A Family Show on Court 17

US Open, August 29, 2023

Jerry Balsam


I like to watch the foot soldiers of tennis, especially because the US Open places them on intimate courts where you can see them without binoculars. While Iíve stated my opinion that Wimbledon has it all over the US Open, to which I adhere, this is one aspect in which one must give the nod to the American Slam. At the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, there are appreciably more courts with adequate seating for a few hundred to a few thousand spectators, small enough to make the fans part of the action but big enough to offer capacity to those who want to see matches other than the big namesí romps through the early rounds.


Thus, my 2023 US Open campaign began on Court 15, where the Aussies Max Purcell and Christopher OíConnell staged an intramural battle. OíConnell is one of only a dozen one-handers left in the ATPís top hundred. (Italicized hyperlinks connect to photographs.) Purcell, a menís doubles champion at Wimbledon last year, has only recently made a splash in singles, edging into the top fifty after ending 2022 ranked number 220. Like their compatriots of yore, neither is allergic to the sight of the net. Indeed, they played a lot of serve-and-volley, even on second serve, Purcell more often but less successfully. That might have been the story of the match, as the official statistics show Purcell winning only 47% of his net forays (26 of 55), as compared to OíConnellís 79% (23 of 29).


It was an overcast day, with a threat of rain. Perhaps because of the weather, many flights to and from LaGuardia passed over the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, as in Giuliani Time. Even with the cloud cover, my nose and hands got sunburned over the course of the day. (Just about everything else was covered.)


OíConnell held serve to start the match in a marathon game that went 22 points, saving three break points along the way. He broke Purcell for 2-0 and was broken right back. From there, the players held serve until it was Purcellís turn to serve at 4-5. Along the way, a high-bouncing ball lodged in the hedges behind the court, remaining there for the duration of the match, perhaps to be retrieved eventually by an intrepid bird. Purcell saved four set points in the tenth game, some with courageous serve-and-volley play, but OíConnell cashed in his fifth opportunity, as Purcell couldnít touch a forehand topspin lob that landed deep in the court.


Early in the second set, Purcell had the umpire remove from behind the court a spectator wearing a bright yellow shirt. I once read that Dennis Ralston liked to wear a yellow shirt in order to increase the chances that his opponent would lose sight of the ball for a crucial fraction of a second. I had never seen camouflage attire raised as an issue in the stands. (Later in the day, when Elina Svitolina was playing on Court 17, there were some Ukrainian flags in the stands. Flags, banners, and signs are among the prohibited items at the US Open. I heard a security guard speaking about the issue on his walkie-talkie and another guard approaching the fans with the flags, but in the end the guards retreated without confiscating the flags.) With Purcell serving the sixth game, OíConnell took a lead with a couple of backhand winners and earned the break on a double fault. He closed out the set with a 112 mph ace up the T.


Purcell finally turned the tide in the third set, breaking serve in the second game when OíConnell overcooked a forehand approach shot. Purcell squirmed out of a 0-40 hole when serving at 3-1. In that game, he was deprived of an apparent ace by a questionable let call. (No one heard the serve tick the net, but these calls are made electronically Ė and, it should be noted, there are no lines judges, to say nothing of net court judges, at the US Open anymore.) He followed that disappointment with an ace, one of his 22 on the day, struck to the same location. Thereafter, he served another let, this one indisputable, acknowledging the call with a smile. When it came time to serve out the set, Purcell raced to a 40-0 lead before faltering with a double fault and two errors. On his fourth set point, however, he sealed the deal with a 119 mph ace out wide.


On a roll, Purcell went up an early break in the fourth set, but OíConnell reeled off four consecutive games from 1-3 down. Serving for the match at 5-3, OíConnell went up 30-0, only to see Purcell rally, breaking service with a drop volley to stay alive. The players held serve from there, forcing a tiebreak. On Purcellís first service point, he hit a drop shot followed by a weak crosscourt forehand passing shot that found the net, a crucial mini-break that OíConnell was not to squander. Save for that point, the players held serve throughout the tiebreak, which meant that OíConnell earned three match points at 6-3, saw Purcell save two on his serve, and then closed out the match with a serve that Purcell could not return: 6-4 6-3 3-6 7-6(5).


My next stop was Court 17 for a clash of lefties, as the Wimbledon champion, Marketa Vondrousova, was taking on the qualifier Na Lae Han, who had defeated Elizabeth Mandlik, daughter of the former champion Hana Mandlikova, in the final round of the qualies. When I arrived, Vondrousova had just taken the first set, 6-3. The second set was one-way traffic, as Vondrousova put up a bagel. Still, Han was interesting to watch, hitting with two hands on both wings. As is typical for such players, rare though they may be, the cross-handed shot is the forehand. Vondrousova often employed drop shots to bring Han forward and force her to hit with one hand.


Han struck her groundstrokes with some force, but her serve was a distinct weakness. I donít recall her reaching 80 mph on the speed gun, and her second serve, a heavily sliced offering, barely broke the speed limit. Vondrousova feasted on these tame offerings, winning 68% of the points returning Hanís first serve and 75% returning the second. It would seem that Hanís shortcomings could be addressed with coaching such that she could get her service speed at least into the nineties, which would make her far more competitive. But sheís 31 years old, and if it hasnít happened yet, itís not likely to happen.


As for Vondrousova, I got an eyeful of her array of tattoos when I was sitting in the second row on Court 1 for her Wimbledon quarterfinal. I am not expert enough, however, to discern which tattoo she added to her collection after her victory at the All England Club. (Tattoos are no longer unusual in tennis Ė or, I suppose, in life. OíConnell has a circular one above his left knee. Gael Monfils has them on each arm, as well as one on his torso, which was revealed when he changed shirts.)


I remained on Court 17 for Elina Svitolinaís match against Anna-Lena Friedsam, who lost two years of her career to shoulder surgery and wore a long black compression sock on her left leg. Svitolina, who has been to the quarterfinals or better at all four majors, jumped ahead 3-2 when she broke serve with a crosscourt forehand passing shot. She wrapped up the first set after Friedsam reached 40-0 in the ninth game. Friedsam went for a big second serve and double-faulted, beginning a run of five straight points for the favorite.


Court 17 got more crowded in the second set. For one thing, the day session in Arthur Ashe Stadium had ended. (Although I had purchased an Ashe ticket as rain insurance, I was never to enter that arenaís unfriendly confines, as is my wont.) For another, the next match on 17 featured the electrifying Gael Monfils, also known as Svitolinaís husband, and many of the fans did not realize that the start of that match was scheduled for no earlier than 6:00 p.m., a fact that the tournament organizers were not at pains to emphasize.


Svitolina made quick work of Friedsam in the second set, racing to a 5-0 lead. Friedsam then managed to avoid losing by the same score as Han had, holding at love and forcing Svitolina to serve out the match, which she did with ease for a 6-3 6-1 victory in 59 minutes. After saving a break point in the first game of the second set, Svitolina took 14 consecutive points on her serve. For the match, Svitolina won a robust 85% of her service points (33 of 39), as compared to 50% (25 of 50) for Friedsam.


Rather than waiting two hours for the Monfils match, I took my eight-year-old daughter to the USTAís ďRed Ball for AllĒ court, where we waited in line (surely not called a queue in Queens) before batting around a foam ball for a few minutes. My next encounter with the professional game occurred on Court 8, where Jordan Thompson was serving at 3-4 in the first set against Botic van de Zandschulp, whose last name, I am reliably informed, means ďsand shellĒ in Dutch. I didnít get to see much of these competitors. Thompson floated a backhand approach shot long to give Van de Zandschulp the opportunity to serve out the first set, which he did at love. The umpire then made an announcement that failed to make an impression on me, and the players left the court. Was there a concern about a potential thunderstorm? (The skies were threatening.) No, I later was to learn, Thompson had thrown in the towel, retiring with an ankle injury incurred in a fall Ė though he was to play (and lose) his first-round doubles match on Wednesday.


Erroneously thinking that rain might be imminent, I spent some minutes in line in Louis Armstrong Stadium, waiting for a change of ends that would let me see the latter stages of the match between the retiring John Isner (whom I first saw at the US Open playing a boysí singles match against Richard Gasquet) and Facundo Diaz-Acosta. Time spent in line gave me the chance to ask myself: Do I really want to watch Isner play? No, I did not, so I turned around for Court 17 and the long-awaited match between Gael Monfils and Taro Daniel.


Daniel, 30 years old, plays for Japan, but his father is American and he was born in New York. If there was any benefit to being a local boy, it was not apparent, as the fans overwhelmingly supported the invariably entertaining Monfils. And yet, there is something quite appealing about Daniel, who did try to get the fans to cheer his better moments. Heís generally not a threat to those of the top rank, but he is game. To take one measure of his career, his record in the majors is 8-24, with his shining moment being a third-round appearance at the Australian Open last year. By contrast, his record in Masters 1000 events is a more respectable 9-10, with third-round appearances in Miami (once) and Indian Wells (twice). At Indian Wells, in 2018, he defeated Novak Djokovic in the round of 64, giving him a 1-0 career record against the once and future World No. 1.


Whatís more, Monfils will celebrate his 37th birthday on September 1 and has spent much of the past two seasons sidelined with injuries. All this is by way of saying that the outcome of the match was not obvious. In the first set, Monfils scrambled out of a 15-40 hole while serving at 2-2, but couldnít replicate the feat at 3-3. With the break in hand, Daniel served out the set, closing with an ace.


In the second game of the second set, Monfils raced into the corner trying to run down a ball. He fell hard and winced, appearing to injure his left wrist. (Iíve twice seen Monfils retire from US Open matches, and it looked like this might be an unhappy third retirement.) For a while after the fall, he shied away from hitting his two-handed topspin backhand, falling back on the one-handed slice, but the wrist did not appear to hinder him for long. The set remained on serve until the tenth game. Serving at deuce, Daniel hit a net cord, which Monfils chased down brilliantly, hitting a backhand with underspin and sidespin behind Daniel for a winner. Remarkably, the same thing happened on the next point, but this time Daniel tracked down Monfilsís down-the-line backhand and whipped a forehand winner. Daniel was not out of the woods. Monfils put away a forehand volley to earn a second set point, and then he hit a forehand passing shot that Daniel netted, so now the match was even.


If there was a thought that Monfils now had the momentum, it was put to rest in the first game of the third set, when he dropped serve. The next four games were crucial: (i) Monfils broke back at love on a Daniel double fault; (ii) Monfils fought off a break point to hold for 2-1; (iii) on his fourth break point of the game, Monfils concluded an exchange of drop shots with a one-handed crosscourt backhand pass; (iv) Monfils held serve at 15. To cap it off, Monfils won a marathon eighth game to take the set, cashing in his fourth break (and set) point with a jumping backhand return of Danielís second serve.


Notwithstanding his newfound lead, Monfils seemed more winded than Daniel. He dropped serve to open the fourth set, and I envisioned him coasting through the fourth set and conserving energy for the fifth. But he broke Daniel at love in the fourth game and salvaged the fifth despite a break point. Now both players dug in for the eventual tiebreak, which Monfils opened with a characteristic point: rather than bombing his first serve in the deuce court, he hit a slice wide, which he followed to net, enabling him to put away a backhand volley. Many times in the match, he opened the court with this serve, sometimes coming into net, more often going for the serve-plus-one winner, and the tactic was very successful.


Daniel got the first mini-break, taking a 3-2 lead when Monfils sprayed a backhand wide. The lead would not last long, as Monfils grabbed consecutive points on Danielís serve, first with a crosscourt backhand drop shot (one that worked, after so many droppers had failed for him) and next with a backhand lob.


Monfils took care of his two service points to get to triple match point at 6-3. Daniel was able to fend off one of the match points, but on the second he doubled faulted feebly into the net, allowing Monfils to walk off with a 4-6 6-4 6-2 7-6(4) win, concluding my US Open day at 9:24 p.m.


One way of looking at the match is that Monfils won it with his serve. He had 23 aces to Danielís 5. (They both double faulted a lot, 11 times for Daniel, an even dozen for Monfils, though the timing of Danielís tended to be more damaging.) Take away that margin of 18 points, and Daniel would have won 11 points more than Monfils. With the aces, it was 130 points to the winner, 123 to the loser.


It is hard to imagine the compromised Monfils of 2023 troubling Andrey Rublev in round two, but it was wonderful to see the entertainer put on a show during the twilight of his career.