Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2019

Two Different Courts. Two Different Players. Two Different Futures?

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday. The next post will be on Labor Day. Thanks for reading!

Surely there are times during the year when the sprawling 46-plus acres devoted entirely to tennis is an empty and quiet place, weeks and weeks when only a few score people walk the grounds or sit in the stands to watch local tournaments or join in the public play that often takes place at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The layout is massive – more than twice the size of Roland Garros, home of the French Open – and there is, after all, only so much interest in tennis. But the one certainty about the home of the U.S. Open is that for the two weeks straddling Labor Day every year, the complex that sits hard by the tracks of both the Long Island Railroad and the New York subway system’s 7 line and just across those tracks from Citi Field is decidedly neither empty nor quiet.

As the sun slips toward the Manhattan skyline in the west on Thursday and a lovely summer day gives way to evening, throngs pack the plaza in front of the main gates, waiting for the magical moment of 6 p.m. when their tickets for the evening session will grant them entrance to the grounds. The hour arrives and the assembled thousands begin to surge through the metal detectors and turnstiles, joining thousands more day session ticketholders who, while they can no longer occupy an assigned seat in any of the three main stadiums, are still welcome to watch matches on any of the lesser courts. The result is an enormous concentration of tennis fans, from the truly dedicated to the merely casual, jostling each other as they stroll the grounds, partake of the myriad concessions, run up their credit card balances at the high end retail shops, camp in front of one of the numerous jumbotrons showing action from the courts, and occasionally even find a spot to watch live tennis.

Many in the crowd make their way to the far end of the Tennis Center’s property, past the towering bulk of Arthur Ashe Stadium, to the Grandstand Court. Along with Ashe and Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand is one of Flushing Meadows “show” courts – sites generally reserved for matches of higher seeded players – but the special attraction of the venue this evening has little to do with the ranking of either player. In a second round match of the men’s singles competition, Australian Nick Kyrgios is set to face Antoine Hoang of France. Like fans in many sports, some tennis aficionados are drawn to whoever is willing to play the role of villain, and Kyrgios has proven to be more than happy to take the part.

The 24-year-old, seeded 28th at the Open, is a player of immense talent. He starts his first service game with three straight aces, rocketing 136 mile per hour serves that Hoang doesn’t even attempt to return. Kyrgios wins the point at love with a fourth serve that at least gets a feeble, flailing reply from the other side of the net. But as he shows before his first service toss of the match, Kyrgios isn’t just about power, as much as he possesses it in abundance. Hoang serves to begin play and is quickly broken with a combination of sharp returns and superior court sense by Kyrgios.

Yet there are far too many times when Krygios seems determined to allow his talent to go to waste. He is, as noted tennis journalist Christopher Clarey recently wrote in the New York Times, equal parts “brilliant and boorish, compassionate and clueless.” He is a showman on the court, and that is surely part of his appeal, but often the theater extends to clownish behavior. Kyrgios has also admitted that he quits on matches when he’s not doing well, and at this same site one year ago was part of a bizarre scene when an umpire climbed down from his chair (and, at least figuratively speaking, from his position of neutrality) to encourage Kyrgios to try harder. Earlier this month he was fined a record $113,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct after a tirade against an official during the Western & Southern Open, a display that included the smashing of not one but two rackets.

So while the crowd has ostensibly gathered to watch tennis, there’s no doubt that many in the stands are also there on the chance of witnessing a train wreck. In that they will leave disappointed. Kyrgios makes plain his dissatisfaction with several calls during the match, but overall, he is on what for him passes as best behavior while dispatching Hoang in straight sets. Still as he goes deeper into the tournament fans must ponder the possibility of a star at the U.S. Open being suspended for charging the USTA with corruption, as Kyrgios did during his press conference after his opening match. For the flammable Australian, it’s business as usual.

If fans at the Grandstand Court are there for the possibility of self-immolation, the nearly full house at Armstrong Stadium has gathered for fire of a different sort. Like a meteor streaking across the night sky, 15-year old American prodigy Coco Gauff exploded onto the major tennis scene just last month at Wimbledon, where in her first appearance at the All England Club she upset Venus Williams in the first round and made it all the way to the fourth before losing to eventual champion Simona Halep.

In the tournament where she previously won the junior doubles title, Gauff is facing veteran Timea Babos in the second round. Just as she did in her opening match, Gauff drops one set but pulls out a win to the delight of the cheering crowd. Fans who at best were barely aware of her existence six weeks ago now serenade her with chants of “Coco, Coco!” In interviews she responds with the giggles one would expect from a young teenager, but also with a surprisingly mature appreciation of the crowd and understanding of her skillset.

That latter knowledge is also apparent on the court, where Gauff is equally willing to play defense or be aggressive, as the situation dictates. She is in control early against Babos, winning the first set 6-2, but midway through the second the veteran reasserts herself, breaking Gauff in the seventh game. Babos drops just two points in her final two service games, and perhaps before a neutral crowd the momentum would have been in her favor. But the fans at Armstrong are anything but neutral, with every Gauff winner eliciting loud cheers and every good play by Babos greeted by near silence. Both hold serve through nine games of a taut third set, until Gauff, drawing strength from her legion of very new supporters, breaks Babos to claim a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 victory.

Both Kyrgios and Gauff are young players with enormous talent and both now move on to the Open’s third round. Kyrgios faces Andrey Rublev, a Russian who, at least on paper, the Australian should handle. Gauff goes up against defending champion Naomi Osaka on the main court at Ashe on Saturday. Odds are the teenager’s tournament ends there, though if she pulls off the upset Cocomania will know no bounds. Beyond the results of a single match or tournament, fans on Thursday saw two very different bearers of athletic potential. But skill alone does not make a career, so it is fair to think that between Kyrgios and Gauff only one might ever fully realize their promise.

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