The tennis US Open is held each year at this time in Flushing Meadows, in Queens. Each of the past two years I thought about going, but couldn’t quite convince myself to take a day off work to really enjoy it, plus I always figured I could do it next year. Alas, with the movers showing up on Wednesday, I was really running out of time. Fortunately, this gave me the incentive to get most of my packing done over the weekend so I could go today.
Once I made it through the hour-long line to buy tickets (I didn’t order ahead because I didn’t decide to come until this morning), I had a great time. The early days of the US Open are fun in that matches are taking place on all of the outer courts, where you can crowd right up to the fence around the court. It reminds me of going to watch AVP beach volleyball in that way. In the picture to the right, you can see how close I was to Stanislas Wawrinka, the 10 seed, in one of his matches.
Being that close to the matches let me appreciate how unbelievably hard these guys were hitting in a visceral way that is not apparent on television. The eye-in-the-sky viewpoint of the television camera lets you see the entire court at once, which isn’t possible when you’re standing up against the court. I started off watching Korolev vs. Soderling, and I actually couldn’t turn my head fast enough to see the serve land in the service box if I watched the service motion. These guys were amping it up to well over 100 mph on the serve, so I had to focus on the service box, and catch the service motion in my peripheral vision to have any hope of seeing the serve’s position and the return.
As an aside, I was a competitive tennis player in my middle and high school days, playing on my high school’s varsity team my junior and senior year. I played against state-ranked players, and watched my share of competitive matches between such players. So watching these guys from the pro tour from that same vantage point off to the side of the court made it clear what a quantum leap difference there was between what I’d seen and what these guys were doing. I’d always clung to the fantasy that if I’d stuck with tennis (instead of changing sports to volleyball in college and ultimate frisbee after grad school) I could have been decent, but a fantasy is all that is. Even the sound of them hitting the ball with the racket is audibly different in a way that can’t be heard on TV. Man, they’re good.
One of the other fun bits is that there’s a big board listing the current scores of all the matches happening, so I could cherry pick the close matches. I ended up seeing five different tiebreakers, as I would find the matches where the opponents were evenly matched, and watch them slug it out to 6-6. Korolev/Soderling went to a tiebreaker in the set that I watched – tiebreakers are to 7, win by 2, and their tiebreaker went to 11-9 as they battled for each point. This was the third set, and Korolev had won the first two, so he managed to finish Soderling off in the tiebreaker, but for a straight-set victory, it was incredibly competitive.
I then went to go see Wawrinka, since he was ranked 10. I had to use my height to see the court, but his first set extended into a tiebreaker as well, as his opponent, Simone Bolelli, was playing extremely well. Wawrinka pulled out the tiebreaker, Bolelli lost his composure (partially because he kept hitting to Wawrinka’s fantastic backhand and getting beat with ridiculous down-the-line passing shots rather than hitting to Wawrinka’s weaker forehand), and once Wawrinka was up a break in the second set, it was clear he had the match in hand (and I found out later he went on to win in straight sets).
So it was on to the treat of the day – Rafael Nadal, the number one player in the world, winner of the French Open, Wimbledon, and the Olympic gold medal, was playing in Arthur Ashe stadium this afternoon against Bjorn Phau, some German qualifier dude. Since this was in the stadium, I was up in the nosebleed seats, literally on the top row, but the view was still okay from up there. I got there just as it was starting, and it turned out to be one heckuva match. I’ve never heard of Phau before (he’s apparently ranked 136 in the world), but he played the match of his life today. The first set there were no breaks, although Phau was pushed harder on his serve than Nadal was, including a couple deuces. That turned out to be the difference in the tiebreaker, as Phau went down by a couple mini-breaks and lost 7-4. The second set followed form except that Nadal broke Phau once to win the set 6-3.
More importantly than the score, though, was that Phau was playing out of his mind. I saw much better quality tennis in this match than I did on the outer courts, and not just from Nadal. Phau was hitting lines, moving Nadal back and forth, and up and back pulling off some ridiculous drop shots. He was playing aggressively – he attacked the net a bunch of times in the first couple sets and won all but a couple of those points. And the crowd got behind him for playing so hard and so well – we started cheering every time he won a big point, and I think that crowd momentum helped him raise his game. Nadal was also playing a bit passively (he later admitted he was tired from the travel to and from Beijing), so he was letting Phau dictate the game, and that made things much harder. And yet, every time Phau needed a point to put Nadal in trouble, Nadal would make an unbelievable shot to put himself ahead again. There were a couple passing shots that Nadal did on the dead run that were breathtaking.
I wandered off after the second set since it seemed like Phau had gotten Nadal mad and woken him up, and I figured the third set was a foregone conclusion. I wandered around the outer courts stopping in on other matches (including another tiebreaker between Llodra and Gabashvili), but then noticed that Phau was still in the Nadal match at 4-4 in the third. I rushed back, and arrived as Nadal was serving for the match, up a break at 5-4. Phau hadn’t broken Nadal’s serve all day, but with the crowd behind him, he managed to pull it off when he needed it most, including one ridiculous point where he had gotten to the net, Nadal squeaked a lob over him, he ran back to the baseline and spun around to return it, and then managed to get back in control of the point to win it. He held his serve just barely to take the lead at 6-5, and needed one more break to take the set, even going up love-15. But it was not to be, as Nadal came back to win his serve and force another tiebreaker. Phau came out strong in the tiebreaker, but then blew two consecutive volleys on points where he was in control, and went down 5-2 and couldn’t recover. Tremendous match, especially for the first round, and especially involving a top seed – most of the other top seeds rolled through their first round matches, so it was a treat to see this one. Walking out of the stadium, everybody was buzzing more about seeing Phau than about Nadal, as his play today was a revelation.
Part of the fun of spending the day watching tennis was thinking again about different aspects of tennis strategy. I’m no David Foster Wallace (who writes extensively about the mental game of tennis in Infinite Jest and in his essays), but it was fun to see so many different styles throughout the day. I watched Kei Nishikori beat a higher-ranked Juan Monaco by essentially moonballing him, keeping the ball in play while taking pace off the ball and letting Monaco hit himself into unforced errors. I saw other players try to slug it out by hitting harder than each other. Bolelli was extremely effective at wrong-footing Wawrinka, getting him going into a rhythm side-to-side, and then hitting it twice to the same side of the court as Wawrinka was running to the other side. Phau decided to go for it on his first serves – even from the nosebleed seats, I could hear the difference when he cannoned a flat serve at 130+ mph, instead of the softer sound from his 100mph spinning second serve. It ended up costing him as I think his first serve percentage was under 50% for the match, but when he got it in, he really put Nadal on the defensive. It’s all playing the angles and trying to force the opponent into a position where they have to make a spectacular shot to avoid hitting it right back to you. Fun stuff.
I’d been watching tennis for six hours at this point, and decided I was done for the day, but as long as I was out in Flushing, I figured I should walk by the Expo site with the towers made famous (to me, at least) by Men in Black. I then hopped the subway one more stop to the Flushing-Main St. stop to walk around the Flushing Chinatown. While walking around, I saw Flushing Noodle Shop which attracted my attention for two reasons: (a) I love noodle shops, and (b) it had dead ducks hanging in the window (Batman’s heuristic for determining authentic Chinese restaurants). Yummy stuff. Then back on the 7 to home, and now I should really get back to packing.
P.S. I’ve been enjoying my last week in New York. Friday night, I went out with friends to get drinks at Pegu Club, and then dinner at John’s Pizzeria. On Saturday, I took a trip to the Upper East Side to visit the Whitney Museum, and its Buckminster Fuller exhibit – man, he was a nutcase, but an inspired one. I loved his description of himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist”, his idea of putting a two-mile-tall tetrahedron city to host a million people in San Francisco Bay (according to his calculations, it should float), and even better, his idea of constructing half-mile sphere cities that would float because the sphere itself would only weigh three tons, while it enclosed air of approximately fifty tons, and using the greenhouse effect, could heat the air by as little as one degree to create buoyancy (hot air rises).
I ate a yummy pulled-duck sandwich at Starwich, and went on to do a quick run-through of the Met, mostly to see the JMW Turner exhibition, since I adore his work. It turned out I’d seen most of the pieces already, as they were primarily from the Turner Bequest and on display at the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery in London, but still great stuff. Also, I visited the Koons exhibition in the Roof Garden – I’d never been to the Roof Garden before but it’s lovely, as they have a martini bar overlooking the park. I also took a turn through Musical Instruments, and Arms and Armor – the latter is guaranteed to turn me into a teenage boy again every time I visit. Afterwards, I wandered back across Central Park and caught the tail end of a nice sunset, as pictured.
I’m going to try to make it to the Frick Collection tomorrow and maybe MOMA after the movers come, and that should just about wrap up my New York experience. It’s been fun.