August 29, 2017
I have spent years sending Roger Federer into premature retirement, certainly after his haul of major titles apparently topped out in 2012 at a once-unimaginable 17. If you had told me at the start of this year that Federer would add a major to his collection and throw in a Masters 1000 title, I would have said you’re crazy, but it would be great if the prediction came true. Now that, in the year in which he has turned 36, he has won two majors and two Masters 1000s, and thrown in a 500 for good measure, I should be satisfied, right? But it is human nature that desire — even vicarious desire, because, let’s face it, I don’t derive any tangible benefit from Federer’s triumphs — is insatiable. Thus, I spent a rain-soaked first Tuesday night of this year’s US Open groaning over Federer’s errors and hoping he could somehow right the ship and ultimately win a twentieth major title: a double La Decima, if you will.
Before suffering through Federer’s exertions, however, I had to get onto the grounds. The non-Ashe matches in the day session were rained out by mid-afternoon, so the venue was not too crowded, but of course the security lines were endless. Adding to the unpleasantness this year is the introduction of so-called “mobile tickets,” which work on smartphones but cannot be printed. The rationale for this technological incursion was that people were forging print-at-home tickets, which is a real problem, but the cure is no bargain. The security lines outside the grounds were dwarfed by the queue inside the grounds, as hapless fans tried to get into Ashe with their phones: WiFi service was down and they could not access their tickets. The only ticketholders who could enter Ashe directly were those with paper tickets, among whom I was fortunate to be for this session, and those who had downloaded their tickets from the US Open app.
The USTA had personnel scattered around the outside of the grounds to try to help customers with mobile tickets. I am aware that iPhone users may download a mobile ticket to an app called Apple Wallet. How to do that with an Android phone is a mystery to me, as it was to the USTA representative with whom I spoke. I later learned — or believed that I had learned — that an app called WalletPasses is supposed to work for Android. If you had searched for such information on the US Open’s website (e.g., here), you’d have undertaken a fool’s errand, and there’s a reason for that. After 22 minutes on the telephone with the US Open ticket office today, I learned that mobile tickets may be downloaded to Apple Wallet because that app is native to iPhones, but the US Open ticket app does not support the external Android app WalletPasses. The representative with whom I spoke, Sabrina, helpfully took my complaint and said that there have been many other complaints, that mobile tickets are a trial this year, and that the USTA is trying to make the experience better in the future. Knowing how the USTA functions, you may call me skeptical. The last word on the subject belongs to a New York Yankees fan, who said of the team’s introduction of mobile tickets: “It’s a nightmare. The whole nonsense is ridiculous.”
When I attend the US Open at night, I try to catch day session matches on the outside courts. This was not possible on the rainy first Tuesday of the tournament. I’m hoping to get to the field courts on my two subsequent days at the Open, the first Thursday and the middle Sunday. Unfortunately, there is rain in the forecast both days, so I might be spending a lot more time in Ashe than is my wont.
When I arrived in Ashe on Tuesday evening, there was a sparse crowd (italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs) for the first match of the evening, between Madison Keys and Elise Mertens. The former is the fifteenth seed (and an American), the latter now at a career high of 39 in the world, so this was a good contest to feature for the night crowd, but the fans, even when they arrived, were rather disengaged. Throughout the match, there was a steady buzz permeating the stadium, as fans’ conversations were amplified by the closed roof. Earlier in the day, Rafael Nadal had complained of the noise, which is always going to be a fact of life when the roof is closed on Ashe. For one thing, American fans are not to be confused with their British counterparts. For another, the vast majority of Ashe seats are so far from the court as to breed disengagement. Maybe this is less true for the celebrities who sit near the court. As the night went on, the video screens showed, among others, Jesse Eisenberg, Rosie Perez, Victoria Beckham, the Federer fan Anna Wintour, Ernie Els, and Sean Connery (who was serenaded with the James Bond theme).
Keys earned the first break of the match on a double-fault by Mertens. Mertens broke back with a nice lob/drop shot combination. Keys got the edge she needed when Mertens missed a backhand volley on break point while serving at 3-5, and Keys served out the set at love with an ace.
In the fifth game of the second set, Mertens got out of a 15-40 jam, aided by Keys’s missing a return off a 77-mph second serve. Keys finally broke in the eleventh game, finishing off a long rally with a forehand volley. But when Keys served for the match, she quickly fell behind 15-40 and was broken on a pretty forehand lob. Keys took a 4-2 lead in the tiebreak, but Mertens surged back and even served for the set at 6-5. An inside-out forehand from Keys saved the set point and she reeled off two more points to take the match, 6-3 7-6(6). Keys had dictated play, with 32 winners and 44 unforced errors, as compared to 9 and 25 from Mertens.
This brought us to the feature match of the evening, between Roger Federer and Frances Tiafoe. It is impossible not to be moved by Tiafoe’s inspirational story, in which he learned to play tennis because he grew up as the son of the maintenance man at a tennis center in College Park, Maryland. And Tiafoe may someday become a star, but I was not ready for him to do so on this evening.
As the match opened, however, Federer was sloppy, and Tiafoe broke quickly at 15. He saved a break point in the next game and after that cruised through the set, dropping only nine points on serve. Tiafoe was having success serving wide in both the deuce and ad courts. He rarely cranked up his serve to 130 mph, more often serving in a range from about 115 to 125, but Federer was having trouble getting the ball back, let alone doing anything with it. Things changed when Federer finally broke in the fourth game of the second set. He seemed to be reading the Tiafoe serve better, and he romped through the second and third sets for the loss of only three games. During that period, Federer won 30 of 57 receiving points, or 53%. It was getting late and I began to think about my day job, so I decided to head home with the match safely in Federer’s grasp. Or so I thought.
On the subway back to Manhattan, I turned on the US Open app and saw that Tiafoe had stormed through the fourth set, winning 11 of 19 points on Federer’s serve and dropping only 5 of 21 on his own. Federer broke early in the fifth and had a match point on his serve at 5-3, only to be broken. He pulled things back together and broke Tiafoe to close out the match, 4-6 6-2 6-1 1-6 6-4. Overall, Federer had won 133 points to Tiafoe’s 121. In a statistic I find more telling, he had won 40% of receiving points versus 33% for the American teenager. But the outcome was hardly a sure thing, bringing back memories of a 19-year-old Federer subduing Pete Sampras 7-5 in the fifth at Wimbledon in 2001. While Tiafoe surely rues the outcome of this match, he would be more than happy if it were an omen of great things to come.
Meanwhile, Federer lived to fight another day — and for his fans to suffer another day. Human desire, even the vicarious kind, is insatiable.