Thursday, September 22, 2016

Five Days at the U.S. Open

Earlier this month, I had a chance to attend five separate days at the US Open tennis tournament, held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. On each occasion, there was an intriguing match played at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The venue boasts a new roof, making it look like a giant spaceship has invaded New York City but also ensuring that weather would not affect play.

The roof is not attached to the stadium, rather it sits above the seating bowl supported externally as you can see above. On the first night session of the tournament, which featured Novak Djokovic against Jerzy Janowicz, there was an opening ceremony where Phil Collins delighted fans with "In the Air Tonight".

While he was singing, the roof went from closed (above) to open (below), a process that took just over five minutes. It was pretty cool to watch this as Collins crooned.

Despite a sore wrist, Djokovic (below in blue) won the match in three sets, and then was gifted a walkover in the second round and an early retirement in the third round. When I returned from Canada after my brief tour to Toronto and Montreal, he had made it to the quarterfinals having played only six complete sets. Tickets for the QF were $6 on StubHub, a bargain to see the best player in the world take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, or so I thought. Sadly, Tsonga injured himself late in the second set and retired after the first serve of the third set, giving Djokovic yet another easy win.

The men's semifinals were on Friday afternoon, with Djokovic taking on Gael Monfils in the early match, while Kei Nishikori would play Stan Wawrinka after that. Work precluded a visit to the first match which was scheduled to start at 3, but with tickets quite affordable and my wife interested in watching her compatriot Nishikori play, I bought a pair on the hope that Monfils would put up a fight and delay the second match until 6 p.m. or later. Although Monfils acted oddly in the first set, he did win the third and when we arrived at Arthur Ashe just after 6, Djokovic was finishing off the Frenchman in four sets. It worked out perfectly as we took our seats just as Nishikori and Wawrinka appeared. The match was quite interesting as Nishikori won the first set, but he couldn't deal with the Stanimal's stamina, falling in four.

Saturday's highlight was the women's final, with Angelique Kerber taking on Karolina Pliskova. Yet again tickets on the secondary market were unbelievably cheap so my wife and I headed over for that match after a last-minute purchase. Kerber won in three sets in a very impressive display by both players. After that, we headed to the new grandstand (above) where the junior girl's doubles championship was to be held. I used to think that junior girls meant girls (i.e. under 14) so I had no interest, but then I discovered that junior girls is somewhat redundant and inaccurate. These players are certainly not junior and in many cases, no longer girls; rather they are 16-18 years old and have already turned (or will soon turn) pro. Most of them are ranked in the top 1000, equivalent to a 4A ballplayer. But almost nobody cares, although the quality is top-notch and you can sit as close as you want.

This night, it was four Americans battling for the junior doubles title, with Ena Shibahara and Jada Myii Hart defeating Caroline Dolehide and Kayla Day (serving above) in a third-set tiebreak 13-11 (at this level, if each team wins a set, they play a first to 10 tiebreak where you must win by 2). Day was serving for the match and double-faulted, and when she and Dolehide lost, Day immediately broke into tears (she's the rightmost player, sulking below).

When I got home I watched the replay on ESPN3 (kudos to ESPN for broadcasting every match with a professional camera crew and director, even those without announcers) and Day, still bawling, confided to her teammate that "we had two match points and I f&%$ed them both up". It was so adorable. Dolehide, the older of the two having just turned 18, assured Day that it was not her fault, but Day would not be consoled. During the awards ceremony, she was still too emotional to speak, but Dolehide mentioned that Day would be playing in the singles final the next day and we should show up for that.

So I did. And this time, Day won easily, defeating Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova in straight sets. This time, Day was all smiles (she's the player on the left above) and I have to admire her mental strength to get over the crying jag and win a tournament the next afternoon. As an aside, Day (who turns 17 on September 28) played in the regular women's tournament, winning her first match against Madison Brengle (who I saw in World Team Tennis a few days before) before losing to #8 seed Madison Keys.  I think Kayla Day will be a name that tennis fans will be hearing a lot of in the next few years.

Also at that grandstand that final day were the McEnroe brothers (above) in a Champions (i.e. old-timers) match. Their opponents were Australians Pat Cash and Mark Philippoussis, who just retired last year and is only 39. This is supposed to be an exhibition match, but Philippoussis missed the memo, and one of his serves was clocked at 133 MPH, faster than any serve in the men's final later that day. John McEnroe, now an elder statesman in the sport that once despised his on-court tantrums, could only stand there without even moving his racket, earning laughs from the crowd. It was all in good fun of course, and all of the players talked with the fans to keep things light. A guy sitting directly behind me had an extended interaction with Patrick McEnroe that was quite amusing. Surprisingly, only about 1,000 showed up for what was probably the most entertaining event of the day.

Just before the men's final began, the junior boy's championship got underway, with Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime (above, the #2 ranked junior player and 595th overall despite turning 16 a few weeks prior) taking on Croatian Miomir Kecmanovic. We were only able to watch the first three games before we had to make our way to Arthur Ashe for the men's final, and when we left Felix had a 2-1 lead in games on his opponent. After we left, he dominated, winning the match 6-3, 6-0 to bring tennis glory to my homeland. Look for Felix to become Canada's new tennis darling in a couple of years, and perhaps working with Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil they can lead Canada deep into the Davis Cup sometime around 2020. That's my vision anyway.

The final match of the tournament saw Wawrinka beat Djokovic in four long sets, with the battle lasting nearly four hours. Djokovic had won the first set but tired after that and seemed to be suffering from some toe injury late in the match. Not that it mattered; it seems clear that Wawrinka is ready to claim Federer's spot in the Big 4, keeping it in Swiss hands. That's the championship ceremony above, with Wawrinka in pink. He would end up taking the center circle in the great bracket that lies outside Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Overall, I really enjoyed these last couple of days, mainly because I got to witness some future stars of the sport in crowds that numbered less than 100. Seeing the big boys play on Arthur Ashe is still exciting, but some other fans in the nosebleeds seem to think differently. Often they would get up in the middle of the action, and on two of the five occasions I went, morons sitting behind me talked the entire time. I mean non-stop conversation, without bothering to watch the event below. I think one couple was on a Tinder date or something because it was all banal self-promotion. Thankfully, American Express card holders can get free earpiece radios to listen to the action, and this blocked out most of the inane chatter. To not have to listen to these two witless wonders try to impress each other with their exercise regimens was worth the card's annual fee.

I thought tennis fans might be a bit more sensible than the idiots that plague the Big 4 sports these days, but nope, they are just as clueless. I can't figure out why these fans don't understand that some people are actually there to watch the action. Tennis affords plenty of breaks so that you can leave your seat to grab yet another overpriced beer without disturbing those around you, so why do it just as a player is about to serve? Oh yeah, cause you're a self-centred imbecile. On one occasion, two middle-aged, well-to-do ladies stood up in the middle of an extended point between Wawrinka and Djokovic, blocking my view. I swore quite loudly at them but they were already down the stairs, pissing other fans off as they waltzed by, blocking the view of anyone with an aisle seat. They returned 10 minutes later just as Wawrinka was serving for the second set. While they had gone, two more lunkheads had taken their seats, so of course, that meant four people standing up while a key point was being played. None of these four people were invisible by the way, so no, I did not get to see the point. I did say "Nice timing you stupid...." quite loudly, and I guess they heard me because the next time they got up, they did so during a break in the action.

Next year, I'll be spending more time at the smaller courts, where you can see quality tennis and future stars without having to deal with these twits who have no idea how to behave at a sporting event. And how's that? Get there on time, sit in your seat during the action, and watch. Remember that there are thousands of people there who want to see the field, not your big ass. It isn't hard, and you do it at the movies, right? Sure tennis matches can be long, but time your entry and exit points with breaks and you won't piss people off.


Louis Armstrong Stadium will be torn down and replaced by 2018. Here are some shots from the concourse...

... the seating bowl...

... and overlooking the old grandstand, which offers a unique view that will probably not be replicated sadly.

The Court of Champions is near the south gate, and is worth stopping by to see some very detailed plaques honouring the greats of the game.

There's a lot more to see and do here, so if you do visit, choose a day pass early in the tournament so you can soak up the entire experience.

Next Up

I'm working again, so not much coming up over the winter. I will be heading to Chicago to see the Leafs take on the Blackhawks on October 22, and I do have trips to Los Angles for the Rams, Edmonton for the Oilers, and Minneapolis for the Vikings planned, and I'll post those schedules shortly, so check back for that.



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