Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 11, 2022

New Heroes For A New Age In Tennis

Deep underneath midtown Manhattan, several stories below the soaring ceiling of Grand Central Station’s main concourse with its iconic depiction of the constellations, the number 7 subway train begins its journey east, headed for the far reaches of Queens.  Burrowing beneath the East River, the subway makes two underground stops before emerging into the open air.  The track climbs towards the bright blue sky, up to the fourth story of the skyscrapers around it.  The glass facades of the towering buildings return shimmering reflections of the train’s cars as it sweeps through the S-curve that marks the approach to Court Street station.  Another broad turn before Queensboro Plaza, and then the subway begins its long, straight run to Flushing.

As the local stops roll by, the borough becomes more residential.  Office high rises give way to three and four-story dwellings, some with street level storefronts.  The 7 train is passing through Queens at roof level, the view out the windows a jumble of satellite dishes and ancient TV antennas, occasionally interspersed with patio furniture and gas grills.  One wonders how many of those one-time electronic marvels are still connected to the modern flatscreens that no doubt now sit in the apartments below.  But whether the residents acquire the signal through streaming or by one of the older methods, surely some of the televisions will be later be tuned into the women’s final at the U.S. Open, taking place later this afternoon just a short distance away.

Half an hour after pulling out of Grand Central, the train slows to a stop at Mets – Willets Point, the next to last stop on the 7 line.  To the left of the tracks sits Citi Field, home of the Mets, while to the right looms the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the centerpiece of which is Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest facility dedicated solely to tennis in the world.  The Metropolitans are on the other end of the eastern seaboard this weekend, playing a set against the Miami Marlins.  That means everyone who gets off turns right, crossing the long boardwalk over multiple tracks of the Long Island Railroad.  Another trainload of fans has come to watch our national championship of tennis.

The complex at Flushing Meadows surely rates as nirvana to devoted followers of the sport.  To more casual fans, it can seem overwhelming.  Almost fifty acres devoted to tennis, with 22 courts (plus another dozen on adjoining property), practice facilities, and three stadiums.   Both Louis Armstrong Stadium, which seats 14,000, and the Grandstand with its capacity of more than 8,000, would do many tennis facilities proud.  But here they are both dwarfed by the hulk of Ashe, its original brick walls now partially obscured by the steel spiderweb of the superstructure added less than a decade ago to support the retractable roof.

With this year’s U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam on the calendar, in its closing weekend, most fans are headed for one of the nearly 24,000 seats in Ashe.  Most, but not all.  There are still a few other matches being played, as the junior and wheelchair tournaments are wrapping up.  But while some fans without tickets to the show court gravitate to those matches, a few thousand gather in the broad courtyard outside Ashe’s main gate, apparently content to pay absurd concession prices while watching the women’s final on giant screens.

What both they and those inside the stadium will see is a match that starts out as a rout but turns into a slugfest.  Tennis is a sport in transition.  For the men, the age of the Big Three is drawing to a close, an ending perhaps hastened by Novak Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a stance that kept him out of the Open.  Unbeknownst to those in the stands today, 24 hours later the main court will see 19-year-old Carlos Alcarez of Spain capture his first Grand Slam title and ascend to the top of the men’s rankings.  If that change is unsettling to fans who focus on the men’s game, it is familiar turf for followers of the WTA.  Women’s tennis has been in flux for some time, with a wide cast of leading characters.

The finalists are two of that number, though if their names are not familiar to some, they are clearly worthy of their roles.  Iga Swiatek has won a pair of French Open titles and came to New York ranked number one in the world.  In June, when she lost to Alize Cornet in Wimbledon’s third round, the defeat ended a run of 37 straight match victories, the longest winning streak in this century.  Well after Swiatek left London, Ons Jabeur played on, all the way to Wimbledon’s finals, where the Tunisian became the first Arab and first player from Africa to play for a Grand Slam trophy in the Open Era.  Jabeur lost to Elena Rybakina, but has continued to shoot up the rankings, and walks onto the court as the fifth seed.

The first set is lopsided.  Jabeur seems tentative from the start, and Swiatek pounces on every opportunity, closing out a 6-2 win in a mere thirty minutes.  Four months ago, the two met in the final at the Italian Open, and Swiatek dropped just four games in a straight set win.  But just when fans are thinking they are watching a reprise, Jabeur finds her game.  The fourth game of the second set is key, as the underdog fights back, saving three break points and holding serve.  Jabeur then adds to her momentum by breaking Swiatek to get back on serve.

But Swiatek, supported by scores of fans dressed in red and white and waving Polish flags and scarves, has not gained her number one ranking by accident.  Time and again, just when it appears the match is turning in Jabeur’s favor, she rises to the occasion.  The second set goes to a tiebreak.  Jabeur fights back from 2-4 down to take a 5-4 lead.  But three points later, it is over, and Swiatek is the champion.  The second set takes nearly three times as long as the first, but ultimately the result is the same.

Yet if an event can be accurately described as one in which there are no losers, this feels like it.  Both women have raised their profile in the sport, as well as their ranking.  Swiatek, with that remarkable winning streak and a pair of Grand Slams, will surely be the WTA’s Player of the Year.  For her part, Jabeur leaves Flushing Meadow ranked second in the world, seemingly on the verge of a major title.  A casual fan might dismiss them as two more names in the alphabet soup of recent leading figures on the women’s tour.  But then a casual fan, like an old unused satellite dish up on the roof, is sadly disconnected. 

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