US Open Diary Part 1
The US Open is like Wimbledon’s rowdy little cousin. There aren’t perfectly chalked white lines or delicately mowed lawns or robotized ball boys. No, Queens has some hard court bounce and bravado. The pop music echoes between games, the fans scream when they feel it necessary. Even the players get creative and colorfully coordinated, freed from their white-clothed shackles, matching neon oranges from headband to shoelace. Across the East River, in Manhattan’s shadow where there’s room to breathe, the grunts grow louder and the cheers build to roars. If Quentin Tarantino were directing this major tournament, he’d call it Tennis Unchained.
The first week of tennis is about as hectic as the traffic from Manhattan to Queens. There is information overload beginning and ending with the hundred plus television monitors, one for every possible media outlet workstation. They display five channels at once, interview room assignments, and the extensive list of schedules and results. Even with a rotation of five colleagues, you have to be smart, skilled, and lucky just to keep track of it all. The media room within Arthur Ashe is the central hub of tennis coverage, two rooms compressing stalls to fit writers, reporters, photographers and the foreign radio men who call live tennis watching from a screen to somewhere 8,000 miles away.
It’s such a strange dissonance watching a match on a screen when it’s being played live through a door down the hall. It’s an isolating experience. Inside a stadium nothing is more important than what’s in front of you. Inside the pressroom, it’s just a muted match on 20 inches, a channel ready to be flipped. You can’t get trapped down there too long because then you get jaded with information overload. You have to go watch tennis with your eyeballs physically on the court to regain your appreciation of the best players in the world. It also helps to get some fresh air.
I covered the first two night sessions but my first three hours covering the Open are divvyed up like this: 10 minutes watching Nadal put away Ryan Harrison and 170 minutes waiting in a makeshift media pen by a red carpet, capturing sound from a diverse array of celebrities in preparation for opening night ceremonies. I don’t need to be there at all. I was there last year and it’s the same exact setup, with the same amount of standing, listening to silly affectations of magazine reporters who have no clue about tennis and complain about the VMA’s the night before. To these people, a celebrity is great if they like to talk and rude if they don’t. For example, a discussion (among the many as we wait) breaks out about stars that have changed in their demeanor towards the press thanks to a new spouse. Apparently Alec Baldwin’s wife, Hilaria Thomas, has turned him warm to red carpet interviews.
Some highlights from the carpet, which featured Anna Wintour pausing two seconds for pictures, Jason Sudeikus without a mustache, Lenny Kravitz being too cool for school, and skater Johnny Weir wearing angel wings and posing for photos like you think he would…
Kevin Spacey, who says he’s in the middle of shooting “House of Cards”: “There’s nothing like New York, nothing like Queens, nothing like the US Open. The fans that come out here really give the players a tremendous amount of boost.”
Robin Roberts, who just got back from Hawaii with friends after her bone marrow treatment: “I played a little tennis [in Hawaii] on a tennis machine because my friends aren’t as athletic as I am. But it was great to feel that way again, being stronger and a little more active.”
Bob Balaban, who is starring in the Monuments Men this winter with George Clooney and Matt Damon and was, let’s just say, vague about his tennis: “I’m very excited about the new people, that last year we barely knew who they were, and suddenly this year someone’s going to go like that [pointing to the sky]. Because if you’re in the top 40, you actually could be number 1.”
Yes, Bob, you really could be!
Serena is my pick to win the US Open again and defend her title here. She headlined opening night beating a former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone 6-0, 6-1 in exactly one hour. It’s the kind of match everyone knows is over after Serena hits Schivaone’s first serve with a forehand winner down the line. Both are grunters but Schiavone’s grunts are in pain whereas Serena’s sound like, “let’s just get this over with!” Schiavone did just about everything to win the crowd’s favor, screaming abruptly after losing a point, then hugging a ball boy for comfort. This was her 53rd consecutive major, a remarkable feat, but also a tiring one. The jumbotron pans to Donald Trump and the crowd, in stupor watching Serena’s swing, comes to life with a healthy BOOOO! The match finishes just as the rain drops begin to introduce themselves and then they make their presence known and Roger Federer is pushed back to Tuesday.
I started my Twitter account when I was 17 years old and I wasn’t famous and had nothing to say. American Victoria Duval is 17 years old, ranked 296th in the world, and has just beaten #11 Sam Stosur in front of a Louis Armstrong crowd chanting “U-S-A” between changeovers. She talks like comedian/actress Kristin Schaal, higher-pitched and baby-like and shrieks with excitement when she finds out Lil’ Wayne tweeted about her victory. Her favorite “Spongebob” character is the snail Gary, “because he doesn’t get enough credit,” and her motto is to have fun. As she walks out of the pressroom, someone asks why she doesn’t have a Twitter account and she says, “You have to be famous to have Twitter.” According to her logic, 99% of Twitter users should not have accounts, and, after this upset, she will have a Twitter username very shortly.
I caught the last and most exciting set of their match. That’s the great thing about these tournaments. You can casually enter into a stadium and see something magical happen simply by chance. Duval still has work to do on her first serve, which failed her many times as she aimed to close out the match. I sat near the baseline and watched Stosur continuously return Duval’s second serve with a forehand winner down the left corner, zipping sidespin like a 2 seam fastball away against a lefty. The more she rallied the more the crowd pushed her on. Her family box had about 20 people, including her father, a doctor who had been buried beneath rubble during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. They spurred on Louis Armstrong Stadium to turn into a Baptist Spiritual. I asked her what it was like hearing fans scream for her that night. “It was amazing,” she said. “I felt like I was on Ashe honestly. They were so loud. It was incredible. The crowd helped me a lot.”
Duval has barely been mentioned to be part of the crop of young American women tennis stars like Sloane Stephens, Jamie Hampton, and Madison Keys. But that might change now, especially after you watch her forehand, which clinched the match against Stosur. You have to remember that most of these girls are 20 years old and younger, that their voices can still be bubbly and girly, and that someone like Cuba Gooding Jr. walking the red carpet can make a competitor like Stephens, who escaped an upset, get giddy and hug him before leaving for her hotel.
I caught some of the Victoria Azarenka match later that second night, another cupcake competitor for her. Unlike Serena’s, and far away from Schiavone’s, her grunts have a Three Stooge’s Curly “woopwoopwoop” affect. If everything goes right, she should meet Serena in the final and have an epic rematch.
But tennis is unpredictable. Much of the week’s discussion, like last year, is the retirement of an aging American male. James Blake announced this tournament would be his last on the ATP circuit, walking away from the daily grind while still playing at a competitive level. The weather is also unpredictable, which is why there is now a plan to put a roof over Arthur Ashe stadium by 2017, along with other renovations. Can you imagine the energy and noise on an enclosed rainy, steamy night on Ashe?
The US Open will become the rowdy cousin on a sugar high and its boos will definitely blow off the Donald’s hair.
For Part 2, Click Here