Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2012

History, Drama And Dominance In An Open Afternoon

A NOTE TO READERS: My travel schedule delayed this post from Thursday. The regular Sunday and Thursday posting schedule resumes tomorrow.

In the outer reaches of Queens, Friday is hot and steamy. The calendar may have flipped to September, with school bells ringing and the equinox lurking in the latter part of the month, but on this afternoon the weather of high summer has refused to notice. From the western concourses of Arthur Ashe Stadium the distant towers of Manhattan can be seen reaching for the sky through a humid haze. It’s the final weekend of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It’s been more than two weeks since the four-day qualifying tournament kicked off the Open, and an event that began with hundreds upon hundreds of competitors in the various brackets is down to a remaining handful. The gates to Louis Armstrong Stadium and the adjacent Grandstand Court are closed and locked, and the scoreboards at all but four of the fourteen outer courts read “No matches scheduled today.” But for a handful of matches marking the final stages of the boys and girls junior competitions, all of the action is scheduled to take place on the main court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Yet that fact hasn’t stopped many thousands of fans from making their way onto the expansive grounds of the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. To my eye the Open always looks equal parts social occasion and sporting event. Whenever I ride the 7 train along its snaking elevated path between the rooftops and satellite dishes of Queens for a day of tennis at its highest level, I arrive to find many fans for whom actually watching a match appears secondary to wandering the grounds, shopping in the many upscale retail outlets, savoring the multitude of dining options, and sampling the various high-priced specialty cocktails at one of the bars sponsored by Moet or Gray Goose or Heineken. At best they may wander briefly to an outer court or glance at the main action on the giant screen outside Ashe Stadium.

To me it seems a rather expensive way to see and be seen as compared to, say, a picnic in Central Park. Accordingly I make my way into the massive edifice that is Arthur Ashe Stadium. Opened fifteen years ago, the Stadium is by far the largest of the venues for the four Grand Slam tournaments. With seating for more than 22,500, Ashe dwarfs adjacent Armstrong Stadium, once the principal court for Open play.

First up on this Friday is the final match of the men’s doubles competition, and I take my seat in the third level of the great bowl of blue seats in time to witness history. American twins Bob and Mike Bryan have been a force in men’s doubles for more than a decade. While neither has ever been a factor as a singles player, together they have stood atop the doubles rankings for years. In the early afternoon heat they overpower the team of Radek Stepanek and Leander Paes 6-3, 6-4. The victory is their 4th at the U.S. Open and their 12th Grand Slam title. That latter number ties the more than three decade old mark set by Australians Tony Roche and John Newcombe for the most doubles championships in the Open Era. The twins are 34 years old and their time at the top is almost surely approaching its twilight. But today they cement their place in history, and do so to wild applause and the sing-song chant of “Bry-an Bro-thers!”

Next up on the Stadium court are the women’s singles semifinals; two matches that will provide a stark study in contrasts. The first pits top-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus against world number three Maria Sharapova. Both players have devoted followings and both are going for their second Grand Slam title of the year. Azarenka ascended to the number one ranking with her straight set victory over Sharapova at the Australian Open final in January. While she has spent most of the year ranked number one, she was briefly replaced at the top by Sharapova, when the latter completed the career Grand Slam by winning the French Open in June.

Sharapova’s power game is on display from the start of the match. Azarenka starts tentatively, and is broken in both of her first two service games as Sharapova races out to an early lead. But Azarenka is known for her excellent return of service and gritty determination. Trailing 1-5, she digs in and gets one of the breaks back when Sharapova goes on a double fault spree; but the Russian steadies herself and takes the 40-minute opening set 6-3. When Azarenka is broken again to open the second set, a quick Sharapova victory seems at hand.

But just as the tone of the match seems set in place, it all changes. The top-ranked player breaks back to even the score, and now the rallies grow longer and the games tougher. The more powerful Sharapova is also the more mistake-prone. In the end her 44 winners and 8 aces are offset by 42 unforced errors and 10 double faults. At the end of the second set, which Azarenka takes 6-2; Sharapova asks for and is allowed a ten minute break because of the intense heat. Less than halfway through the respite Azarenka is back on the court hitting practice serves to ball boys, the momentum now in her favor.

The final set is a brutal struggle between two determined finishers, neither of whom has lost a three set match in 2012. Their matching grunts echo through the stadium and every shout of “Come on Maria!” is countered with a cry of “Go Vika!” It takes well over an hour to play the third set alone, as both players hold serve through the first nine games. But the momentum seems clearly on Azarenka’s side. Sharapova’s service games go repeatedly to deuce, and she fights off multiple break points. Finally, after more than two and one-half hours, serving at 4-5 the willowy Russian faces one break point too many. A Sharapova volley sails long, and Azarenka drops her racquet, displaying as much stunned relief as victorious joy.

A few minutes after Azarenka’s triumph 4th seed Serena Williams takes the court to face number 10 Sara Errani of Italy. If the first semifinal was an evenly matched slugfest, the second is a lopsided rout. Williams has been in top form throughout the tournament, and has yet to drop a set. Errani has somehow made it through her draw to become the first Italian woman in a U.S. Open semifinal without recording a single ace. Her serve rarely tops 80 miles per hour, while Serena’s is often clocked at more than 110. Errani is an outstanding doubles player, and on a slower clay surface her singles game is good enough to win some tournaments, but on the hard court she is out of her element. In less time than it took Azarenka and Sharapova to play just their third set, Williams is a 6-1, 6-2 winner.

Despite her higher ranking Azarenka’s record against Williams is a dismal 1-9. Serena is coming off a championship at Wimbledon and a gold medal at the Olympics. Based on her dominating performances over the past two weeks she is certainly the heavy favorite in the final match, which has now been postponed from Saturday night until Sunday thanks to ominous weather. But as Vika showed earlier on a steamy Friday afternoon, she is not one to give up easily.

As I make my way out of the stadium the setting sun glows orange behind the distant Manhattan skyline. Back on ground level and heading for the exit and the short walk to the subway station, I can’t help but notice that while the teeming crowds of early afternoon have understandably thinned, here and there pockets of fans remain. They sit and chat with shopping bags at hand, sharing a final cocktail and story before heading home themselves, after a pleasant day at the Open with little or no tennis.  From what I have witnessed, that is entirely their loss.

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