I wrote a long diary that detailed my trip to NY/NJ for the US Open tennis tournament. But reading it was boring - there's only so many names I could drop and matches I could mention before it became repetitive, even to myself. So I am changing the format and putting down some random thoughts that flitted through my (over-crowded) cranium while I was at the Billie Jean King United States Tennis Association National Tennis Center (honestly, yes, that's its full name).
1) I think it was the late David Foster Wallace who once likened watching Roger Federer play to a "religious experience". For three years I planned my schedule such that I would watch Roger play, but was flummoxed every time. This time, due to a very generous gift, I had tickets to every session from Friday through Monday night. I got to watch Federer play twice, once against Hewitt and then against Robredo. I did not find religion, but I was definitely in awe. People talk about his court acumen and flair, but an underrated part of his game is his speed and stamina. He was not required to display the latter but the speed was there for all to see. He is deceptively quick around the court and dictated the pace of most of the points he played. I anticipate that he will win it all this year.
2) I watched Federer, Nadal, Murray, Roddick, Venus, Safina, Dementieva, Oudin, Sharapova, Paes, Bhupathi, and a whole slew (yikes, there I go name-dropping again) of players in all sorts of courts big and small, but came away with one overall impression. Very little separates the good from the great. The cream of the cream play in the majors and almost everyone is capable of hitting winners from all over the court. The very top players (top 5 on both sides) have a couple of extra gears that they can seemingly transition to when in trouble but it is just a small difference. The BIG difference is that the top players, especially the really elite ones, are able to maintain this high level for extended periods of time. In the case of folks like Nadal and Federer, the later it is in the match, the more pronounced this difference becomes as the opponents begin to make mistakes while these guys sustain their high level.
3) Many trees have been killed to write about Melanie Oudin and her feats as she sliced through the Russians one after the other. Except for Sharapova, all the other Russians that she faced imploded under pressure. This applies to Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva, too, who lost to other players. All these women have big games based on hard-hit groundstrokes, powerful first serves, and immensely impressive court coverage. But in return for that they have the worst mental attitude of all. As soon as things start going against them, they start doubting themselves. Melanie played well, no doubt about that, but she was helped by the rapidly disintegrating opponents too. If I was their coach, I'd tell them that they had to go through an entire match without throwing a tantrum when they missed a shot. It takes most of the fun away from a closely-fought game to see a player give up halfway through the deciding set.
4) Rafael Nadal uses every inch of the space available behind him on the court. Not that he will have to worry about it any more for the rest of his career, but I do not think he would be able to play his normal game at some of the other courts because there simply isn't enough room for him to stay back and return the ball. The accompanying photo is of the Grandstand, the third biggest court at the complex and it would not be enough to contain Nadal, such is his range.
5) I watched a lot of Leander Paes (from close quarters in the Grandstand) and saw him interact closely with Lukas Dlouhy and Kara Black. As I write this, he has made it to the finals in both the men's doubles and the mixed doubles. Impressive for a guy who is 36 and has always relied more on his reflexes than anything else. He looks just as quick as always and proved that one great player on a doubles team can be enough to carry a decent player in his wake. It used to be said that in the 1980's the best doubles team in the world was John McEnroe and his partner or Martina Navratilova and her partner. I can see how that can be true! Paes is the livewire of the teams and the audience is there for him, and not just traveling Indians. I sat in a section with folks from all over the world and all of them had Paes in their sights the whole time. Not bad at all.
6) (Storm in a teacup alert). The ballkids at these tournaments are now also required to fetch towels for the players in between every point. It is a little annoying, really, to see that. When things are not going well, the players tend to be very rude, throwing the towel to the court or behind them, expecting these kids to clean up after them. Andy Roddick was positively rude to the ballkids during the first couple of sets of his match with John Isner. Later on he got better but it irked me to see that. And Roddick is one of the nice guys on the tour (as far as I have seen on television and other times that I have "interacted" with him in person). I hope the kids are rewarded in some way for putting up with this treatment.
7) I have said this in the past, but it bears repeating - the US Open is the most fan-friendly sporting event that I have been to. There is a great deal of commericalism and intense price-gouging (a bottle of water costs $4, for instance) but that is the case everywhere. Getting to the facility is very easily done (subway or LIRR) and, once there, the visitor has first-come-first-serve access to all the courts, except for the big one (Arthur Ashe). And if you cannot make it to Arthur Ashe, there are numerous big screens around the complex where you can follow the action. Players sign autographs and pose for pictures, if asked, and celebrity-sighting is a common experience.
8) I have long been a regular reader of L. Jon Wertheim, who writes for Sports Illustrated. After the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon epic of 2008, Wertheim used that as a backdrop to write a book about the rivalry and the two players. Even reading about that match was too much for me so I resisted all impulses to buy it. After Federer's resurgence and subsequent overhauling of Pete Sampras' career mark, the pain had eased enough for me to contemplate buying it, but I hadn't yet. On Sunday, Wertheim was at the complex signing autographs and promoting his book. I caved in and bought the book (review to follow in a few days...but short note - it is really worth reading). When I walked up to him I asked him if he would write a personal note for me inside the book. He responded that he would, but it would depend upon what I wanted him to write. I told him what I wanted; he laughed at it and agreed to do so. So, I now have in my collection Strokes of Genius, by L. Jon Wertheim, with the words: Manish, Ivan Lendl was indeed the truth!
9) Growing up in the 1980's I was mesmerized not by the splendid artistry of McEnroe or the blazing aggression of Becker but by two contrasting characters - Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl (but not in that order). Lendl was, to me, the hard-working, under-appreciated toiler. A man who worked his way to the top and worked really hard to stay there. Tennis did not seem to come easily to him, especially the grasscourt kind, but he stayed at it till he became one of the best grasscourt players in the world (two Wimbledon finals do not come by accident in a time when McEnroe, Becker, and Edberg are at or near their peak). When Pat Cash came out of nowhere to upend him in the 1987 final, I cried for hours at the unfairness of it all. (After all these years, I still cannot think of Cash and not imagine cement-mixers and broken bones. Grrr).
After his tennis career wound down, Lendl disappeared from the public eye. He did a couple of stints of guest commentary on television but seemed more interested in his golf game. On Sunday, years after he had steadily wandered away from my tennis consciousness, I heard he was signing autographs at the Open! Tingling with anticipation, I stood in line and got to meet him, 20 years later than I wanted to but it was just as moving for me now as it would have been then. He has changed a lot (appearance-wise) but who cares. I got to shake Ivan Lendl's hand and get his autograph!!
Once I figured out that I could get autographs from the players, I decided that every year I would sacrifice a hat for players "special" to me. Last year it was Leander Paes. This year I went in deciding that only Federer, Nadal, or Agassi could grace my hat. But once I saw Lendl, it was a no contest. This would be the year of Ivan the Terrible!
10) Ivan Lendl is indeed the truth! Actually, what I really wanted to say was that I think it is cool that they play John Williams' Imperial March whenever Darth Federer comes on court for a night match wearing an all-black outfit.