Back to Flushing Meadow


Say you had been with me when I walked out the Billie Jean King Tennis Center on the evening of August 29, 2019. I had just seen Hao-Chin Chang and Michael Venus defeat Andrea Klepac and Ken Skupski in mixed doubles. If you were of a prophetic bent, you might have told me:


·        It will be a full three years before you return to this tournament.

·        The next tournament you attend will be Wimbledon 2022.

·        Russian and Belarusian players will be barred from that event because of their nations’ war of aggression against Ukraine.

·        During the coming three years, your nation, which is already polarized, will suffer further strife over how to deal with a pandemic that claims over one million lives in the US, and millions more internationally – and the United States Capitol will be occupied by insurrectionists acting on the encouragement of the President.


I surely would have told you to go easy at the US Open’s Grey Goose Bar. With all those events having occurred, I returned to the US Open for two sessions this year.


Thursday, September 1, 2022


The first thing I noticed after disembarking from the 7 train and walking the long boardwalk to the Tennis Center was the absence of scalpers. Now that digital tickets are de rigueur, a transformation I once bemoaned, there is not much room for the traditional illicit agora outside the grounds. Now, you can scalp your tickets online. I’m still not sure what you do if the battery drains on your smartphone before you get onto the grounds – bring an external battery, I suppose.


The Chase Lounge had been a fixture for me in past US Opens, but I failed to sign up for it in time this year, not being sure it would even exist in our current stage of the pandemic. All was not lost, as there is now a Chase Terrace on the Grandstand, where you can get drinks – I loaded up on lemonade all day – and an interesting view of the field courts.


My first match, played on the Grandstand, featured the 25th seed, Borna Coric, an erstwhile boy wonder closing in on 26, against Jenson Brooksby, a finesse player with a soft serve despite his 6’4” stature. Brooksby’s serving deficiency, coupled with his awkward-looking preparation, which makes him look like he’s nursing a sore elbow (italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs), must have made Coric ask himself, as others have before: “How am I losing to this guy?” Part of the answer is Brooksby’s ability to play near the baseline and exploit the angles made available by his court position.


Brooksby broke serve in the fifth game with a strong return that Coric could not handle. Coric had two chances, neither realized, to break back in the sixth game. Brooksby saved one more break point in the tenth game, with a 110 mph serve wide in the ad court – he almost invariably served wide in that court on break point, and he barely exceeded 110 mph on any serve – and closed out the set.


Coric raced out ahead to a 4-2 lead in the second set, but served consecutive double faults from 30-30 to squander the advantage. With Brooksby serving at 5-6, Coric reached double set point at 15-40, but Brooksby staved off danger with a winning backhand lob and a rare ace before holding and forcing a tiebreak. Brooksby saved five set points in the tiebreak, for a total of seven in the set, before capturing a 12-10 win.


The third set was one-way traffic. When Brooksby served for the match at 5-1, Coric earned four break points, but Brooksby saved them all and closed out the match with a backhand down the line for a winner, 6-4 7-6(10) 6-1. Two of the telling statistics in the match: Coric won only one of fifteen break points, and only 16 of his 34 forays to the net.


Every time I visit the Open, I promise myself I’m going to watch doubles and juniors, but I am increasingly likely to punk out on that commitment, favoring a chance to stay in the shade that only the show courts can provide. I peaked in at the women’s doubles match on Court 9 between the fourth seeds, Jelena Ostapenko and Lyudmyla Kichenok, and the team of Panna Udvardy and Tamara Zidansek. I didn’t last long in the sun, moving on to Court 10 for a somewhat protected seat as Lorenzo Musetti, seeded 26 at age 20, took on the left-handed qualifier Gijs Brouwer. There, I heard a good deal of Ostapenko’s shrieking when she served – she seemed to do a lot of serving that day, on the way to her team’s 6-3 6-7(5) 7-6(6) victory – and got to take in Musetti’s graceful one-handed backhand. Brouwer made things interesting with some serve-and-volley, and even Musetti tried his hand at the tactic. The first set remained on serve, and Brouwer took the first point of the tiebreak, only to have to do it a second time after the umpire announced a “Hawk-Eye malfunction.” Brouwer was off to the races, grabbing two points on Musetti’s serve and holding his own two for a 5-0 lead. Musetti lost control of his forehand at 1-5 to give Brouwer five set points, of which only one would prove necessary. With Brouwer having banked the first set in a 7-1 tiebreak and a physio called to the court to attend to Musetti, an upset seemed possible. But not with my attendance, alas, as the sun was just too tough for me. I moved on early in the second set, and Musetti recovered to win, 6-7(1) 6-3 6-4 6-2, in under two and a half hours.


I arrived on the Grandstand with Alizé Cornet and Katerina Siniakova at 2-2 in the third set. The match had been scheduled for Court 5, moving to the larger venue when Anhelina Kalinina gave Petra Kvitova a walkover. Cornet and Siniakova were both animated and both played with variety. Siniakova is one of those players who lifts her racquet for the serve before beginning her ball toss. With Siniakova serving a marathon game at 2-3, Cornet pocketed the decisive break on her second try, and held on to win 6-1 1-6 6-3.


The stadium filled up for the doubles match between the second seeds, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, and Leylah Fernandez and Daria Saville. Gauff and Pegula are both top singles players, and Gauff is of course still a teenager, but when you see them stand next to each other, Gauff’s height and musculature are immediately apparent.


In the first set, the favorites broke Saville’s serve in the fifth game and made that edge stand up. An element of doubt was introduced in the second set, when Gauff was broken in the second game. Her team got back on serve by breaking Fernandez in the seventh game. With Saville serving at 4-4, Gauff and Pegula had six chances to break, none of which they cashed in. The second seeds faced two big problems in this match: Gauff, playing the ad court, had a terrible time returning serve on break point, and Pegula hit too many balls that I would call “nice volleys.” By that, I don’t mean effective volleys; rather, they were the kind that a considerate player would hit to allow her opponent a chance to recoup from difficult positions: moderately paced and within easy reach.


When Pegula served at 5-6, 30-40, Saville hit a hard return at Gauff, and then Fernandez hit a volley that was not nice: nailing Gauff and claiming the set.


In the third set, Gauff was again broken in the second game, with Fernandez broken in the ensuing game. After Gauff saved a match point with an ace at 4-5 30-30, both teams held serve until the match tiebreak that is now used at all the majors at 6-6 in the final set. In that decider, Gauff dropped her first two service points, and the underdogs took a 4-0 lead. The second seeds recovered to 4-4, but Gauff double-faulted at 5-5. A powerful forehand volley from Gauff recovered the mini-break – but, no, the umpire called a let, as a napkin had blown across the court. The call met with a furious reaction from the favorites, and they were not to win another point, as Fernandez and Saville took the match, 3-6 7-5 7-6(5). Simpson’s paradox had made one of its periodic appearances, as the winning team took 113 points while the losers won 119.


My final match of the day, still on the Grandstand, featured Frances Tiafoe, the 22nd seed, and Jason Kubler, a game Aussie whose hereditary knee condition has subjected him to the knife six times. Tiafoe had looked like a world-beater when I saw him at Wimbledon earlier this year, but Kubler didn’t let him soar on this evening. In the first set, Tiafoe had three break points, but could not cash in; he also saved a set point while serving at 5-6. Tiafoe nabbed the tiebreak comfortably, 7-3, closing it out with a serve-plus-one emblematic of the contemporary game: a 126 mph delivery followed by an inside-out forehand. (At the Open this year, the IBM speed gun reporting service speed has posted information after a significant delay, which has been evident to viewers on television, let alone those attending in person.)


Tiafoe earned the first break of serve in the fourth game of the second set, taking the game at love when Kubler dumped a backhand into the net. Kubler saved a set point at 2-5 30-40 with a down-the-line backhand winner. Still, Tiafoe served for the set at 5-3. At 30-30, Kubler reached break point with a crosscourt forehand volley, and then sealed the break with a deep forehand return off a 128 mph serve, eliciting an errant forehand from Tiafoe. Tiafoe had the last word when Kubler served at 5-6. At 30-30, Kubler nudged a crosscourt backhand wide; at set point, Tiafoe punished an 87 mph second serve with a backhand return down the line for a winner.


In the third set, Kubler took an early break, leading 2-1 after cashing in his third break point of the game. On the changeover, a physio worked on Kubler’s shoulder. The following games were close: Kubler saved two break points in the fourth game, Tiafoe three in the fifth, and Kubler two more in the sixth. In the eighth game, Kubler fell behind 0-40. Tiafoe misfired on groundstrokes on his first two break points, but came up with a backhand drop shot that Kubler could not handle to square the set at 4-4. When Kubler next served, he saved a match point at 4-5 30-40. In the following game, Tiafoe saved two break points. Finally, the set went to a tiebreak, with Tiafoe taking it easily to close out the match, 7-6(3) 7-5 7-6(2).


The match was closer than the point disparity would suggest, with Tiafoe taking 143 points to Kubler’s 125. There were 25 break points in the contest, which gives a flavor of how protracted some of the games were and why Tiafoe could not pull away. Play concluded at 11:15 p.m., and I returned home to save up some energy for my second visit to the tournament.


Sunday, September 4, 2022


My affinity for a seat in the shade was heightened on Sunday, when my contingent had purchased grounds passes and rain was in the forecast. Thus, my only rain insurance was a seat in the upper tier of Louis Armstrong Stadium, with the lower tier and some seats in the upper level reserved for holders of dedicated tickets. Fortunately, two family members staked out seats in a corner of Armstrong that remains in the shade all day, and we saved seats for each other when someone needed a restroom break.


Our first match of the day featured the thirteenth seed, Matteo Berrettini, against a former Wimbledon junior champion, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Berrettini’s serve + forehand combination is fearsome, but Davidovich Fokina returned his opponent’s deliveries without apparent difficulty at first. He broke serve in the second game, on the fourth try, and recovered from 0-30 to serve out the set, 6-3.


In the second set, Davidovich Fokina took the early lead with a break in the fifth game, but Berrettini immediately broke back. Davidovich Fokina saved a set point at 4-5, but Berrettini easily took the set in a tiebreak, 7-2. (One spectator, not so excited by the match, read a book.)


Berrettini maintained his momentum in the third set, breaking in the first and last games for a 6-3 margin. At times, Davidovich Fokina retreated far behind the baseline to try to return Berrettini’s bombs, and his body language manifested frustration.


Davidovich Fokina found his mojo in the fourth set, breaking for a 2-1 lead and holding his serve five times without facing a break point. With thousands of spectators standing in the walkways behind the stands, the crowd got in Davidovich Fokina’s corner, shouting “Foki! Foki!” – which is probably not his nickname anywhere in the world beside Flushing Meadow.


Davidovich Fokina’s groundstrokes let him down in the second game of the fifth set, and he went down a break. He broke back to draw within 1-2, but dropped his serve yet again. Serving at 1-4, 30-0, Davidovich Fokina stretched for a ball, doing the splits – a move formerly reserved for clay courts but now part of the hard court repertoire for so many players. He won the point but ended up on the court, injured. While he managed to hold serve for 2-4, he was done: a physio worked on Davidovich Fokina as best he could, but the damage was done. Berrettini held at love and then cashed in his third break point with a winning lob to close out a 3-6 7-6(2) 6-3 4-6 6-2 victory. Berrettini was already in the lead before Davidovich Fokina’s injury, but after the fall Davidovich Fokina could barely run. It’s hard enough for any player to win when his mobility is compromised; for Davidovich Fokina, who depends heavily on his wheels, there was no chance.


The next Armstrong match featured two seeded players, Caroline Garcia (17) and Alison Riske-Amritraj (29). (When I reviewed with my wife – who works in finance – the players we had seen, her immediate reaction to “Riske-Amritraj” was “risk arbitrage.” Of course, Riske married into a tennis family: her husband’s first cousin interviewed me while I waited to get into Wimbledon in 2016. Ironically, Riske does endorse a financial company, FICO.) I had seen Garcia eliminate the hometown favorite Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon this year, and I looked forward to seeing her joie de vivre again. She did not disappoint.


The players are interesting stylistically. Garcia is an attacker, and she stood inside the baseline to return Riske’s first serve, moving even further in for the second delivery. She also shares Richard Gasquet’s tendency of asking for another chance to serve with a “lucky” ball after winning a point. Riske has an unorthodox service motion and an even stranger forehand, both of which have been the subject of online discussion. On the serve, she lifts her racquet before beginning her toss; on the forehand, she stiff-arms the ball from behind her body in a manner as difficult to describe as to execute.


The first nine games of the match stayed on serve. With Riske serving at 4-5 15-30, her crosscourt backhand went wide for two break and set points. Garcia needed only one, crunching a crosscourt forehand return of an 80 mph second serve for a winner.


Garcia was off to the races, breaking at love to establish a 2-0 lead in the second set and breaking a second time for 5-1. It took Garcia five match points – and the saving of three break points – to close out the victory, 6-4 6-1. She had won eight of the last nine games and was by far the more aggressive player, registering 30 winners and 23 errors to Riske’s 7 and 11.


With victory in hand, Garcia did the “Oh, yeah” dance described in my Wimbledon report. This was only fair, as my daughter, after whom I have named Garcia’s dance, was present to see the choreography on her first visit to the US Open.


Next up were the men’s twelfth seed, Pablo Carreno Busta, and the twenty-seventh, Karen Khachanov. While we would prefer not to inject politics into sports, sometimes it is impossible for sports to hide. For all I know, Khachanov is a prince among men who helps old women cross the street, takes in stray animals, and volunteers in a soup kitchen. Even if he were, I could not root for him, or even applaud a good shot, when his nation is daily committing war crimes, perhaps even genocide. Maybe this is not fair, but heaven knows life is not fair.


With rain in the forecast, the Armstrong roof was closed before this match began. Khachanov was the more powerful of the two players, but Carreno Busta is skilled at getting balls back. Khachanov likes to camp out in the backhand corner to hit forehands, but that shot can misfire for him. In the first set, Carreno Busta broke in the opening game and held all the way through to take the lead. Serving at 2-3, 15-40 in the second set, Carreno Busta netted a short forehand and was broken, allowing Khachanov to serve out the set. By the third set, Carreno Busta seemed out of energy, and Khachanov raced through, 6-1, despite making only 29% of his first serves. On set point, Carreno Busta walked off the court as Khachanov was hitting a forehand pass, and the crowd booed him.


A physio came to see Carreno Busta after the set. It was not clear what ailed him, or what the physio did, but Carreno Busta seemed rejuvenated after the visit. This time, it was Carreno Busta who took the lead, breaking at love in the fifth game. He saved two break points in the next game and held on to win the set on his third set point with a 125 mph service winner.


The key point of the match, for me, came with Carreno Busta serving at 2-3, 30-0 in the fifth set, when he plunked a sitter into the net. With the score 30-15 rather than 40-0, Khachanov had life, and he eventually broke serve. From there, it was clear sailing for Khachanov: he held at love, had two chances to break for the match, and served it out at 15, concluding a 4-6 6-3 6-1 4-6 6-3 victory.


It appeared to have rained at some point during this match, at least based on the video feed we saw inside Armstrong. But the forecast had improved, and the roof was opened for the final match of the day session, between two unseeded players: Ajla Tomljanovic – who will always be remembered for defeating Serena Williams in her final Grand Slam match, if not for being the ex-girlfriend of the winner of the day’s first match on Armstrong – and another Russian, Liudmila Samsonova. (Of course, the drawsheet at the US Open is silent on the nationality of all Russian and Belarusian players, which is a bit of a laugh, especially when the pre-match introduction describes a player’s success in competitions for “her country.”)


Sports fans tend to believe in momentum. If a player has squandered many opportunities, it is hard to conceive how she can recoup emotionally and compete effectively. And yet, players do recover from disappointment all the time. It is part of the tunnel vision of a good athlete to focus on the here-and-now, so the grip of momentum is not as powerful as we would think. Withal, this match lived up to the sports fan’s cliché.


Tomljanovic and Samsonova are both strong servers, often registering above 110 mph on the speed gun. They are both reliable groundstrokers, with Tomljanovic testifying to her confidence on the backhand side by hitting quite a few backhands from the forehand side of the court – quite a contrast to the forehand-heavy style of most players. If one or the other has a special aptitude for net play, it was not evident in this match, which was played in the modern style: serves plus power groundstrokes, few forays to the net.


In the second through fourth games of the first set, serve was broken three consecutive times, twice by Samsonova, who thus led 3-1. She served for the set at 5-3, but was broken at 15. The next game may have decided the match. Tomljanovic fell behind 0-40, giving Samsonova three set points. Tomljanovic saved all three:


·        Samsonova backhand return wide.

·        Samsonova forehand long.

·        Tomljanovic backhand drop shot for a winner.


Samsonova would see four more set points in this game, which were dispatched as follows:


·        Tomljanovic inside-out forehand for a winner.

·        Samsonova forehand return of 87 mph second serve goes long.

·        Samsonova forehand long.

·        Samsonova backhand into the net.


Eventually, there would be an eighth set point, in the tiebreak, after the first ten points went with serve and then Tomljanovic netted a backhand drop shot:


·        Samsonova forehand into the net.


Tomljanovic let her first set point go with a double fault at 7-6, but she eventually locked down the set on her third opportunity as Samsonova’s forehand went long. Tomljanovic screamed with delight. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but Samsonova was finished.


After the lengthy first set, the ushers finally began to let spectators come downstairs from Armstrong’s upper tier, and workers cleaned up the day’s debris. The first set had been an 84-minute struggle (I’m trying to avoid military metaphors here); the second set lasted 36 minutes, as Tomljanovic established a 5-0 lead, conceded a mercy game to Samsonova after three deuces, and held at 15 to close out a 7-6(8) 6-1 victory. If Samsonova had pocketed one of those eight set points, maybe Tomljanovic would have raced through the second set anyway. I doubt it, and even had she done so, she would have required another set.


On this evening, play concluded at 10:45 rather than 11:15. With two very full days at the Open this year, I did not feel shortchanged – and I hope not to wait three years until my next visit.