A Senior Moment and Tyson’s Law

US Open, August 31, 2023

Jerry Balsam


Prices for entertainment, as for higher education, have outstripped inflation, and the US Open is no exception. In 1976, when I was a pup, I treated myself to a ticket to the men’s singles final at Forest Hills, which went for $11. (To my chagrin, Jimmy Connors defeated Bjorn Borg.) An inflation calculator tells me that in 2023, that $11 would translate into $59.10. Of course, today you can’t touch a first-round US Open ticket, to say nothing of a ticket to the final, for $59.


Thus, while I attended the opening Tuesday of the tournament, I hesitated before buying a second ticket for the first week. Put this in the behavioral economics file: somehow, it’s easier to justify spending a lot of money on tennis tickets when you’re already paying for airfare and a hotel, as in my Wimbledon experience. In Wimbledon’s case, it helped that the expensive tickets produced good seats, while the equivalent seats at the US Open are priced prohibitively.


At the same time, I knew that ticket prices often declined on the day of the event, as sellers became a little more reasonable or desperate, depending on how you look at things. Moreover, there is sometimes a strange disconnect, as the bad seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium can go for less than grounds passes in the resale market. (I view an Ashe seat as a grounds pass with rain insurance.)


Against this background, imagine my pleasure on Thursday morning, August 31, when I saw an Ashe ticket for $144. I pounced on it and headed out to Queens on the subway. It was only after I had passed through security and shown the ticket on my phone that the ticket-taker gave me the bad news: I had purchased a ticket for the night session.


Yikes, that was a senior moment. The Ticketmaster website is somewhat confusing, and when I clicked to see Ashe tickets for the day session (or thought I had), night tickets were included. To compound the difficulty, the app would not let me resell the ticket, only transfer it. I think there are two possible explanations for that: maybe the US Open doesn’t allow purchase and resale on the same day, or maybe it doesn’t allow resale when the event is not sold out. Either way, I was feeling stuck, till a friend suggested I reach out to my contacts to see if anyone wanted to buy the night ticket. I priced it to move, offering it for $100, and one of my friends hit the bid. At the same time, I bought a grounds pass for $159. Throw in the $44 loss I took on the night ticket, and the day session was costing me a bit more than $200, which is about what it would have cost when I balked at the high prices for the second round of the tournament.


With that excitement behind me, I camped out in the shaded part of Louis Armstrong Stadium for the opening match of the day, between Jannik Sinner and his countryman Lorenzo Sonego. (I refuse to use the phrase “fellow countryman.” What does “fellow” add?)


Sinner was sporting a different Gucci bag from the one I had seen at Wimbledon. (Italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs.) Sonego wore an Armani kit that featured a neon yellow stripe across the chest, which must be intended to confer an unfair advantage if the opponent loses the ball in the background for a moment.


The Armani camouflage shirt did not help (or Gucci bested Armani), as Sinner had Sonego on the back foot from the outset. Sonego saved a break point in the first game, but succumbed when he next served. Sinner consistently played closer to the baseline, particularly when serving, pushing Sonego back with his power and opening up angles.


The second set was more of the same, except Sinner broke serve twice, in the first and seventh games. One more break of serve in the third set did the trick, as Sinner cantered to an easy win, 6-4 6-2 6-4. Sinner never faced a break point, winning 89% of the points on his first serve and a remarkable 80% on his second.


In the next match on Armstrong, Aryna Sabalenka, the number 2 seed, took on the British player Jodie Burrage, who recently broke into the top hundred. (Her full name is Jodie Anna Burrage, which makes me wonder whether her parents considered the pugilistic implications of her initials.) Going into the match, my mental over/under for Burrage was four games. She exceeded expectations, although she won only five games, falling 6-3 6-2. In Burrage’s first service game, she doubled faulted on break point to fall behind by 2-0, but the match did not turn into a rout. Burrage exceeded 110 mph on some of her serves and stayed with Sabalenka gamely. Sabalenka had to save a break point in the seventh game, two big forehands doing the trick, and she was not troubled again in the set. Burrage earned a second break point in the second game of the second set, but another big forehand saved Sabalenka, and her serve was not to come under pressure again. Burrage let the fifth game get away. First, she missed a makeable forehand, and then Sabalenka brutalized a 103 mph serve with a backhand return down the line for a winner and the break. Sabalenka broke again for a 5-2 lead and served out the match at love.


At this point, I started to roam the grounds. Mike Tyson, whom one would not have pegged as a tennis fan, is one. Perhaps the best-known observation of his colorful life is “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” This aphorism, among others, applies to both boxing and tennis, albeit in a less bloody fashion when racquets rather than gloves are the order of the day. Before I start a day at the US Open, I review the schedule of play and tick off numerous matches of interest. The reality, however, is that you have to stake out a seat before the start of play to get into the attractive matches, and it will never be easy to move from one court to another during the day. In the first week of this year’s Open, more than 500,000 customers came through the gates. Getting around the grounds, let alone into a court, is not simple. Most days, moreover, it is too hot to sit comfortably in the sun for any length of time, so the choice of courts – at least until late in the afternoon – is reduced to Ashe, Armstrong, the Grandstand, and 17.


When I started my sojourn from Armstrong, I saw the conclusion of Michael Mmoh’s match with John Isner on the big screen outside Ashe. Of course, the final match of Isner’s singles career had to come down to a fifth set match tiebreak. I saw the 1988 men’s singles champion, Mats Wilander, doing some television standup. As the Mmoh-Isner match let out of the Grandstand, I took a seat there for a duel of lefties between Marketa Vondrousova and Martina Trevisan. Trevisan had won her opening-round match against Yulia Putintseva by 0-6 7-6(0) 7-6(8), a score that was to be revisited by Sabalenka (with somewhat different tiebreak scores) in her semifinal against Madison Keys. So when Trevisan double faulted to be broken in the opening game against Vondrousova, it looked like it might be more of the same. This time, however, there was to be no comeback.


Trevisan was significantly more aggressive than the Wimbledon champion. Notwithstanding her pronounced Western grip, Vondrousova often hit sliced forehand returns of serve. She also tried a bunch of drop shots that didn’t work. By the time the match was over, Trevisan had concluded 58 points with winners or errors, as opposed to 23 for Vondrousova. The bad news for Trevisan was that her winner/error ratio was 18/40, while Vondrousova registered 10/13. Indeed, it was Vondrousova’s defensive skill that helped her stave off four break points while serving at 4-2, including one fantastic defensive lob that got her out of trouble.


Vondrousova started the second set on the right foot, breaking Trevisan in a game that took twenty points. In the third game, Vondrousova needed only one break point to secure a 3-0 lead. With Vondrousova on her way to a 6-2 6-2 win, I got out of the sun and repaired to the Chase Terrace adjacent to the Grandstand for some lemonade. From the Terrace, I saw a tiny bit of mixed doubles on Court 8, as Aldila Sutjiadi and Rohan Bopanna closed out the opening set over Vera Zvonareva and Andreas Mies. Zvonareva was serving at 5-6 deuce (with no-ad scoring in effect in the mixed doubles, though not in the men’s or women’s), and Sutjiadi hit a service return that Zvonareva could not handle.


Rather than continuing to watch that match from the Chase Terrace with an obstructed view (Sutjiadi and Bopanna were to prevail, 7-5 6-2), I went to Court 9 and saw Hugo Nys (photo) and Jan Zielinski (photo) finish a 6-3 7-5 win over Yuki Bhambri (photo) and Marcelo Demoliner (photo) (who would be only one of two Brazilian doubles players named Marcelo on my menu for the day).


Next, on Court 7, I saw the teenagers Ashlyn Krueger and Ethan Quinn put away Asia Muhammad and one of my Wimbledon players, Jackson Withrow (photo), 7-6(4) 6-4. If you’re getting the sense that it’s easier to get a seat at a doubles match, you’re right. I had had dreams of catching Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Etcheverry on Court 17, but there was no way to get in.


I stayed on Court 7 for a full mixed doubles match, between Katerina Siniakova – the current number 1 in women’s doubles – and the giant Marcelo Melo and their opponents, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jamie Murray. All four players have serious doubles credentials, with the following hauls of major titles:


·        Siniakova: 7 women’s doubles

·        Melo: 2 men’s doubles

·        Mattek-Sands: 5 women’s doubles, 4 mixed doubles

·        Murray: 2 men’s doubles, 5 mixed doubles


Siniakova has an interesting service action, lifting her left arm for the toss only after her right arm is in motion. Murray played with sunglasses perched on the bill of his cap until shade covered the court and he ditched the glasses. His service motion begins well behind the baseline, and he walks forward as he springs into the serve. Mattek-Sands wore a characteristically colorful outfit, with black compression socks that were not exactly socks: they extended from her ankles to her knees.


On both teams, the men played the deuce court. Historically, doubles teams have placed a premium on the stronger returner playing the ad court, but that might be vitiated by no-ad scoring in mixed doubles, because on a deciding point (i.e., deuce) men serve to men and women to women.


The teams exchanged breaks of serve early in the first set, as Siniakova and Mattek-Sands were broken in the third and fourth games. Murray was in big trouble serving at 4-5 15-40 – that’s three set points, not two, in no-ad scoring – but he escaped.


The set went to a tiebreak. Siniakova dropped both service points from 1-2, and from there Mattek-Sands and Murray cruised to a 7-4 win.


The second set was quite a different story. In the opening game, Murray was down 15-40 again. He saved two break points, but not the third, as a double fault gave the game away. When it was time for Mattek-Sands to serve, she was broken at 30. In the fifth game, Murray was broken at love. Melo served out the bagel set, forcing a match tiebreak, which is played in lieu of the third set in mixed doubles matches.


The bagel victims bounced back to take a 5-2 lead in the decisive tiebreak, as Melo and Siniakova each gave away a mini-break with a double fault. With Melo serving at 2-7, Mattek-Sands hit a great return, setting up a poach and winning forehand volley by Murray for an 8-2 lead. Ultimately, Mattek-Sands and Murray took the match tiebreak by 10-4, resulting in the strange score of 7-6(4) 0-6 [10-4].


The statistics tell the story of this Simpson’s paradox match. The losing team won 67 points, the winners only 61. The losers took 42% of receiving points, the winners only 37%. The losers broke serve four times, the winners only once. As you can see from the handshakes that concluded the match, however, no one felt too bad about the outcome, as the stakes are definitely lower in mixed doubles.


My next stop was Court 6, for my second look of the day at Martina Trevisan. This time, she was playing women’s doubles with Elisabetta Cocciaretto (the latter having upset the former at Wimbledon last year), against the team of Magda Linette and Bernarda Pera. In this match, all four players brought serious singles credentials to the table. Their career-high rankings:


·        Trevisan: 18

·        Cocciaretto: 29

·        Linette: 19

·        Pera: 27


Trevisan and Pera are both left-handed. The former played the ad court, so her team had protection against wide serves, while the latter played the deuce court, giving her team two forehands up the middle. Perhaps fittingly in view of the players’ singles prowess, the contest was played as a singles match with four players. Typically, it was one-up/one-back, with the players in the back of the court pounding groundstrokes and trying to keep the ball away from the opponent at the net. The net players were not aggressive about poaching, so the rallies could go on for a while.


After I arrived, Cocciaretto and Trevisan took a second break to open up a 5-2 lead in the first set, which they won by 6-2. Linette, who was cheered on by a Polish contingent, dropped serve to start the second set, but Cocciaretto was broken right back. Later in the set, Linette and Trevisan each held serve after some difficulty, and Trevisan got into trouble again at 5-6, falling behind by 0-40. Cocciaretto had a good look at a volley, but she couldn’t put it away, and a passing shot by Pera sealed the set.


The third set was one-way traffic, as Linette and Pera cruised to a 2-6 7-5 6-0 victory. Serve mattered to the winners, who won 66% of points on first serve and only 36% on second. For the losers, the numbers were much closer: 64% and 55%.


My last stop of the day was on the Grandstand, where the 18-year-old Linda Noskova, already in the top fifty, was serving to the crowd favorite Ons Jabeur at 6-7 4-1. Noskova was broken the first time she served for the second set but held at 15 on the second try to tie the match.


Jabeur was struggling with the flu and a talented opponent. Serving at 2-2 15-30 in the deciding set, Jabeur was broken when Noskova nailed a crosscourt backhand that caught the sideline for 15-40, and then Jabeur planted a backhand in the net for the game. Crucially, Jabeur broke back for 3-3, sealing the game by responding to a drop volley with a crosscourt forehand passing shot.


In the eighth game, Jabeur broke at 15 to set herself up for the win, but it was not easy. First, she had to save two break points, with a forehand winner down the line and then a serve-plus-one that concluded with a backhand drop shot. Noskova was not to see another break point, but it took Jabeur four match points to finish her off, finally dismissing the youngster when her return of serve flew long: 7-6(7) 4-6 6-3.


Jabeur was to fall in the fourth round to Zheng Qinwen, and she is still looking for her first major title. It would be rash to predict that Noskova will enter the elite circle of major winners, but I think it would be hasty to predict that she will not.


As I was leaving the grounds, I saw that the monitors outside the field courts that typically show the ESPN feed carried a legend saying that it was no longer available. The battle between Disney and Charter Communications was underway, and I was to see no more of the US Open on television in 2023 – but I did have one more visit in store, at prices more reasonable than my $159 grounds pass.