Not a Word About the Future Roof on Ashe

August 31, 2015


For the second consecutive year, I attended the first session of the US Open, with this year’s program somewhat more appealing than last year’s, as the first round has been compressed from an unnecessarily long three days to two. My first match of the day was on Court 13, where I saw Jelena Jankovic practicing (she was to lose later in the day; hyperlinks in red refer to photographs) before the opener between David Goffin of Belgium, the fourteenth seed, and the Italian veteran Simone Bolelli, the reigning (with Fabio Fognini) Australian Open men’s doubles champion. Goffin wore classic Lacoste, while Bolelli, who sported a wedding band, wore clothing from Hydrogen, with a truly ugly death’s-head logo. Bolelli, who turns 30 in October, is one of the dwindling band of players who hits his backhand with one hand.


Music was blaring from outside the court for most of the match. Is such a thing imaginable at Wimbledon? I should think not.


The first set was close, but Goffin, who had chosen to receive, took the lead in the seventh game when Bolelli double faulted on break point. After that, it was clear sailing for the Belgian, 6-4 6-1 6-2. Bolelli went 0-for-3 on break points while Goffin cashed in a robust 6 of 9 times. Goffin, who averaged only 113 mph on his first serve and 88 on his second, somehow served 13 aces – the lesson, as always, being that placement counts for something. Not a big man, Goffin has broken into the top twenty with speed and defense. It’s hard to imagine him winning a major, but easy to picture him remaining seeded at the majors.


While this was going on, I saw dribs and drabs of the match on Court 14 (one of the second-tier courts, with no speed gun and no singles net) between Marsel Ilhan and Radek Stepanek – or, as I like to think of him, dirty old man Radek Stepanek (he turns 37 in November and his personal life is a matter of public record). Stepanek, one of the few players still around who knows how to find his way to the net before the post-match handshake, ran out of gas, retiring in the fourth set while trailing two sets to one.


Next, I checked out the current Roland Garros boys’ singles champion, Tommy Paul, in his match against the 25th seed, Andreas Seppi, on Court 6. The venue is part of a complex of three new courts, numbers 4, 5, and 6. Court 5 has all the bells and whistles, including the capacity for review of disputed calls, while the flanking courts are poor relations akin to Court 14. While Seppi and Paul fought it out on Court 6, Court 5 had a big crowd for Fernando Verdasco and Tommy Haas. Of the four combatants, none was in his twenties, and Paul was only one under 30. He got a wild card into qualifying and won his three matches in impressive style.


I arrived with Seppi leading, 6-4 6-0 2-3. Seppi’s game is familiar, while Paul was new to me. He hits his forehand with a ton of topsin, in the Nadal/Sock mode, but with frequent mishits, at least when I was present. Serving at 4-4 30-30, Paul missed two forehands for what looked like a decisive break of serve. In the tenth game, Seppi had two match points on his serve, but he, too, was broken. Alas for Paul, he was broken again in the next game, and Seppi, after double faulting on his third match point, cashed in his fourth for a 6-4 6-0 7-5 win.


I stopped on the way to Court 17, where I was to watch Milos Raonic and Tim Smyczek, to watch the big television screen in the plaza of the tennis center as Benoit Paire finished up his five-set upset of last year’s finalist, Kei Nishikori. When I got onto 17, Raonic had just wrapped up the first set. Raonic, featuring his usual compression sleeve, was wearing a color-coordinated ensemble that put me in mind of a pumpkin with a 147 mph serve.


The second set went on serve, which must be to Smyczek’s credit, as he was bringing a knife to a gunfight. When Raonic served, Smyczek stood closer to the back fence than to the baseline, which gave Raonic the ability to play serve-and-volley and to hit effective angles and drop volleys.


At 5-5 in the tiebreak, Raonic served a 140 mph bomb but then netted an overhead, giving Smyczek a chance to serve out the set, but Raonic stole the point with a forehand drop half-volley. Smyczek then double-faulted to give Raonic a set point on his serve, but Smyczek got even at 7-7 with a down-the-line forehand. The decisive mini-break took place at 8-8, when Smyczek sprayed a backhand long. Raonic took care of business on his serve, with Smyczek’s errant forehand sailing into the stands.


The sun was oppressive on Court 17, so I took a break in the Chase Lounge and forewent the third set. (It’s worth mentioning that this year visitors to the Chase Lounge can register in an odd location: at the Chase Lounge. Last year, we had to trek through the food court, for which there had to be some good explanation, but I can’t imagine what it was.) It was just as well, as Raonic cruised to a 6-4 7-6(8) 6-1 victory. I was told by a cousin who stayed to the end that Raonic closed out the match with a series of serves at 140 mph and up.


After some lemonade to avert dehydration, I repaired to Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the defending champion, Marin Cilic (a year ago, who expected that phrase to be accurate?), had a two-set lead over the left-handed qualifier Guido Pella. (Armstrong, not to mention, will not be around forever, as is well-advertised at the Open.) The better players have familiar characteristics, and for Cilic the most notable may be the way his right elbow remains slightly bent as he draws back the racquet in his service motion. Pella briefly opened up some daylight in the third set with a break in the third game, but Cilic drew even when he broke back in the eighth. The tiebreak was something of a rout, as Cilic closed it out, 7-3, when Pella double faulted. A first-round win at Roland Garros in 2013 remains Pella’s only victory in Grand Slam singles play.


The sun had become somewhat less powerful by now, and I headed out to Court 15 to watch Pablo Cuevas against Dudi Sela. Nick Bolletieri, who’s looking good for 84, passed through and signed autographs before the match began. This contest was another veteran matchup, as Sela is 30 and soon to be a father of two, while Cuevas turns 30 on New Year’s Day. It was thus fitting that this was a matchup of two one-handed backhands, with both players, especially Cuevas, showing versatility and power without the benefit of a second hand on the racquet. The first set was a runaway, as Cuevas built a 4-0 lead and cruised to a 6-2 win. Sela turned things around in the second set, breaking for a 5-3 lead and serving it out, though not without a hiccup, as he slid from 40-0 to ad out in the decisive game. Perhaps the turning point of the match came in the fifth game of the third set, when Cuevas saved three break points. Sela wavered when he served at 4-5, double faulting to give Cuevas a set point and, after saving that one, missing an inside-out forehand wide and another forehand long. Suspecting that the fight was out of Sela, I moved on at that point, and I was correct, as Cuevas pulled away for a 6-2 3-6 6-4 6-1 win. This marks only the third time in nine tries that Cuevas has made it to the second round at Flushing Meadow.


My next stop was Armstrong, which was supposed to host a Maria Sharapova match to end the day session. After Sharapova withdrew from the event, the match between Gael Monfils and Ilya Marchenko was moved to this show court. Monfils’s mannerisms are nothing if not familiar by now: the hunch over as he prepares to receive serve, the feet pressed together in his service motion. The Frenchman was up a break at 3-1 in the first set when I arrived and added another break before closing out the set.


In the second set, facing a break point in the fourth game, Monfils slipped and fell. Not only was his serve broken, but he remained on his back for a while. When he got back up, he seemed to move well again, and he even broke back in the ninth game. But Monfils double faulted at 4-5 30-40 to hand the set to Marchenko, tying the contest.


In the opening game of the third set, Marchenko saved two break points. Suddenly, Monfils was serving change-ups — as I’d seen him do in 2013 against John Isner, albeit apparently for strategic reasons then. Marchenko broke his serve and held for 3-0, and then Monfils took a medical timeout. Later, after Marchenko had opened a 5-0 lead, the trainer came onto the court and worked on Monfils’s back. Two points later, with Monfils trailing 0-30, he walked to the net, tossing his racquet into the stands and retiring. He later explained that he could not move because of a lingering back problem, though another report spoke of an elbow injury caused by the fall.


My final stop of the day was Court 17, where I arrived just after the volatile Fabio Fognini, seeded 32nd, had taken a lead of two sets to one over Steve Johnson. As I had discussed three years ago, Johnson will do anything to avoid hitting a backhand, and that remained the case against Fognini. In a way, he’s a poor man’s John Isner, all serve and forehand, except the Johnson serve is not nearly as dangerous. To be fair, Johnson is a lot more mobile than Isner.


In the fourth set, Johnson held serve with difficulty in the second game and then broke Fognini in the third. In the sixth game, Johnson held on for a 4-2 lead, even after a brouhaha in which Fognini, for once, was blameless. Fognini had challenged an out call and the video board showed the word “OUT” even as the diagram showed the ball touching the line. The umpire gave this one to Fognini, though he upset the Italian in the next game when he awarded the point to Johnson after a call was overruled rather than ordering the point replayed.


Serving at 3-5, Fognini saved a set point and put the onus to win the set on Johnson, a burden he did not come close to sustaining. After losing the first point on his serve, Johnson served three consecutive double faults to level the set at 5-5.


Johnson did not fold up after that debacle, getting to 15-40 in Fognini’s next service game before the Italian held serve, leading Johnson to smash his racquet. In the twelfth game, Johnson rediscovered his serve and sent the set to a tiebreak, which proved anticlimactic: Fognini raced to a 5-0 lead and cruised to a 7-2 win to close out the match, 2-6 6-3 6-4 7-6(2). Fognini celebrated by tossing his headband into the crowd and my day of tennis had ended nearly eleven hours after it had begun.