WASHINGTON, August 31, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
With 87 singles matches filling Wednesday’s action-packed order of play – thanks to Tuesday’s continuous rain which washed out much of the schedule – attending the U.S. Open in person, watching at home on TV, or even glancing at one’s smartphone while on the run, added up to a tennis fan’s dream come true. With so many choices at the same time, how do you decide what match to watch or which players to follow? Sometimes, you just go with your gut instinct and hope for the best – and, of course, you keep close tabs on everything by using the U.S. Open’s app, and refresh your Twitter newsfeed often.
As it happens, one of my favorite times of the day to watch the U.S. Open is from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Eastern Time (5-7 p.m. CET), during the first two hours of play, tuning in via the WatchESPN app on my iPad. There, ESPN’s “Cross-Court Coverage,” hosted by Sam Gore and featuring smart analysis (and sometimes snarky commentary) by former tour players Rennae Stubbs and Mardy Fish, provides live look-ins from the show courts – Arthur Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand – and many of the outer courts, too. It gives viewers a good sense of what is happening all over the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds.
As play began Wednesday under sunny, dry skies and a 71º F (22º C) temperature, I could choose from among 17 different matches – watching Eugenie Bouchard, Elina Svitolina and Gael Monfils, as well as Tomas Berdych and Dominic Thiem – to whet my appetite, or simply rely on the “Cross-Court Coverage,” which I did for the sake of variety.
Each day, as I have found, the “Cross-Court Coverage” serves as a nice appetizer before ESPN’s regular over-the-air network coverage begins at 1 p.m. Eastern Time and continues until the last ball is hit on Arthur Ashe Stadium late at night.
On Wednesday, with later afternoon matches featuring Juan Martin Del Potro, Nick Kyrgios, Maria Sharapova, John Isner and Sam Querrey, among many to choose from, plus a night session with stars Alexander Zverev playing on the Grandstand, and Venus Williams and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Arthur Ashe Stadium, it definitely was a great day to be a tennis fan.
• Svitolina’s unbelievable year: World No. 4 Elina Svitolina has been very successful in three-set matches this year, winning them at a 70% clip. By closing out her rain-delayed 6-0, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win over No. 41 Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic on Wednesday afternoon, the Ukranian improved to 10-2 in her last 12 matches. This year, the 22-year-old Svitolina is enjoying a break-out year on the WTA Tour. She’s won five titles – which leads the WTA – including a pair of WTA Premier 5 events in Rome and Toronto as well as tournaments in Taipei City, Dubai, and Istanbul. Also, Svitolina was a quarterfinalist at Rolando Garros. Her No. 4 ranking is a career high and she’s improved 10 places since beginning the year ranked No. 14.
Svitolina, who has won more matches this year (46) than anyone on the WTA Tour – but is arguably the most under-the-radar of players – was profiled by Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo on TC Live at the U.S. Open on Wednesday. The presenter, who said she was not trying to put any pressure on Svitolina in going after her first Grand Slam title, instead, tried to be pragmatic in asking the Ukranian star if she takes herself seriously. “I have the confidence, but I don’t think too much about whether I can win the title or how well I can play at this or that tournament or a Grand Slam,” said Svitolina. “There are a lot of good players this year, and I’m up for the challenge.”
Then, playfully putting Svitolina at ease, Carillo deadpanned the following question: “How often do you look at your wrist?” It brought a smile and a chuckle from Svitolina, who sports a couple of small tattoos on her right wrist and forearm. One is a Hindu sign for “Om,” which she said is to help calm her down, and the other is “Carpe Diem,” which translated means “Seize the Day.” Asked to explain the significance of her tattoos, Svitolina told Carillo she got the “very special” Om sign four years ago and Carpe Diem just last year. “It’s to help stay in the moment,” she said in holding up her right arm to show off her tattoo art.
• Another late, great night at the Open: On Tuesday night, with the roof closed on Arthur Ashe Stadium, five-time U.S. Open champion Roger Federer and American teenager Frances Tiafoe played a thrilling, five-set match that was fought over 2 hours 37 minutes, ending after midnight. Looking back at No. 3 Federer’s 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 first-round win over Tiafoe, it proved a lot tougher than the Swiss or anyone else expected. Sure, he was aware of Tiafoe’s tremendous talent and probably expected a lot more of himself. After all, Federer had never lost in the first round of the U.S. Open.
“We saw a serious fight tonight,” said ESPN commentator Chris Fowler, describing the late-night scene at Arthur Ashe Stadium, just after Federer won. “Federer, forced to go the distance, looked fragile at times, but he finds the way. His experience and composure were decisive in the end.”
Fowler’s ESPN broadcast partner, four-time U.S. Open champion and tennis Hall of Famer John McEnroe, said of Federer: “He’s the greatest of all champions, and champions find a way to win when they’re not playing their best. He clearly did that tonight. He had his moments of brilliance, but for the most part he was sub-par.”
McEnroe was clearly impressed by the raw talent of the 19-year-old Tiafoe, who came into the U.S. Open ranked No. 70. Against Federer, Tiafoe hit 23 winners and broke his opponent four times in five opportunities. He said, “Tiafoe battled hard; he did a lot of good things, and the young American has a lot to be proud of. That stings when you break back the way he did (in the fifth set), saving a match point, and then lose your serve in the last game.”
Reflecting on Federer’s brilliant career, McEnroe waxed poetic, saying: “We are so lucky to have him still on the court at thirty-six. He absolutely loves every minute of it – loves to play tennis – and we are all better for it.”
After the match, the TV cameras caught a glimpse of Federer smiling. He looked relieved, too. During his on-court interview, Federer said his first-round match against Tiafoe was more than just a good test. “I think we both enjoyed ourselves out here tonight,” he said. “You guys made it very special for us to keep fighting, keep trying and go for balls, and have a good fight. I’m very happy with the match; it was exciting. It’s kind of why I came to New York as well, to go through these emotions.”
When he was asked how he felt physically – a fair question since Federer withdrew from the recent Masters 1000 in Cincinnati with back problems – Federer didn’t hesitate in answering the question. He said “extremely well.”
“I wasn’t here last year. I’m here this year,” he said. “So things are much, much better. To get through a five-setter, you have to be OK, somehow. So, I believe it’s going to give me great confidence. I’m really, really happy tonight.”
At age 36, Federer doesn’t get that many new experiences, but he had one playing under the closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “It was great. It’s a true privilege to be out here in Arthur Ashe, celebrating 20 years,” said Federer. “This is how long I’ve been coming here. So, to see the the new addition of the roof – the sliding roof – is wonderful. To see the U.S. Open growing and spectators keep coming back is great for everybody involved, and I’m the lucky guy who got to play through the rain because of the roof. So, I’m thankful.”
While New York City is noisy under any circumstances, Federer was asked what it was like playing with the roof closed. “It’s great,” he said. “When you guys get going, it’s even a better atmosphere than we used to have. So, I think it’s a great addition.”
• Mercurial Kyrgios resurfaces: Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios know how to abuse a tennis racquet with the best (or worst, depending upon your point of view) of them. He earned a one-point penalty from the chair umpire after he lost the third set of his first-round match against fellow Aussie John Millman on Louis Armstrong Stadium on Wednesday, hitting a forehand unforced error, then banged his racquet against the unforgiving hard court surface. At first, No. 17 Kyrgios pointed to his right shoulder, which he had received treatment on earlier in the match, to suggest he was conceding the match to the No. 235 Millman. However, that wasn’t the case. Instead, he continued to play on – even if he was no más mentally.
Throughout the summer, Kyrgios has either played brilliantly when healthy and motivated – he played some of his best tennis of 2017 two weeks ago in Cincinnati, where he was a finalist in the Masters 1000 Western & Southern Open – or erratically, as he did in racking up three consecutive injury retirements, at Queen’s Club, Wimbledon and the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. It was during this stretch that Krygios’s head and his heart – not to mention a healthy body – were not always in the right place on the court.
By the time Kyrgios was down two sets to one and trailing 1-4 in the fourth set, ESPN commentators Chris Fowler, Cliff Drysdale, Jason Goodall and Brad Gilbert convened an impromptu – and compelling – off-camera roundtable to discuss Kyrgios, voicing their comments over the action on Armstrong. Among the highlights, Fowler: “He’s entertaining and compelling, sometimes maddening and frustrating.” Drysdale: “I thought he turned the corner in Cincinnati.” Gilbert: “You can respect his talent, but he needs to be a rebel with a cause. He’s battling himself. How much is physical and how much it mental, only Kyrgios know for sure.”
Gilbert continued his on-point analysis: “I think he’s one of the most talented guys out there, but until he gets a professional team around him to hold him accountable, I don’t think he can make his talent come to fruition that he has.”
After Millman won 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, Goodall put things in perspective, saying, “It’s a sad day for the tournament, a sad day if you’re tennis fan, because Kyrgios didn’t pitch up today.”
• Away from the spotlight: Sometimes, the best storylines are found away from the spotlight of Arthur Ashe Stadium. While casual followers of tennis may not recognize the names of either Brienne Minor or Ons Jabeur, both who made their U.S. Open debuts in facing each other Wednesday afternoon, each is a pathbreaker in her own way. Minor is a 19-year-old junior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., unranked by the WTA, who earned a wild card into the U.S. Open by winning the American collegiate championship tournament last spring. Only later after Minor won did she learn that she was the first African-American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion since Arthur Ashe at UCLA in 1965.
“When we found out that he was the first male and she was the first female, we thought it was amazing,” Minor’s older sister, Michelle Minor, told The New York Times, “but at the same time, we never thought in 2017 there still would be a first. We never talked about being black versus white, but it’s naturally always there because there weren’t a lot of African-Americans playing in tournaments.” Brienne Minor was the subject of an interesting and informative SportsWednesday feature “In Family’s Footsteps, Minor Takes Big Stage,” in The New York Times, that’s worth a good read.
Meanwhile, Jabeur, who turned 23 on Monday, is Tunisia’s top female professional in a country not exactly known for tennis. At this year’s French Open, she became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam event. Then, earlier this month, she became the first Arab – and first Tunisian woman – since Selima Sfar 15 years ago to be ranked in the WTA Top 100. Jabeur arrived at the U.S. Open ranked No. 99.
Together, Minor and Jabeur began their “pathbreaking” experience at 3:13 p.m. The small but appreciative crowd lining Court 10 seemed to favor the tentative Minor, who committed 11 double faults and was broken seven times by the steadier and more experienced Jabeur. The Tunisian, who turned pro in 2010, needed just 22 minutes to win the opening set. Then, just 63 minutes after their match began, it ended when Jabeur hit a backhand winner to prevail over Minor, 6-1, 7-5.
Jabeur’s victory earned her a second-round match against No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe of the U.S. in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the first match of Thursday’s night session.
• What they are tweeting: After her convincing win over defending U.S. Open champion Angelique Kerber Tuesday afternoon on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Japanese teen Naomi Osaka shared her excitement on Twitter: “I grew up watching the greatest players play on that court. To win a match on it felt really special” @Naomi_Osaka_ #USOpen
• The stars always come out at night at the U.S. Open: Among the notables inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for Tuesday’s night session that featured marquee attractions Madison Keys and Roger Federer were three-time U.S. Open champion and Hall of Famer Kim Clijsters; James Bond 007 film star Sir Sean Connery; Victoria Beckham, wife of British international football great David Beckham; American fashion designer Vera Wang; and Vogue editor-in-chief Dame Anna Wintour, a frequent guest of Federer’s whenever he plays at the U.S. Open.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.