First, thanks to everyone for the Blogiversary well wishes, as well as for sharing thoughts about the current Rafa situation. I realize some will agree with me, some will not agree with me, some will partially agree with me, some will think I’m crazy –and I think that’s totally fine, particularly as I myself fall into all four categories, depending on the hour and/or minute (and/or second…). I also realize the limits of my knowledge and by no means think that I’m “right” or even that there is a “right.” My feelings are meandering and rambling and conflicting, but I’ll be honest–it doesn’t all quite add up for me at this point. I do wonder if there is something else going on–if there is another injury Rafa’s not disclosing, if the wrist is way more severe than initially thought or reported, if there’s a mental/burnout aspect to the absence, or if there’s an additional reason Rafa wants/needs to be home right now. Or, maybe it really is just what Rafa says–a slightly wonky right wrist that he is not comfortable playing with. If the former, maybe it will become clear in the coming weeks or months. If the latter, I do still have my “showing up” issues, but obviously it’s Rafa’s career and he’s in charge and he’s the one who knows himself best and who is obviously most directly affected by his decisions. And obviously I’ll never not be a fan of Rafa, even if I don’t agree with or understand everything he does. Even his biggest rivals admit that tournaments are not the same without him and the excitement he brings to them. He is a revelation on the tennis court, and as an athlete. He also has, to quote the great Jesse McCartney, a beautiful soul. None of that is ever up for debate.
Admittedly, one of the reasons my devastatedness vis-à-vis Rafa’s absence most likely climbed from mild to medium on the salsa/devastated meter was because I had plans to attend the U.S. Open this year and as part of those plans, I had obviously hoped to see Rafa play a competitive match. But, obviously I also know as a tennis fan that anything can happen and nothing is guaranteed–your guy can withdraw just before a tournament, your guy can withdraw during a tournament, your guy can retire one game into his first match, your guy can lose his first match. And yet, as I’ve detailed previously, this withdrawal was particularly shocking/punch in the gut-ish, since there was absolutely no indication Rafa was having any physical issues going into the summer. And yet, as a Rafa fan, one kind of always knows/fears that if Rafa has gone a few months without withdrawing from something, a withdrawal is likely imminent, because that’s his pattern, and life is largely (granted, with some exceptions) pattern-driven–i.e. the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. (this obviously also works in Rafa’s favor in many cases. See: clay; comebacks). (this is, also, one of the reasons situations like this are increasingly striking such fear in me–Rafa has a tendency to make pretty dramatic announcements somewhat out of nowhere…). So, not gonna lie–I was disappointed in general, for Rafa, and, also for myself. But, I knew I could/would still have a good time, and I was still very excited to experience my first ever Major, and my first live tournament in many years. Here’s a very long, not particularly well-ordered or organized list of what I learned/observed/enjoyed:
1. Angelique Kerber’s style of play and attitude are immediately discernible, even to a person completely uninitiated to tennis; my companion on Day 1 fell into said category, and after approximately 72 seconds of watching Kerber play: “She gets all her power from her legs!” After 97 seconds: “Geez, she’s kind of a brat.”
2. Pico tries really hard but does not have weapons, meaning even when he was even at a set a piece and had 3 points to go up 2 sets to 1 on Tsonga, it did not seem like he was going to win.
3. Tucked-in Jo is inexplicably way more likable than non-tucked-in Jo. I’ve never been a particular fan of Jo–I’ve always found him vaguely arrogant, whiny, and wasteful of his talent–but ever since he debuted the tucked-in shirt in Toronto, I’ve been seeing him anew. (Granted, the wastefulness was on full display as he largely slept-walked through the first three sets vs. Pico before dramatically eschewing his hat in the third set TB and getting down to business.)
4. The heat is hot: Speaking of business, I have absolutely no business complaining about the weather during my time at the Open, because bottom line, it was gorgeous. Sunny, warm, blue skies, and deliciously cool at night, to boot. Also, it’s obviously somewhat comical for a spectator who does nothing but sit to take issue with the heat when the players are running around for hours in it. And, one of my big concerns coming in was dealing with rain delays and disappointment/discomfort therein and potentially figuring out if I could stay an extra day if there were significant delays or cancellations, and in a (rare and deeply appreciated) stroke of good luck, those worries turned out to be unfounded. Howevers. I typically enjoy the outdoors in 1-4 hour spurts, and often in partial shade; I rarely position myself in direct sunlight for 8+ hours (there are shaded seats on some courts, but they were rarely untaken by the time I showed up.) Moreover, the courts conduct heat, so even if it’s 88 degrees outside–warm but not stifling–it’s a blazing 500 degrees or so on the court (give or take a degree or so). So, it was a bit of an adjustment, particularly on Tuesday, which was a touch and/or slap hotter than Monday (although I know Wednesday, the day I left, was worse.) Having spent the morning running around Central Park and presumably having gotten all of my sweat out already (key word there being presumably; speaking of presumably, I was passed while there by what I presume to have been a junior tennis player and his coach; they were speaking a language I did not immediately recognize and the player was wearing a “Good to Great Academy” t-shirt), I didn’t arrive at the tournament until around 12:30. I had thoughts of trying to see Nishikori, but was slightly turned off by the fact he was playing Odesnik and instead ended up wandering aimlessly toward court 7, where I took a seat on the bleachers behind Lepchenko-Van Uytvanck and watched Lepechenko close it out. It was during this time that I noticed I had begun to melt slightly, i.e. my face had started to drip (white, sunblock-laden) sweat. Hmmm, this is…different, I thought. I watched Rogers-Zanevska take the court, noticing that Zanevska’s dress looked like a regular dress and not a tennis dress. That match wasn’t particularly appealing to me so I continued to wander, noticing a slightly sizeable crowd outside court 8. Who’s playing here, I wondered as I squeezed into a crevice attempting to see the scoreboard. Just then Marcel Granollers’ head appeared in front of me–he was toweling off in the corner, just by the opening of the court. Marcy! I thought (but restrained myself from saying aloud). His heavily-lashed deep-set eyes, which don’t photograph particularly well, are quite stunning in person. Then I remembered he was playing Melzer and I understood why this was a popular match–two relatively well-known players on an outer court. I got a seat one row behind Marcel’s chair and settled in for the end of the match (Marcel was up 2 sets to love, and a break in the third, although Melzer had at least a couple of BPs in the subsequent games). And…I kept dripping. Like, uncontrollably dripping sweat. I had my obnoxiously giant sun hat on; I had my giant sunglasses on; I was wearing light, cool, breathable clothing; I had eaten before I came; I had been drinking water like it was my job (which it basically was at this point, given the rapid fluid loss that was occurring). And yet…the sweat. Rafa in South America-like. Yeah. I rifled around in my purse and found a partially shredded brown paper napkin from the taco joint I had eaten at on Sunday night and began attempting to daintily dab away the perspiration. Obviously this was not sufficient, so I reluctantly sacrificed the sleeve of my white shirt. Marcel walked toward me (also possibly his chair.) He did not seem to notice my sweat attack. He may have had other things on his mind. I considered leaving, but, I felt somewhat paralyzed by the sweat, and I also wanted to see the end of the match. So I kept watching, and sweating. To distract myself from the non-stop rivulets, I looked for Marc in Marcel’s coaching box; sadly, I did not see him. Finally the match was over and after watching Marcel sign a few autographs (I kept my distance due to the sweating problem), I exited the court. I decided I needed to eat something. I found a melted Kind bar in my purse and a partially shaded bench and attempted to eat it without making a mess, which was a big ask. I then found a bag of tissues I had thrown in my purse that morning and forgotten about and realized I had not in fact had to use the brown taco napkin. And at last, the sweat subsided.
5. Jack Sock’s forehand is very cool: Following the subsiding of the sweat, I made my way to the Grandstand to watch Sock-Andujar. It was still hot, but, my magical Kind bar had somehow stopped the waterfall. I remember Jim Courier once comparing Sock’s forehand to Rafa’s, saying it had as much or more or only slightly less RPMs on it, and thinking he was crazy. Well, he’s not crazy. Sock’s forehand is struck much differently–he generates all the pace and spin with a wrist/forearm snap/rollover rather than a bolo finish–but it is, like Rafa’s, and as stated above, very, very cool. (Not as cool as Rafa’s, clearly. But cool.)
6. Tommy Robredo has abandoned his sunnies: On Day 1, I decided to stop in at Robredo-Roger-Vasselin, Robredo being a player I’ve been aware of/followed to some degree for 10+ years at this point, and told my companion repeatedly that Robredo would be wearing sunglasses. “He always wears sunglasses!” I said excitedly (why I found this exciting, I do not know #blameitontheheat). He was not wearing sunglasses. #awkward
7. A $12 kale salad (yes, I am that person who buys $12 kale salads…) and a $5 cold Snapple are basically heaven after 9 hours in the sun with little food and lukewarm fountain water.
8. Contrarian observation #1: Practices are boring. Everyone always raves about watching practices, how cool it is, how interesting it is, etc. etc. Personally, I was bored, and not impressed, and left quickly, because it’s definitely not what I paid money to see. (granted, obviously I would have been more interested had it been Rafa practicing; as it was, I glimpsed only Mahut and Llodra (Mahut, and more specifically, his distinctive combination of hair and abs, is, by the way, recognizable from approximately a half-mile away), and Giraldo.
9. Contrarian observation #2: Arthur Ashe stadium is nice: Everything I’ve ever read about Ashe is negative–it’s too big, too impersonal, the upper deck views are terrible, you might as well watch on TV, etc. So I was prepared, and expecting, to dislike it, and in fact, given that I wasn’t going to be able to see Rafa, I was half-hoping the view would be so bad it wouldn’t matter anyway. Well, that’s not what happened. I liked it! The seats were comfortable, there was plenty of leg-room (as opposed to Armstrong, in which it is literally impossible to sit completely frontward if you are over 5’9 or so) and I found the view completely acceptable–I would have been quite content watching Rafa from that distance. The atmosphere is very casual and baseball-stadium-like, which I also enjoy, granted people did tend to take it to extremes a bit on Tuesday night, with constant flows of traffic in and out during points.
10. Contrarian observation #3: Fans know their stuff: Tournament attendees, and in particular American tournament attendees, get a lot of flack from hardcore tennis fans/fellow attendees for being uninformed and naive and hopelessly mixed up, etc. My experience was the exact opposite. Everyone I overheard knew their tennis. The guys walking down the stairs talking about John Peers the doubles specialist. The guy next to me shouting “Vamos Pico!” after every other point. The woman a few seats down informing her friend in detail about Genie Bouchard’s background. The muppet-voiced kid sitting behind me in Ashe meticulously recounting the events of the past few months to his father (“Nadal lost to a 19-year-old at Wimbledon! 19!”) The sweet woman desperate to see Nishkori on Court 7 and who thanked me like I had just given her a million dollars when I informed her that I believed he was on court 17.
11. Gilles Simon amuses himself by bouncing balls between his chest and the back wall when his opponent argues with the umpire.
12. Madison Keys casually walks through the food court, alone, carrying two racquets; no one stops her.
13. I am slightly taller than Ekaterina Makarova. A lot taller than Estrella Burgos. Not as tall as the tall blonde guy carrying the red Prince bag who I unabashedly stared at trying to place him and who unabashedly stared back challenging me to place him, all to no avail–I thought for a moment Pospisil, but in the end, definitely not. Also not as tall as the guy with full sleeves on both arms who looked like PHM from the side but couldn’t have been PHM because I don’t think PHM has that many, if any, tattoos.
14. I didn’t tell Mirjana Lucic-Baroni that when I was 16, I was slightly entranced by/obsessed with her hair and her first name, but I thought it as she walked past me.
15. David Ferrer is as advertised: an absolute workhorse. You can feel the effort. Except after he went down a second break in the third set vs. Damir Dzumhur. On set point, Dzumhur hit a drop shot, and David Ferrer did not run for it. Let me repeat: David Ferrer did not run for it. It was weird. Luckily we’re all still here. And David got his act together (read: stopped missing every single backhand). (His opponent fought well, though, and had a nice “rouse the crowd” moment after a great point.)
16. Speaking of work–tennis is work! There’s a lot of talk from players about “having fun out there” and “enjoying myself on court” etc., which I’ve always felt was a questionable approach to begin with, and watching these opening round matches confirmed it. It’s work. Work can be fun–but it’s often not. Players who accept this seem to have higher chances of success than those chasing “the fun.”
17. Sometimes people tap you on the shoulder and say, “excuse me” and you think they’re just being polite as they brush past you and instead they casually cut in front of you in the line for court 17 and you’re like, what the actual fk?
18. Sometimes you feel a hand running down your back while sitting in the Grandstand and are basically ready to whip out any and all latent karate moves before realizing it is just a kindly, if slightly overly familiar, lady behind you warning you that you’re burning in the gap between your dress and bra strap, which is a bit embarrassing on multiple levels…
19. Sometimes yet another kindly if overly familiar lady grabs your hip for support and keeps it there for quite some time as she exits your row of seats. You may also get bashed in the head by a couple of purses from the row above at the same time and start to wonder if you accidentally wore a sign encouraging strangers to touch you.
20. I can’t make seats!: Speaking of court 17, it’s not ideal when a long line forms outside court 17 to see Gasquet-Istomin and the gatekeeper stares ahead blankly as they gather and there’s a long Deuce game meaning everyone is waiting for 15-20 minutes and then when a changeover finally comes she opens the gate and lets about 10 people through before closing it and saying, “There’s no more seats.” and then people are like, “There’s no more seats??” and she’s like, “Well, there are plenty of seats, but there on the other side. You have to walk over there.” and people are like, “We’ve been waiting here for 20 minutes!” and then a French photographer comes up and she’s like, “Oh, YOU can go in.” and then people are like, “What??!!” and she’s like, “I don’t know what you want me to say. I can’t MAKE seats.” (Fortunately, the gentleman manning the gate on the other side was kind enough to let everyone climb the stairs even after the changeover was over and watch from the top of the stadium before letting us in on the next changeover.)
21. Sitting at the top of court 17 watching Istomin-Gasquet on a Tuesday afternoon with a nice breeze wafting by is a decidedly pleasant experience . (granted, the sound of trucks driving around and offloading and loading stuff just behind the court hurts the ambiance just a bit).
22. Sitting in shade in Armstrong in the late afternoon watching Ferrer battle back after randomly dropping a set to the world #119–also very pleasant.
23. Denis Istomin seems to have dropped some weight. He also seems to have dropped some common sense–he lost the match on a point penalty on his second code violation for obscenity and/or racquet throwing.
24. Gasquet’s forehand was comfortingly Rafa-like (e.g. follow-through over his dominant shoulder).
25. Roger is not going to win the tournament unless he improves a lot in the next couple of weeks. In the first round, any time Matosevic got himself together enough to hit four or five decent shots in a row, Roger lost the point, usually with a shank. (Sidenote: Belated apologies to the Roger fans sitting around me for my gleeful shouts of “Shankerer!” during these times.)
26. Fer was still pounding his chest five minutes after finally beating Rola in five sets. (He also leaned over the railing and gave a guy in the crowd a bear hug just after the match. I think he knew him, but I’m not sure.) I was a little worried he might end up withdrawing before his next match with chest bruising. (he didn’t. He did lose, though.)
27. Just as he did a few years ago against Berlocq in the second round, Djokovic started getting a bit casual/jokey while playing, and dominating, Schwartzman in the first round. And then, soon enough–he got broken. And then he got angry. Similarly, Federer gave up a break lead in the third against Matosevic and came dangerously close to dropping the set after letting down his guard (granted, Matosevic’s behavior was very distracting). Both made me appreciate, once again, Rafa’s supreme, laser-like focus at all times, against all opponents, in all rounds.
28. Roger’s very funny and charming in post-match interviews. (Of course, this only made me consider how Rafa would have been MORE funny and charming…)
29. One of the pluses of going to the Open on the first few days is that there are plenty of matches, and great seats, available. One of the negatives is that all the choices can be overwhelming, and by seeing one player/match, you inevitably miss another. For example, I didn’t see Murray, Nishikori, or Azarenka, even though I kind of had planned to. Overall, though, I was happy with the number of matches I managed to see, granted, I was disappointed that Berdych-Hewitt, Dimitrov-Harrison, and Thiem-Lacko were all scheduled for Wednesday, when I wasn’t there.
30. The atmosphere is very congenial and friendly on the grounds (if very crowded) and full of people who love tennis. Everything is relatively close to everything else, so it feels quite intimate even though it’s obviously a big tournament. It’s fun to be there.
31. The herding of massive groups of people like cattle in front of the fountain before the night session on Ashe is not great, although I know it’s a tough problem to solve given the constraints of space/time. They have at least solved whatever issues existed in the past with entry (as I was reminded by a chatty gentleman on the ride over, last year there were 2+ hour lines to get in on the first day; this year, I waited either not at all or less than 5 minutes.)
32. There were lots and lots of Rafa-gear-clad fans on hand at all matches (there also was a somewhat fascinating female-Rafa-fan/male-Roger-fan couple). He was missed. I really hope he’s back next year.