of another superannuated ballboy, Chung had two break points and Escobedo six, but none were converted, so the players went to a tiebreak. Escobedo took a mini-break for a 3-2 lead and husbanded the edge to set point at 6-4, but hit a forehand long after a long rally, giving Chung a chance to level the breaker on his serve. At 5-6, Chung hit a deep backhand, and Escobedo gambled by stopping play and asking for a Hawk-Eye review of the line call. Hawk-Eye is now available on all the courts, including the somewhat forsaken Court 10, and Escobedo’s gamble paid off: the ball was just long, and the set belonged to the American.

As the players battled on, national identification came to the fore in the stands. A large Korean contingent chanted for Chung, with the only word I could understand being “Hyeon.” Some leather-lunged Americans shouted “USA! USA!” or “Let’s go, Esco.” I’m ordinarily not one for jingoism, but I thought it a hopeful sign that American fans could view a countryman of Mexican extraction as one of their own.

The fourth set was relatively uneventful, with the lights going on at 4-4, when the clock struck 6:06. At deuce in that game, Chung produced the first break point of the set with a down-the-line forehand passing shot – throughout the match, Escobedo spent a lot more time at the net than his opponent – and sealed the game when his backhand return of an Escobedo second serve clipped the line. Chung wrapped up the set at love, so we would go to a deciding set.

The opening of the fifth set was all Chung, as he broke serve twice for a 3-0 lead and withstood two break points to reach 4-0. The score almost went to 5-0, as Escobedo had to fight off two break points before holding for 1-4, but thereafter Chung held serve twice, closing out a 3-6 6-4 6-7(5) 6-4 6-2 victory with an ace, his sixteenth of the match, wide in the deuce court. In the end, Escobedo’s shorts were evidently not ugly enough.

I often flit from court to court at the US Open, but I had secured a good seat, behind the court, and now the main attraction was Gaël Monfils, who had more fans than there were seats on Court 10, so I was not going anywhere. I have seen Monfils several times, including two retirements: against Illya Marchenko in 2015 and Kei Nishikori last year. This year, I wanted to see him in full flight.

For Monfils’s match against Albert Ramos Viņolas, there were many fans who stood on the top bench of the bleachers on the adjoining Court 9, turning their backs to the local action and craning to see our match. Until this point, I had been watching players 23 and younger (Tsitsipas and Rublev probably didn’t recognize Devo’s Whip It, which played during one of their changeovers), but both of these competitors were over 30.

For most of his career, Monfils has held his feet together while preparing to serve. As has been the case in recent years, however, he has gone to a more conventional stance, starting with his feet apart. He still has his characteristic crouch while receiving serve and occasionally does his old-man thing, hunching over to lean on his racquet as though it were a cane.

Monfils had won the first three matches between the two, all easily, but Ramos Viņolas turned the tables with a 6-3 6-1 victory in Rome earlier this year. Serving at 1-1 in the opening set, Monfils fell behind 0-40. He saved two break points before Ramos Viņolas sent a laser beam off his left-handed forehand down the line for a winner and the lead. Monfils raced ahead in the next game by 0-40, breaking at 15 with a beautiful backhand drop shot to get even.

There were no more breaks in the set, but the first four points of the tiebreak, and seven of the first eight, went against serve. At 5-2, Monfils stepped to the line and broke the pattern, producing an ace and a winning serve-and-volley to close out the set.

Monfils raced to a 5-1 lead in the second set, behind two breaks of serve, and had three set points when Ramos Viņolas served the seventh game. But Ramos Viņolas escaped the trap (with Monfils – being Monfils – doing a 360-degree pirouette at net on the first of the set points) and then broke Monfils in the next game. The second time the Frenchman served for the set, he fell behind by 15-40 but got out of the jam with a big serve-and-forehand combination and a leaping backhand volley. Upon reaching set point, Monfils produced a backhand down the line that landed in the corner, on the baseline, to take the set, 6-4.

The third set proved less perilous for Monfils, who broke serve for a 3-2 lead and, not taking any chances, broke again in the ninth game to close out the match, 7-6(2) 6-4 6-3. By then, it was close to 9:30 p.m. I could have gone back into Armstrong for the night session, as the upper bowl in the stadium is open to holders of day session tickets, but the match I wanted to see, between the unhappy warrior Nick Kyrgios and Steve Johnson, was on track to start quite late: the day session had run past 7:00 p.m., and the all-Belarussian match between Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka that opened the night session on Armstrong was destined to go the distance. Kyrgios and Johnson eventually got onto court after 11:00 p.m. and played until 1:00 a.m., with more controversy for Kyrgios, as is his wont. But I was back home on this three-match day before the Aussie had a chance to do his thing, saving energy for another visit to the Open.