Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Calling the Lines

A time honored tradition in every sport, there is nothing more American than blasting a referee. Go to any game of any sport in America and I guarantee that there will be a loud minority of people yelling at whoever is officiating the game. This culture of complaint is not limited to professional or even college games (where the relative anonymity of the crowd makes it easier to scream, but arguably less effective). Simply show up at a youth event anywhere across our land and some parent (or grandparent) will be acting a fool, cursing a person that probably lives down the street for them (and from whom they may buy groceries, get their car repaired or break bed in church) over something as silly as a double dribble call. We often feel that the normal rules of society, treat others the way you would be treated, be respectful and don't call people four letter words/private body parts while screaming and pointing, simply do not apply in the context of sports. It is an unalienable American right.

However in the world of tennis, the level of officiating criticism takes on another level. Fans (and players) at tennis matches believe that the lines people are consistently making mistakes and often intentionally. I have watched at least part of over 30 matches over the course of this tournament and I have seen a player openly question a line person's call in every single one. The reaction from the crowd is even more harsh. Any shot on a show court that is even close to the line leads to a loud murmur from the crowd suggesting disagreement for whatever the decision is, whether in or out. I often want to ask those in the crowd, especially those sitting at the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium, do you really believe that you, sitting potentially 100 feet above the court, can somehow see it better than the individual seated with her focused on the line and the line only?  Their confidence is impressive, even if their rationality is not.

With this in mind, I sat directly on the line for today's David Ferrer-Richard Gasquet match, only a couple of feet behind the lines judge in the photographer's pit. My goal was determine just how hard it is to call out/in during a major male tennis match. The can be unbelievably difficult to judge the closest of close calls. Part of this has to do with the angle of the view. While there likely isn't a better option (having the linesman float directly over the court seems impractical), the side view tends to distort the proceedings a bit. With the glare of the sun (or lights at night), the white of the line can blur a bit, causing the most important feature (the actual spot the line ends) to bleed somewhat. I think this is in part why people suggest lines people tend to "err on the side of in." Whether conscious or not, the line looks bigger the more you stare at it with a glare.

Then there is the problem of the speed. With the lines people staring directly at the line, the ball's speed and arc can appear suddenly, and be tough to pinpoint. Unless you have laser-like focus, this can occasionally sneak up on you and cause a person problems while finding the exact spot of contact. Because of the crazy angles that can now be hit by the top players (thanks to the modern strings), even following the arc of the ball (and using that to surmise the landing point) can be difficult. There there is the problem that makes me believe that even Hawkeye is occasionally wrong...the ball is round and figuring out exactly what part of the ball hit what part of the line is an inexact science, perfected only by ants on the ground. To do so at tremendous speed becomes even more difficult.

With all that said however, after spending a match observing them, I believe the lines people do about as good a job as possible. On the challenged calls in this tournament (which are presumably the closest of the close calls), the decision has been reversed only 28% of the time. That is a fairly solid success record, and one thats error rare would probably be acceptable even without Hawkeye (miss on average 3-6 calls a match and can you really complain? It is certainly a better rate than officiating in other sports). After trying to recreate their job for a set, I have even more respect for what they do. Some calls are too close for anyone and on those, everyone will make mistakes. But the lines people generally do their job as well as it can be done (with the problems above hindering) and are certainly better suited to make the calls than the players focused on returning the shots or the drunk fans far up in the crowd above them. As I often say about the people who are on television commentating, a doctor preforming surgery or someone cutting my hair...they aren't perfect, but they are probably better than you.

A young Rafael Nadal with a young Richard Gasquet

Richard Gasquet is in his first US Open semifinal and Rafael Nadal is one win away from meeting him there. Gasquet, the first Frenchman to reach the Open semis in 22 years, has never won against Nadal on the ATP tour, but he has one win over Nadal from a junior tennis tournament in France when they were 13 years old.


Rafael Nadal practicing on Ashe between sessions

I caught Rafael Nadal practicing with Christian Garin between sessions today, while the fans were out buying up what's left of the merchandise and Moet. The 2013 French Open mens' champion and 2013 French Open boys' champion smacked the ball around on Arthur Ashe, where Nadal will face Tommy Robredo in the final match of the night.

After sitting across from Nadal, directly behind Garin, I can say with 100% confidence that I wouldn't come close to returning anything Nadal sent my way. Not a prayer.

Good luck with that tonight, Tommy.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

An EXCLUSIVE look inside The Outer Courts' US Open office

The photo above was taken in the US Open's media center, where the working media folk gather to provide tennis fans all the information they can handle through their various media outlets. Hundreds of scribes work tirelessly around the clock, from sun up to sun down, to keep the world informed of all the happenings in Flushing Meadows throughout the entire tournament. It's like the brain of Arthur Ashe Stadium; a really big brain with high-water khaki pants, wrinkled floral print shirts, and an appetite for free donuts in the morning and free donuts left over from the morning at night.

That's not where we are.

The Outer Courts has its own office at the 2013 US Open, far away from judgmental stares and black coffee farts. We are in the cafeteria on a first-come, first-serve seating policy. Some call it an inconvenience; we call it home.

Take a walk with me into an area few have seen, unless they walk by on their way to the hot bar.

You're looking at my desk here at The Outer Courts' office. Though it's not the television-equipped desk of the media room, the Evian water bottle and Ben & Jerry's ice cream sandwich wrapper add to the ambience.

Yes, that's a Tennis Channel logo on my backpack.

This is my view: a direct shot (when people aren't walking by with beer) of practice courts P1 through P5. That's five courts in viewing distance without leaving my seat. It's so hard not to be spoiled.

As you can see, window seats are hard to come by. Especially one with a few of the TV if I lean back really far.

Check out the bar in the back corner. The media room may have lockers, statistics, reliable WiFi, interview areas and power outlets at every desk, but the media room doesn't have its own bar with FREE alcohol. 

But The Outer Courts' office does.

Note: The free alcohol is only available to "M" credentials, which is everyone from the media room. We aren't allowed to partake.

Look! Condiments! Plasticware! US Open beverage napkins!

Just a few complimentary items we offer to our visitors. Take one. Take two. Take a handful. They're here for you, just as we're here for you at the 2013 US Open.

Thanks for stopping by. 

Enjoy your mayonnaise. 

Lleyton Hewitt Goes Down Under

Trust me, I didn't want to make the pun above in the title. If there is one drawback to being Australian (and there can't be many as their general life outlook, great weather and beautiful women suggest that living on the island is not a bad lifestyle), it is the fact that one can't have a conversation about anything Australian without making some sort of awful pun about the country. Some of this is due to our American need to run jokes into the ground. "Put another shrimp on the barbie," "Good day mate!", "Crocodile Dundee" and a host of other terrible Australian jokes are always brought up by Americans, usually in the worst accent imaginable. But the Aussies themselves are not entirely blameless either. One cannot go even five minutes around a group of Australians in public without them singing "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" or yelling "MATE!" at the top of their lungs. If we are all stereotypical at creating Jay Leno-level jokes about our Australian friends, the countrymen themselves at least bear some responsibility.

Nevertheless, I have always envied the Australian people. Whether it was during my childhood pulling for the eternal loser, Greg Norman, watching Joe Hachem win the World Series of Poker or sitting on Louis Armstrong Court trying to will Lleyton Hewitt to a "turn back the clock" victory. I have Aussie envy and it causes me to pull for them in whatever competition of which they find themselves a part. Thus on Tuesday, I sat in the sweltering heat watching what I knew was inevitable...a Lleyton Hewitt loss that would lead the worst tabloid headline writer to say, "Lleyton Blew-it."  With a chance to make the first Grand Slam Quarterfinal since 2006, Hewitt found a way to instead blow a 4-1 lead in the fourth set and a 5-2 lead in the fifth, losing five straight games in each and dropping the match to Mikhail "All You Want to Do is" Youzhny. Throughout the match, Youzhny was the better player, but Hewitt did just what my golfing hero Norman used to do as well...just enough to guarantee a painful defeat. His consistent returns and solid ground strokes, forced Youzhny to hit well-placed winners to get points. When he was unable to do so, Hewitt went on a roll. When he hit his stride and played Top 20 level tennis, Lleyton had no answer.

Throughout the match, Hewitt had opportunities to win big points, all by hitting shots that the top players can make in their sleep. A slight mishit by Youzhny would cause the ball to hang in the air just enough that a Top 20 player would slam it with enough pace to guarantee a point. But for Hewitt these opportunities were wasted, as he instead blocked back returns and guaranteed that the point would be won or lost on the racket of Youzhny. It is a style that does well against weaker players, but for the stretches of the match where Mikhail was dialed in (specifically the end of the 4th and 5th set), Hewitt was a dead man walking. The casual pace of the match (and the long rallies on each point) just seemed to string out the inevitable. Just like watching Greg Norman trudge through the back nine at Augusta in 1996, the fate was predetermined but the agony getting there was just more painful.

All in all it was a great run for Hewitt in Queens this week. But he may never have quite a chance like this again, after knocking out the powerful Del Potro and playing with caution instead of seizing his chances during crucial points. He will always have his Open Championship here to fall back on, but he will likely regret what might have been on this day and missing out a chance to get a shot at the #1 player in the world, Novak Djokovic, on Arthur Ashe Stadium one last time. At least he can take solace in his Australian fans, who reacted to the loss as only they chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,"hugging and chugging. It is the Australian way.

Nadal to see a familiar face Wednesday night

When Rafael Nadal takes the court tomorrow night for his quarterfinal match on Arthur Ashe, an old friend will be standing across from him -- and it's not Roger Federer, unfortunately.

No. 19 seed Tommy Robredo, the man responsible for Federer's dismissal from this year's Open, draws the seemingly impossible task of trying to upset Nadal to reach the semifinals. No one in the world is playing better than Nadal right now as he seeks his 20th consecutive hard court win this season, and part of Nadal's success in 2013 can be attributed to none other than Tommy Robredo, his fellow countryman, former doubles teammate, and next opponent.

2008 Monte Carlo Master champions
The two Spaniards trained together in Barcelona earlier this year prior to Nadal's first tournament back since Wimbledon in 2012. Little did they know at the time, they'd be facing each other in the US Open quarterfinals eight months later.

Robredo and Nadal in Barcelona
The friendship will be put aside for the day, at least for a couple hours at night, as they battle to advance to face either Richard Gasquet or David Ferrer, who is also from Spain, in the semifinals. The only other time Nadal and Robredo throw the camaraderie aside: when Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are playing football. Nadal is a big Real Madrid supporter; Robredo is a lifelong Barca fan. That means we have the "Clasico" of tennis at Arthur Ashe tomorrow night.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Watching Federer Lose is No Fun

I knew I had to take the 7 train and come to Queens. Sometimes you just know that something important is about to happen and you don't want to miss it. Even though rain had taken out most of the day and action was not to begin until past 5 pm, I was determined to make the trip and see the great Roger Federer play in person. If he lost (which seemed a longshot), I wanted to be there for one of his last appearances in Flushing. If he won, I hoped to see what I saw from Federer in Cincinnati, more improvement and continued movement to his shining self of old. There were difficulties on the travel (specifically a man was grabbed off of my subway car, two feet away from me, by four policemen who then told a woman in Spanish that he was being arrested for "going car by car in the subway, rubbing his genitalia on people"...thankfully I missed out), but when I arrived, Armstrong Stadium was my destination. With Roger Federer playing on the smaller court for the first time since 2006, I was there to make sure Federer did not lose to Tommy Robredo and the dream quarterfinal with Rafael Nadal would come to fruition.

Unfortunately, dreams do not always equal reality. I took my seat in the photographer's row next to the court (the best part of this entire experience...sitting in that position makes you realize the speed and athleticism of these players in a way that television does no justice) and hoped to see vintage Roger. Instead I saw what might be characterized as the worst Roger Federer Grand Slam match in a decade. Think about this for a minute. Federer's career record versus Robredo was a stunning 10-0, and he had only dropped three sets during that entire time period. On Monday night, Federer fell in three straight sets, thus doubling his career set losses to Robredo in just under 150 minutes. While the scoreline was painful (7-6, 6-3, 6-4), what was much worse was the domination of play. Robredo controlled the match from the outset, was the better player throughout and at all points was in control. If one dropped off of another planet and was told they were watching the greatest player to ever play the game, they would have certainly thought his name was "TAH-ME" (the ear-piercing scream by the one Robredo fan in the stadium, seated directly behind me) and not the great Federer.

What had begun as an exciting chance to watch greatness one more time instead became an act of sadness and depression. There is very little less fun than watching Roger Federer play poorly. A man who defined grace and elegance at his peak, tonight played like a struggling mid-50s ranked player, hoping to get a few breaks and sneak through with an upset. I don't like seeing highlights of Ali losing to Spinks and I don't like seeing Roger blow open shots against a Grand Slam journeyman. Federer's forehand completely deserted him, causing countless framed returns and at least four wide open put-aways blown with poor execution. The only thing resembling the Federer of old was the outfit, as Roger's attempted signature shots, from running one-handed backhands, to precise drop volleys routinely missed their targets and put Federer in poor positions. When Roger would hit minutes of the Federer of old, he would then follow it with faltering play, including a key game in the third set, where he went up 0-40 on Robredo's serve, only to lose five straight points, four with unforced errors.

One shouldn't take away anything from Robredo, who afterwards said he played one of the best matches of his life. But people did not come to Armstrong Stadium for a taste of Tommy R (well except possibly one woman sitting three rows up who, when Robredo took of his shirt at a break yelled, "Tommy, come home with me to Long Island and I will put some meat on those bones!"  I don't think he took her up on the offer). The crowd was here to see Roger as he continued to move towards his own form and hoped to set up a Thursday night for the ages. Instead what they saw was a depressing realization of the inevitability of age.  Federer is not yet Willie Mays chasing fly balls in centerfield with the Mets, but for the first time, "human Roger" is upon us. It is no longer just an elite player like Nadal, Djokovic or Murray who can take him out at the elite tournaments. Now he can lose to every Tommy, Dick or Harry that plays at an inspired level and catches him on the right day. Roger is mortal and that is depressing.

Will we see Federer vs. Nadal again?

Staring contest with Federer in Cincinnati
We were blessed with an incredible match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati last month, one that reminded us of the old days, and now we're eyeing another potential quarterfinal showdown between the two here at the US Open.

This year's Open draw placed No. 7 seed Federer and second-seeded Nadal on the same side of the bracket yet again, on a crash course for a meeting in the round of 8, just like we saw at the Western & Southern Open. They have both done their part in staying alive thus far, and tonight, they'll each play to set up their 32nd head-to-head meeting. 

Federer is up first with a match against Tommy Robredo in Armstrong, moved over from Arthur Ashe due to the rain delay. It will be Roger's first match on the Armstrong court since 2006. The line is ridiculously long to get in already.

Nadal's match against Philipp Kohlschreiber will get underway shortly in Ashe.

If both Federer and Nadal advance, their next match will mark the first time they've met in the US Open.

Give it to us.


Robredo is owning Federer.

Stay away, rain!

Labor Day at the US Open has been very slow and uneventful for tennis fans. Rainfall hit the Billie Jean King Tennis Center around noon, suspending play for over four hours throughout the day, and left us wondering if we'd see any Monday tennis at all.

But now the acton is picking back up in Flushing Meadows with hopes the showers will hold off throughout the night. It's a big hope, but we're rolling with it. 

A look at the forecast, via iPhone:

We're off to catch the 7-train back to to Queens. Hopefully we'll see tennis when we get there.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What has Federer been doing in NYC?

In Cincinnati I questioned Roger Federer's focus on tennis and explored possibilities outside the game that could be distracting him. You, the readers of The Outer Courts, seemed to like the post and the pictures that came with it, so I thought we'd do something similar here in Flushing Meadows.

Below you'll find a few things Roger Federer could be up to here in New York City when he's not on the court. It's a big city, he has a lot of downtime, so the possibilities are endless.

1. Filling in for Alex Rodriguez.

Look at that smooth swing. It's just like a backhand.

2. Saving kittens from the subway.

Two kittens made national news last week when they got loose on a subway track, forcing the MTA to shut down power to the line. The furry animals were rescued seven hours later, but by who?

3. Starring in a Broadway musical.

Jersey Boys, perhaps?

4. Running for Mayor.

First order of business: Replace all soda machines in the city with Moet machines.

5. Twerking with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs.

Miley Cyrus set America back ten years with her antics at the MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn. Is Roger Federer a fan of the controversial pop star and her "dancing"?

I doubt it. I highly doubt it.

British Media...Let Andy Murray Poop in Peace

May we talk as friends here for a moment? I don't want to offend anyone and I hope everyone knows that I try to be the most open chap possible. But I seriously do not understand the British media and their fascination/obsession of all things Andy Murray. Now don't get me wrong. Andy Murray seems like a fine young mate and the type of athlete you would want as a role model in your country. I have no problem with the way the British people seem to adore Andy and I loved watching his win at Wimbledon and the way it seemed to unify the Brits in a manner not seen since Mr. Bean's first movie on the telly. But when you are around Murray and watch those in the British press paid to follow him, the scene gets....well it gets a tad bit creepy.

When most tennis players are through with their match, they come to the press room to meet the media and trudge through the monotony of answering their usual questions. The reality is that in a tennis match, absent some huge transcendent moment, there isn't a whole lot worth reciting afterwards. The media simply need one quote to put in there story, and thus asking "Hey Roger, how did you feel out there?" generally suffices. This has become the norm for questioning as there isn't really a way to dissect a particular moment in the match in a way that makes sense (for example a question that was stated, "On that one point in the third set where he hit the backhand, and then you hit a forehand and then he hit a slice volley and then you hit it was that?" probably wouldn't be any more productive). The media questions thus are pretty mundane and often focus very little on the match itself and more on the player's "mindset" both before and after play. It is boring and often silly, but it seems to be a time-honored ritual, and for the best players, gives them a chance to flash a winning smile, an occasional quip and send everyone away happy.

The media stalks their prey 

 Not so with the British press and Andy. Instead of a trite series of questions about nothing, the British press seem to want to engulf every moment of Andy's life both on and off the court. After his three set win today over Florian Mayer, Murray trudged into the room like a teenager marching to detention. These affairs always seem like work for Andy and it doesn't take long to see why. The first question came from a British reporter (I assume he was British based on accent and teeth hygiene) who asked "Andy, did the bathroom break after the first set do the trick?"  Murray looked up slightly and somewhat ducked the question, saying something about the heat and trying to stay hydrated, but the reporter would not be deterred. He quickly followed, "but Andy, did you just need to go to the toilet or were you also struggling breathing?"  That sentence in and of itself is bizarre (is that an either/or....toilet or breathing?'s almost like asking, "were you hungry or cold?") but not quite as odd as the sight of back to back toilet questions in a press session of the US Open. Murray looked at the reporter (with patience) and said, "I needed to go to the toilet."

Then a bit later, another British reporter (who sounded and looked like Margaret Thatcher circa 1982) asked if Murray was seeing a "mental conditioner" in Florida. I had never heard the phrase "mental conditioner," (although to be fair it is quite descriptive) but Andy seemed to get her point and said yes he was seeing a sports psychologist. The reporter pressed, "do you know her name?"  Murray said her name was Alexis and she followed, "what is her last name?" with a seriousness that suggested Alexis was going to get a phone call very soon questioning what she was doing to dear Andy. The Americans in the crowd giggled at the exchange, but Murray seemed to find it perfectly normal.

So I decided I had to act. In Cincinnati, I listened to reporters question Murray on why he was watching Challenger tournaments online in his spare time (his friends are playing) and what he was doing staying up so late (reading). I couldn't even fathom how they knew this much about what Murray was doing off the court and I was a bit surprised by such inquiry into his private time. Over the course of my tennis coverage, the amount of inquisition into all things Andy Murray seemed a bit much to me. So I raised my hand and asked Murray, "do you ever feel like you get asked questions other players don't, for instance about toilets and mental conditioners, and that your country's reporters are too into your personal life?"  It was a blatant shot across the room to my British comrades (who stared lasers through me), but it needed to be said. Why do they care about this nonsense?  Murray laughed (point for me by the way...I have now made Nadal and Murray laugh in the last three weeks...Roger you are next) and said, "people ask me about lots of things that don't matter, like if a feather blowing across the court in Australia is why I won a match. It is amusing." It looked as if Andy and I agreed...these people care way too much.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the explosion of all things Andy in Britain and the love/pride he brings the country. Let's be real...the amount of sports where Britain rules atop the heap is not high (unless you consider cricket a sport of consequence and I don't...if you wear knitted sweaters in the event, it is not a sport) and having some tennis glory at this point is clearly important. While producing pop stars like rabbits, athletes of the highest regard are rare and I appreciate the excitement of their exploits. Plus, I also understand the British tabloid media culture, where everything is covered in depth and every celebrity is dissected like a reality show Kardashian. But in this individual sport of tennis, dynamic obsession over one person would seem to be exhausting. When Roger, Rafa or Novak come into the room, they don't have an entire nation panting on what type of fruit they are eating or if they took Nyquil to help them fall asleep. But poor Andy can't even go take a leak without having the entire press corp speculating on its meaning. It has to be a difficult go and would seem to burn out most anyone in his postion. This is probably why his press conferences seem so laborious and lack the fun of the other greats. He is trying to hide as much of himself as possible to a press group that want to know every ounce of him.

So I say this to my British compatriots. Slow down...give Andy some space...let him enjoy his success. Otherwise you will burn him out, and he will spend even more time in Miami visiting Alexis and others, and less in your country where you people will not leave him alone. Maybe that is why your athletes all either leave the country or tend to flame wear them down. Life is supposed to be fun and having a group of people dissecting your every move isn't quite the way a world class tennis star wants to live.  If you love a butterfly dear Brits, you can't trap it, but rather you have to let it fly. If it loves you back, it will return. Let Andy fly, and absent that, at least let him poop in peace. We will all be better for it.

So who do we latch onto now?

The 2013 US Open hasn't been kind to The Outer Courts' favorite ATP tennis personalities. There is still a week's worth of tennis remaining but the ones we love, and the ones we love to loathe, have all been sent home.

Ivo Karlovic gave us a great match against James Blake in the first round, but Stanislas Wawrinka ended Ivo's journey, one we here hoping (very high hopes) would take us deep into the tourney. John Isner, he met an early demise yesterday to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Daniel Evans and his nipple rash, dismissed. Donald Young, Grigor Dimitrov, and Fabio Fagnini, gone. Even Jack Sock, a guy we dislike but never miss in action, is done here at Flushing Meadows.

So what do we do now? Do we fly back to Kentucky? Do we stay and milk the cafeteria for all of its WiFi and bottomless soft drinks while ignoring tennis?

No, we stay and keep on keepin' on because that's what Tennis Channel expects from its expert bloggers. But we need a new name to latch onto. The Outer Courts needs a new star.

Leaving the Big Four aside, the remaining draw has potential but we don't know who will emerge from the bracket and into our hearts. Tommy Haas is an early favorite, in part because he told Matt he wears his hat backwards to prevent sweat from dripping down his face, but we're not ready to go all in on him just yet. Jankso Tipsarevic has a hot girlfriend and he beat Jack Sock, maybe he's the choice. Or maybe it's Milos Raonic, because why not Milos Raonic?

This is like hitting the dating scene after a long relationship, only we're not buying anyone drinks or lying about what we do. We're just going to feel our way around, give a couple people a chance, and, hopefully, the one is out there for us. If not, I guess we'll just root for whoever is playing Wawrinka.

Sunday at the US Open: We are Back!

It was a quiet day yesterday here on "The Outer Courts" and for good reason. Your favorite tennis bloggers had to focus on our regular gigs and cover the college football game that everyone in America was talking about, Kentucky vs Western Kentucky. If you missed that action (and I am sure you didn't since it was on ESPN News and America is always tuned into ESPN News on a Saturday night), then you might want me to write a long wrap-up of the game and the implications of the somewhat embarrassing UK loss. But alas, that is not out mission on this blog, as we instead focus on tennis and the majesty of this US Open. So with that in mind, a quick catch up on what we missed yesterday and getting ready for a Sunday here at the Open.

---  The middle Saturday of the US Open is generally considered what of the signature days within the event and a showcase time for the sport. CBS takes over coverage for an entire afternoon and it is the day that tennis gets its most prolonged look on a major network at any point in the year. Thus it is unfortunate that yesterday might have been the worst schedule for the middle Saturday that I can remember. The matches were all, once again, without flair or drama and the beatdowns that occurred surely made the television viewing audience slip throughout the afternoon. Part of this is because of the general overall problem with men's tennis right now...specifically that people care almost none about anyone outside of the Big Four. The middle Saturday used to have the best stars in the game, playing second tier players that viewers still knew, as they attempted to pull the upset and get into the Round of 16. Not anymore. The second tier guys now are either boring or not covered, and thus we get what we had on Saturday...a snooze fest. But part of the problem is due to the way the USTA schedules this tournament as well. They spread out the first week so slowly that the weekend, which could potentially have Round of 16 matchups under a different format, is instead bogged down with Round of 32 blowouts. Its unfortunate, as today's schedule is much better and Monday could set up to be a day to remember. But luckily for "The Outer Courts" (but not so much the television viewers), the day we missed gave us very little to regret.

---  We did lose two of the final three remaining Americans in the men's draw yesterday as John Isner and Jack Sock both fell to defeat. It was Isner's second straight departure from the tournament at the hands of Philipp Kohlschreiber, who not only has the big man's number but clearly took advantage of Isner's fatigue after a long summer series. For Isner, it is quickly becoming apparent that his success is opponent-specific...the players whose strength lies with a great return game (think Djokovic) are vulnerable to Isner, whose serve can be so dominant that it is hard to get into any rhythm. But for consistent players whose style is "backboard" tennis, mixed with an occasional winner spliced in (think Nadal or Kohlschreiber), their consistency ultimately wears down the tall American. As for Sock, "The Outer Courts"' player nemesis had a good run, reaching the third round and playing great tennis for all five days. Still this is a bit of a missed opportunity, as Janko Tipsarevic was ripe for the taking and a potential career-making Round of 16 match with David Ferrer awaited. Sock won the first set and was in good position in a tiebreak in the second, when he missed on two crucial points back to back, lot his composure, the tiebreak and then the next two sets in a flurry. It illustrated the major issue with Sock, which his inability at crucial times to maintain his composure when any degree of adversity strikes. Until he fixes that glaring weakness, his play (which was close to the best of his career this week), will always come up short in big matches.

--- I have been in this US Open cafeteria for a long time and it has begun to feel like home. But there are some signs that maybe I need to broaden my reach a bit and move about the premises more. Case in point today when I went to get a refill of my Diet Coke (they have an "all you can drink" Diet Coke fountain drink for $1 a day...something that would make Mayor Bloomberg's head explode but is wonderful for folks like me), I tasted the delicious concoction and thought it seemed slightly flat. Others came after me and I asked them if they agreed and they all said it tasted fine to them. But I knew there was a problem. I consulted with the manager, mentioned my concern and he inspected, finding that they were adding 15% too little carbonation on each mixture. He then said to me, "it takes an amazing soda palate to be able to taste such small differences." And that my friends is what I amazing soda palate. It is the little victories in life that we savor the most.

---  It is early here on Sunday, but we already have a victory for the best set of twins since the Doublemint commercials, the Bryan Brothers. The Brothers Bryan are of course going for a calendar year Grand Slam, and they won a tight one today in three sets, a match that included wild swings of momentum and a crucial save of a match point. The Brothers have done what was thought near impossible, they have made doubles tennis sexy and relevant in today's modern world. As a matter of fact, their match led off on Ashe Stadium and was given primetime coverage on CBS. Doubles as a draw has been dead for years, which is sad to people like me who used the unique parts of doubles play (specifically not having to move nearly as much on each point), to make it my speciality during my playing days. But now thanks to their game, and more importantly, their similar faces, the Bryan Brothers may be the 5th and 6th most popular male tennis players in the game. It is actually quite a remarkable accomplishment and proof of my long time adage...when in doubt, it is always better if you have two of everything. That is true for hamburgers, pets, girlfriends, children and yes, tennis players as well.

That is all for now...Serena and Sloane play today, followed by Djokovic tonight. Much more to come here on "The Outer Courts"

Friday, August 30, 2013

Three Quick Notes from Day Five

As I write this, Lleyton Hewitt is trying to upset Juan Martin Del Potro and I feel like the match requires my presence. So I will make my three notes on Day 5 a little shorter than usual. Some thoughts:

(1) The Donald Young Circus Up Close:

The story of Donald Young is familiar to any tennis fan. For the casual viewer, it boils down to this. To much was given, much was expected and it just hasn't happened. Still I came into today rooting for the kid, in part because I liked his game, in part his attitude and in part his swagger in a sport that rarely has any. Today I watched him up close, from the second row of the Grandstand court to see his match against Florian Mayer and find out why he is so polarizing. After one set, the answer was clear. Young can still be exciting to watch, as he hits tremendous running shots, has a way of escaping difficult situations and plays with a lot of energy. But sitting so close to he and his family (who I must say, seem like lovely people) can also make one not a fan. After blowing a set point and losing the first set in a disappointing manner, Young cursed loudly and in the direction of his parents, saying words that I could never imagine coming out of my mouth in the same area code as my mother. He stayed down on himself for most of the match and the language that followed was pretty striking considering the setting. I like personalities in tennis but I don't like those that disrespect those around them and then scream (as Young did after the match), "he played OUT OF HIS ASS!" Young is another American that I want to support and up until today, I have cheered for at various points for years. But like a Hannah Montana fan that accidentally tuned in and saw Miley twerk, today gives me a different image of one I otherwise want to see succeed.

(2) Hawkeye Technology:

This is probably a topic for a longer post on another day, but for now this will suffice, I don't buy the challenge technology in tennis. Now let me be clear. I am not one of these conspiracy theory people who doesn't believe in technology and thinks the moon landing was just a television stunt. However, you won't convince me that the Hawkeye tennis challenge technology is accurate. At those speeds, angles and with a round ball (which makes pinpointing the exact spot difficult), I refuse to believe that they can get an accurate spot so quickly. In soccer, goal line technology has just been introduced to the Premier League and it takes 20 seconds to come up with an accurate rendering. In tennis, we are supposed to believe it happens in 3 seconds. I don't and I am not alone. Roger Federer apparently is not trusting of the technology and in all things tennis, I follow Roger. If it is so accurate, why have lines people at all? The reason, its accuracy, while certainly better than nothing at all, is anything but 100% correct.

(3) Andy Murray Causes Brits to Worry

There are no group of people more vested in a person's success than the British media and Andy Murray.  As the defending champ lost the third set today to Mayer, the British media immediately went into high panic mode. There were immediately cries of concern of "what is wrong with Andy?" and "will he flame out?"  He didn't, winning the next set 6-1 to take the match. Still the collective panic in the room and genuine worry was palpable. I am not against "fan" journalism, as readers of The Outer Courts can surely see through out writings, and I have no problem with their love of all things Murray. However it is shocking to see a group of reporters openly pulling for a player that they are also covering for mainstream, national news outlets. To paraphrase a famous comment of years gone by, if Andy Murray has an itch, I wonder how many British journalists would line up to scratch it.

That is it for now...time to go see if Lleyton can hold on after winning the first set. Del Potro wasn't the nicest to us in the elevator in Cincinnati and that usually means bad karma...a lesson for players going forward that will hopefully be heeded.

Oh and finally, the tennis chair umpires do not need microphones this big. Over compensating?

Why are these matches so damn long?

Maybe I'm alone in this group, and feel free to speak up if I am, but I think men's Grand Slam tennis matches are entirely too damn long. Five sets? Ain't nobody got time for that. 

The best-of-five set format, though good for fans wanting to spend four to five hours with their tennis idols, is too much for the average spectator. We shouldn't have to waste an entire afternoon watching one match. Let's pick up the pace; get through one match in three and then bring out the next two competitors. Next group up, let's go.

I watched a match earlier in the week and considered changing my permanent address from Lexington, Kentucky to Court 11 had it gone any longer. Tennis is exciting to watch, Grand Slam tennis especially, so why am I having to take scheduled naps throughout so I can catch the end?

For perspective, instead of sitting through Ivo Karlovic vs. James Blake on Wednesday -- great match, though -- you could've walked from the US Open to the Empire State Building. And then down to the Statue of Liberty. You could've played 108 rounds of Ruzzle on your iPhone or caught up on all three episodes of Breaking Bad's final run. Better yet, you could've read every post in the history of The Outer Courts and told every one of your friends how awesome it is.

They say 5-setters are good for the elite players because it reduces the likelihood of an upset, I get it. But I'm not hearing it. Play three and if they lose, they lose. It's bad on their knees, anyway. Ask Rafael Nadal. Ask John Isner in a few years. Ask any tennis player with knees.

Again, maybe I'm alone here. Or maybe the people who agree with me are asleep in the stands somewhere while two unseeded players play a fifth set. Either way, the best-of-five format is too damn long in my eyes.

Ain't nobody got time for that.

Daniel Evans still alive, nipple rash and all

No one was more stunned to see Daniel Evans reach the second round of the US Open than the The Outer Courts, now we're speechless after seeing him advance to third. The young lad we saw lose in the first round in Kentucky's Fifth Third Tennis Championships, a Challenger event, upset Australian Bernard Tomic yesterday for yet another shocking victory.

But the win came with another storyline, not just that Evans is playing much better than expected and advancing along. After the third set, Evans' nipples entered the equation. Yes, his nipples. I'm just as uncomfortable writing about it as you are reading it.

Leading 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) after three, Evans called for a trainer to tend to his chafed nipples. The trainer, answering an unusual call, applied tape to Evans' teats to prevent further nipple aggravation by covering the rash. He went on to win the fourth and final set, 6-3, to send Tomic home.

Defending Open champion Andy Murray was watching the match and tweeted about his fellow Brit's bizarre injury:

I assume it's the first time one professional tennis player complimented another's nipples on a public forum.

Another interesting sideshow from the match, in case that wasn't enough: Bernard Tomic's request for an Open credential for his father/coach was denied. John Tomic is serving a one-year ban from ATP events after he head-butted his son's hitting partner at a tournament in Spain. The Open said the elder Tomic isn't allowed in the Billie Jean King Tennis Center at all, not even with a regular ticket.

Nipple rashes, crazy head-butting dads and upset victories. Man, I love US Open tennis.

Why Do I Have To Cheer for an American?

Like many of you, I was captivated last night by the thrilling match between John Isner and Gail Monfils. The two players engaged in one of the more entertaining matches of the tournament (certainly the best on the show courts) and energized a New York crowd that had, up until this point, been very tame. The patrons ended up spending most of the third and fourth set on their collective feet and saluting two tennis warriors giving it their all. When you think about the US Open and the atmosphere created here in Queens, you think about raucous crowds and tremendous excitement (usually at night) that can't be matched anywhere else. That is what Isner vs Monfils gave us.

Sounds perfect right?  Apparently not. Throughout the telecast, the ESPN announcers openly questioned why the New York crowd was not cheering for the American Isner versus the foreign invader Monfils. Ignoring the fact (at least at first) that Monfils was two sets down and attempting to make a late comeback (thus meaning that cheering for Monfils meant cheering for more tennis), Chris Fowler and Brad Gilbert spent a good deal of time asking how could a New York crowd not support its own. Even though Monfils was playing the role of entertaining underdog and hitting stunning shots to give him a chance against the huge serve of Isner, for these two announcers the only question was one of passport. Isner is American and thus we Americans should cheer him no matter what.

Watching the match at the hotel (we did take last night off from the live premises), I kept saying out loud, "Why in the world should I have to cheer for an American?" Even though I received no answers (I was after all by myself and talking to no one), the point still sticks with me here a day later. Gail Monfils is possibly the most entertaining player on the ATP Tour. His style of play is exciting, with each match and up and down roller coaster of frustrating inconsistency and dynamic moments of top ten level play. But his personality is even better. He plays along with the crowd, jumping up and down when they cheer, laughing and smiling throughout and generally trying to be a showman from the first serve of the match. If Monfils was just a bit better (he once reached #7 in the world, but is now in the 30s), he would be the type of tennis player that could become a transcendent sports star. In fact, in a world where virtually no player outside of the Big Four has any traction with the American sports public, Monfils should be celebrated as having all the marketable qualities that could make him explode on the low attention span ESPN-era stage.

Further, there is no place in America where such theatrics would be more celebrated than here in New York. Yet there was Fowler, one of the most known broadcasters in all of sports, acting befuddled at the New York cheers and wondering aloud how something this "shocking" could be happening. He at one point asked whether Isner would ever be cheered so in France and added that it makes one wonder why it would happen here. For Fowler then, the American tennis fan should be a caricature of a Toby Keith country song, only hoping that fellow countrymen put a "boot in their ass" during every match, while we yell with reckless abandon for our star to "light up their world like the Fourth of July." I am surprised at such a low view of the tennis public. But at least Fowler was just acting surprised at the cheers, Brad Gilbert on the court seemed genuinely upset. He talked of a woman next to him who was angry at fans in the stands for their supposed treasonous behavior and suggested that he agreed with the sentiment. Gilbert noted that with American male tennis having so few stars, it was ridiculous not to support those actually with a chance to make a run.

That is all well and good but guess what. Monfils is the most fun player on tour and some of us appreciate fun.  Nothing against Isner, who has had a tremendous summer and who I support in virtually all of his matches. But his powerful service game is not exactly aesthetically pleasing. While I enjoy watching him at his peak performance, his matches usually become slugfests, with exhilarating tiebreaks interrupting the monotony of the otherwise lackluster play. I want Isner to win more often than not because we happen to be born on the same soil, but when I see a person with the entertainment value of Monfils on the court, forgive me if I don't simply go into a fit of anger at his success because we have an ocean between us. My tennis fandom is not that narrow-minded, even if others across the world would supposedly disagree.

The best part of tennis is the way that it equalizes success across a myraid of countries and nationalities. And what better place to celebrate this inclusion than in the most diverse city in the world. Normally that will still mean that our New York crowd rallies around its own against a storm of invaders. But sometimes we might just celebrate the beauty of the game over the pledge of allegiance cited by the player. That isn't somehow being disloyal, it is being explicitly American, a fact that I hope Fowler and Gilbert will ultimately appreciate.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

US Open Day Four in a Nutshell

It is late at night on what has been a relatively mundane Thursday at the Open, so just a couple of notes from the proceedings:

---  The story of the day for me was the second round win by Daniel Evans over Bernard Tomic. Drew wrote about this earlier in the week, but it bears repeating. Just a few weeks ago, Evans was in the draw at the Challenger event in our native Lexington, Kentucky. I noticed his name as I had a recollection of Evans from watching a late night Davis Cup match from days gone by. I assumed Evans (who was seeded in the draw) would do well, but instead he lost in straight sets 6-2, 6-1. Evans immediately exited my mind. Now just six weeks later, he is in the Round of 32 at the US Open. It is without question the biggest surprise of the event, as showcased by Roger Federer's comments when he was asked about Evans today. He said he was "honestly surprised" that Evans beat Tomic, a honest comment in a world where that is rare. Evans, tatted up like the good rebel he has been, says the reason he has improved is that for the first time in his life, he is finally working and practicing like a real professional. Whatever he has done, it has clearly worked, and one more win could see him playing Federer and trying to create another surprise, in the round of 16.

---  Speaking of Federer, I listened to his press conference today and heard him answer questions from the media in three languages. Federer gave comments about his easy win over Bautista Agut in English, French and German and while I didn't understand the last two, it sounded exquisite throughout. Listen, I have been in a lot of sports locker rooms in a number of different sports and I have never seen anything more impressive. In most sports I cover, athletes are lucky to be able to speak one language even moderately well. And here is the graceful superstar sounding eloquent (or at least eloquent to this blogger, whose major exposure to the two languages comes from "Saturday Night Live" skits) to reporters in three native tongues. It is unlikely I will see anything this week more impressive.

---  I take that back. Today I ran into Maria Kirilenko outside of the Media Center. She is my tennis crush. They scheduled one on one interviews for her and I lined up to do one. And then I realized I would have nothing to say and would instead just look at her and likely pull a Chris Farley ("Do you remember when you hit that backhand for that point....that was awesome"). All I got was this blurry picture below. It was possibly my worst run-in with a female celebrity crush since I met Ashley Judd and offended her by saying, "You are great. My mom is a big fan of yours as well and has loved you since she was a little kid."  That didn't go over well.

--- The matches today were generally boring due to the ease of the wins by the top players. No five set matches all day, and the top players (Nadal, Federer, Serena, Azarenka) barely even broke a sweat. In fact, the first four days of the tournament have been distinguished by their lack of thrilling matches. This likely changes on the weekend with some compelling third round draws, but for now the best stories have been the unknowns as the stars hold their domination.

---  Finally, a shot out to "The Outer Courts"s nemesis Jack Sock, who had a tremendous win over our favorite underdog Maximo Gonzalez. I went and watched a good deal of the match on Court 11 and while I still got frustrated with the smirks, the play was quite impressive. Sock has the talent and the draw to make some more noise. He has Tipsarevic next and then possibly a career making battle with David Ferrer. As I documented yesterday, I want to cheer for Sock. This week could make it happen.

It was a long day today as we dealt with a host of technical issues, but tomorrow looks brilliant, capped off by Del Potro/Hewitt. Hang tight and get ready...the fun is about to begin.

You have Open questions, I have Open answers

It has been a hectic first four days in Queens for The Outer Courts, mainly because everyone in the media center, including the people in charge, seem to hate us. (Hate is a strong word, we'll go with loathe. They loathe us.) Matt will go a little more in depth with the reasons behind the troubled relationship in another post, but to put it briefly, our access is limited because we were late additions to the party. Because we applied for credentials so late in the process, we're not even allowed to touch the free magazines or drink the free happy hour cocktails. Don't get me started on that one, though.

But back to the matter at hand. We're here and you have questions, as you should. And like any good tennis blogger with an ear to the ground and a laptop with complimentary WiFi, I will happily answer those questions. We all need to be on the same page if we're going to enjoy the Open, so let's get to it. May the educating commence.

What is the US Open?

If at any point you've asked yourself this question, I would like to ask you why you're on this website and who sent you.

The US Open, rookie, is the fourth and final Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year. It was first held in 1881 as the U.S. National Championship and the balls are still bouncing in 2013, though much faster these days. The tournament switched to acrylic hard court surfaces in 1978 after almost a century's worth of matches on grass and a brief, three-year trial run on clay.

Where is it played?

The US Open is held at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York City, right across the tracks from the Mets' new baseball stadium in Queens. The 33-court tennis facility features three stadium-style courts: Arthur Ashe Stadium, the 22,547-seat primary venue; Louis Armstrong Stadium, the old main stadium; and Court 17, nicknamed "The Pit" because it's below ground level.

Arthur Ashe Stadium came with a $254 million price tag when it was constructed in 1997, in case you're wondering, and a new $550 million renovation of the tennis center is in its early stages.

Is the Billie Jean King Tennis Center close to that big globe with the fountains?

Yes, you are correct.

The Unisphere, as it's known to those who call it that, sits right outside the South Gate in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. It's a 12-story high, spherical stainless steel representation of the Earth. It was the theme symbol of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.

If you're having trouble imagining the gigantic replica of the world, you can Google it or check it out at the 2:23 mark in the "Mo Money, Mo Problems" music video.

How much will I get paid if I win?

If you emerge from the draw victorious, assuming you made the draw, not only would Hell have already frozen over, but you would receive a $2,600,000 paycheck.

But remember, the more money you come across, the more problems you see.

Who won last year?

Andy Murray won the men's singles tournament while Serena Williams won the women's and the Bryan Brothers hoisted the doubles trophy.

Do the Bryan Brothers ever lose?

No, I don't think they do. They're like the '96 Bulls.

Who invited Lenny Kravitz?

The tournament directors, I assume. Kravitz performed at the opening ceremonies Monday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. I hear it was quite the spectacle.

How expensive is the merchandise?

Couldn't tell ya. I'm currently undergoing souvenir rehabilitation after my personal shopping spree in Indian Wells earlier this year. I don't know why I thought I needed t-shirts, windbreakers, an umbrella, three hats, a pair of shoes, tennis balls, sunglasses, flip-flops, a foam cowboy hat, a mousepad, and a wax figurine of Juan Martin Del Potro arm-wrestling a bear, but I'm still paying off the credit card(s).

I want to go one year.

You absolutely should. I'm having a blast and we're only getting started. The players give it their all, there is so much to do when you're not watching tennis, and it's in the greatest city in the world. The Open should be a bucket list sporting event for everyone.

Think how much fun you'd be having if they'd invite you to media happy hour.

Shut up. That's not funny.

Why is David Ferrer So Freaking Boring?

Since hitting the tennis beat, I have made it my goal to learn as much as possible about the world's top players. Before starting at Indian Wells I, like my most fans, knew a good deal about the group characterized as the "Big Four", Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray. Each of these players have transcended tennis to get mainstream sports popularity and each of them has a compelling "hook" that makes them interesting and intriguing personalities. Even the second-tier guys like Del Potro, Tsonga and Isner can create compelling television due to playing style, backstory or even massive height. But for a player talented enough to be ranked #4 in the world, I can find almost nothing interesting about David Ferrer.

Ferrer is clearly the most talented player in tennis that could walk down the street of any American city and be unrecognized by even one sports fan. In fact, Ferrer can walk through the stadium area here at the US Open (as I have seen him do) and get little more than a passing glance from the most hardcore tennis fans in the United States. His matches are never considered important enough for Arthur Ashe Stadium. However his #4 ranking means the USTA feels like they can't put him on an outer court. So that means that Louis Armstrong Stadium becomes essentially "David Ferrer Stadium" for these two weeks...stick him there, as a sign of respect but an acknowledgement of the lack of any tennis sex appeal. But why is that? Why is Ferrer the living epitome of a "Perfect Storm of Blah" that makes him unmarketable and unremarkable. To me, there are three main reasons:

(1) His Name

If ever someone outside of Michael Bolton in "Office Space" had the right to curse his given name, it would be Ferrer. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the name...David is a good wholesome first name that is age-appropriate and creates very little negativity. And in Ferrer, the Spanish charm is brought out as the surname is easy to pronounce by even the most inept sports broadcaster. But Ferrer had the misfortune of coming along in the age of Roger Federer. The best player of all time possesses the same name, but with perfectly placed "d" that gives his name an almost noble quality that far outpaces his now higher ranked rival. When Ferrer is spoken of at tennis tournaments, his name is immediately a let down, with the listener initially mistaking (hoping?) that you are talking about King Roger. "Ferrer plays on this court in ten minutes" gets an initial excited gasp, followed by the dismay of the realization of David's presence. The #4 ranked player in the game should not so often disappoint.

(2) His Country

Similarly, Ferrer has the misfortune of being a player with great Spanish flair (and by the way, is it a requirement that when talking about Spanish players, writers use the word "flair"...I never hear people talking about Danish "flair" or Bulgarian "flair", but I have heard at least five media members this tournament mention the phrase "Spanish flair"...but I digress) in an era that has produced the most popular Spanish player in the history of the sport. Rafael Nadal has hardcore tennis fans in awe with his powerful game and his appearance elicits more screams from female fans than a "One Direction" Today Show performance. Everything Ferrer has, Nadal has as well...only slightly more. Ferrer is a clay court specialist with a world class game on the surface...but Nadal is the best of all time on the red stuff. Ferrer's game has translated to other courts and he is becoming a weapon in the hard court season as well...but Nadal is having the best hard court summer of his life. Ferrer is stylish and handsome...but Nadal is ranked as one of the most beautiful people in the world. Simply put, Ferrer is not Nadal and for that, he is unfortunately punished.

(3) His Game

Ferrer plays tennis in the most effective, consistent and monotonous way a human backboard. To play tennis with Ferrer is simply to see yourself in the mirror, whatever you do, he will do it back to you. It is why Ferrer is so shockingly consistent. You have to be a great player to beat him as he will force you to hit winners and rarely gives up an unforced error. But it also makes watching him an exercise in willpower as you beg to see him do something, anything to make the match interesting. Ferrer doesn't do anything great, but he does everything well and thus only players on the top of their game can beat him. Since such players rarely reach that height, he is ranked #4, with few elite wins but even fewer embarrassing losses. He is the tennis "Time to Make the Donuts" guy...always on time, always dependable and always uninteresting.

Does any of the above mean that we should criticize David Ferrer? Certainly not. Ferrer is an elite player precisely because of the characteristics that make him boring. If tennis is the Andy Griffith Show, David Ferrer is Aunt Bee, rarely the star of the show and almost never getting the laughs...but needed for the camaraderie and consistency of the storyline. One will likely never see a major national American ad campaign about Ferrer, but they also won't see an "Outside the Lines: Special Report" either. Instead he will just do his thing, hiding in the shadows and waiting for a mistake upon which to take advantage. Revel in your "Hootie and the Blowfish"-ness David. You are boring, but "Only Wanna Be With You" and backboard tennis can still be very successful.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Life On the Outer Courts: A Set With Jack Sock

If you watch an average Grand Slam at home, chances are you focus primarily on the major matches on the big show courts. I know before attending these events in person, I had very little perspective on the overall scope of a professional tennis tournament (not to mention a Grand Slam) and was unaware of the vast array of action on "the outer courts." But even within our first moments at our first tournament at Indian Wells, it was clear to me that the best time to watch a match is when you step away from Ashe, Armstrong or the Grandstand and venture to more obscure places, like Court 13 on the appropriately named "Outer Courts". So yesterday I moved away from the ambiance of the media cafeteria and ventured out to be "amongst them" to once again watch the action away from my comfort zone (and my free refills of #1 soda). It seemed only natural that the place to be on Tuesday afternoon was Court 13 for the epic battle between American Jack Sock and German Philipp Petzchner. I decided to keep a Running Diary of the Sock-Petzchner matchup and here is what I found:

3:24 pm: While considered an "outer court", Court 13 is not in the tennis hinterlands. It has 10 rows of bleacher seating on one side, a high perch above another and seats 584 people if filled to capacity. The setting is thus intimate, but does allow the belief that you are playing in a match of some importance. However with no private entrance area, the players have to wade through the crowd to make it onto the court. Unlike the masses of movement that follow Nadal, Federer and the like, as Sock and Petzchner walk in, little attention is paid to anything beyond the attractive reporter who is making her presence known in the bleachers. The person most affected by their grand appearance was a Tennis Channel cameraman forced to duck to avoid Sock's bag hitting him in the head (just for the record, I need to state that there is no need for a new trend I am players carrying two bags. What could one possibly need for the three hours on the court that would require an additional carry-on? We aren't packing for a ten day cruise to Alaska here people...three rackets, a change of shirts and maybe (if you so wish) some fruits and nuts. You can leave your iPad and picture of distant relatives at home).

3:33 pm: As the warmup period comes to a close and the match begins, one thing stands out. First, Petzchner is wearing a garish outfit that makes him look like an English Football League Two striker:

Now don't get me wrong. I am all for personality and unique appearance on the court...but the wool socks have to be hot and while not a fashion guru, I am not sure a look is successful if "radish" is the first thing that comes to mind when seeing it. Still, do your thing already refuse to spell your first name conventionally, so why not have an outfit to match.

3:39 pm: Sock gets an early break with a stunning passing shot of of a Petzchner volley that brings the crowd to its feet. As they explode, I continue to beat myself up over the fact that I really do not like Sock. That probably isn't fair (as I don't know him) and it is a terrible feeling to have because Sock could be the future of American tennis. He is able to hit stunning forehands, has a powerful serve and if he can improve over the next two years, is this generation's Andy Roddick. But his attitude on the court makes him unbelievably unlikeable to me. He has a constant smirk on his face, belittles umpires, line judges and (worst of all to me) the ball boys and girls. In fact, he seems to spend most of his time on the court with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face, looking for someone to blame for whatever minor calamity has fallen his way. At one point early in this match I even saw him seem to be angry at the ground for betraying his attempt to get to a slice forehand. But Sock is also really talented and extremely entertaining to watch. Oh yeah, he also has the single best comedy name in all of tennis. Thus I want Jack to make me like him...but unfortunately so far he has failed miserably.

3:43 pm: Sock reaches 136 mph on a first serve, a truly remarkable sight. We forgive those in sports who showcase major talent don't we?  Maybe I can look past his otherwise disappointing personality traits to see Jack Sock, not the crusty smart-alec but Jack Sock the hidden receptacle of something great.

3:50 pm: Nevermind. As Sock bounces a ball prior to his first serve, a big point during the crucial 5th set of the match on adjoining Court 14 leads the crowd to erupt into a loud cheer. Sock then stares in the direction of those fans and glares, as if their joy during the point to the side was somehow a distraction to his immaculate serve. It is this Jack Sock that makes me nuts. First of all, why in tennis is complete silence necessary? I know tennis players have assumed silence is golden since the beginning of time. But why? This isn't golf, where you are hitting a stationary are hitting a moving object flying at you at over 100 mph...the sound of a human voice will make that more difficult? And even if it would, so what? Baseball players seem to handle it just fine and the difficulty is almost certainly greater. And even if silence is required, does Sock really expect that on Court 13, which is adjoined by three other courts and has fans milling about left and right, he will get the immaculate conditions of Ashe Stadium? The answer is yes he does and it is that sense of entitlement that places me back once again in the "anti-Sock" category.

3:56 pm: Another monster Sock serve goes off Petzchner's racket frame and careens into the crowd, striking a woman in the face. This is an often unknown hazard of attending a match...the possibility you will get pelted with a ball. The woman takes it like a trooper and holds her eye while her husband consoles her, but it marks the fourth time during this tournament I have seen someone take a strong shot to the face by a tennis ball. While foul balls do make baseball hazardous, no sport produces more involuntary participation from the crowd than tennis (and that is before the multiple usages of the "Kiss Cam").

4:02 pm: On an outer court, every sounds gets magnified and individual cheers in the crowd can take on a life of their own. After Petzchner breaks back on Sock and evens the set at 4-4, a man in the crowd screams loudly, "RIGHT HERE JACK, LET'S GO!" He says it with a force that nearly makes me jump out of my seat and clearly has an effect on Sock as well. Jack looks up into the crowd, sees the man and gives him a puzzled glare that seems to suggest, "who are you?" The man never again yells for the rest of the set. It must have embarrassed him to have such enthusiasm tampered by the player he so was hoping would "GO!" I immediately felt bad for him and even now, hope someone gave him a hug.

4:10 pm: Serving at 40-30, Petzchner stops the proceedings to ask for a towel from the ball girl. It seems to this observer somewhat unnecessary since he has taken a towel after each point and has thoroughly dried whatever could possibly be on him at all moments of the match. No group of people towel off with the frequency of tennis players during a match. If one drop of perspiration hits any part of their body, all must be stopped and a towel must be brought to accommodate. Compare this say to the NBA, where players are dripping with sweat, sharing the bodily fluids of others and in a constant state of gross moisture, yet seem to be fine moving without said towel and you players may be a bit prissy. I am just saying.

4:16 pm: Sock, continuing his "argue with anything, whether moving or inanimate, theory, challenged the lack of a call of a let on a Petzchner serve. He walks to the umpire and says, "that ball hit the net by six inches!"  I am not sure what that sentence means (it either hit the net or didn't and if it hit it by "six inches," it wouldn't have gone over the net), but Sock is adamant he is correct. The umpire cooly throws technology under the bus and says, "don't blame me...blame the computer!" Sock then looks at the umpire and says, with no degree of sarcasm, "I blame you AND the computer!!!" Somewhere a computer silently weeps.

4:22 pm: During a tense final service game, Sock saves a match point and sends the set to a tiebreak. He looks down at the ground after the game point and yells. "WHAT! THAT'S RIGHT! WHAT!" I am not sure if Sock is channelling Stone Cold Steve Austin or seriously interrogating the hard court surface, but either way I assume it is Jack showcasing happiness. As the tiebreak begins, my friend Miguel, the security guy sitting in front of me with the most serious look on his face I have ever seen, stands up and begins staring with anger at a gnat that is flying to his left. I took a picture of the moment right before I believe Miguel was going to have the gnat removed from the premises for making too much noise:

4:29 pm: The match that began with a bang ends with a whimper. The tiebreak starts off poorly for Petzchner and he never recovers. Sock wins easily 7-2, and within seconds he is pumping his fist and smirking. Soon thereafter, Philipp has to retire from the match due to injury and the entire proceedings are concluded prematurely. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise fun afternoon on an outer court. The match showcased three important things to me:

(1) Being on "The Outer Courts" is much more fun than the main stadiums, especially in the first week.

Early in the tournament, Arthur Ashe Stadium is used primarily as a show court for the sport's biggest names. That is all fine and dandy but those first week matches are generally dreadful affairs. The excitement, and even matches are all out yonder in the boonies of the double-digit courts. They are worth the price of admission.

(2) You can see a player's true personality on the outer courts

Even in a sport like tennis, a player's true personality doesn't always come through. The cameras don't catch every thing a player does or every moment he spends arguing a call or questioning a decision. Plus, when the players realize they are on a primary court and will have a national audience, they generally are on their best behavior. Not so on the outer courts. There they showcase exactly who they are, warts and all. Thus you will know who is a true gentleman and who might be slightly insane.

(3) I am still fascinated and disappointed by Jack Sock

John Isner is American tennis currently. But Jack Sock is the best chance at the future. And I can't make myself yet like him. His actions on the court are of the worst whining variety and his attitude is difficult to tolerate at best. With that said, he is still very young and his talent is obvious. His name brought me to his game (and the jokes as he gets more popular will only increase), but his talent and attitude will make him a story for years to come. I will continue to watch him and hope to see him mature, but whether it happens is anyone's guess.

We are sitting in the rain and hoping for some late tennis action...but since it is still Day Three, when the skies clear, I will be headed to an outer court.

What To Do During The Rain Delay

We're currently under a rain delay here in Flushing Meadows, leaving thousands of anxious tennis fans stranded throughout the Billie Jean King Tennis Center with nothing to do. But fret not, my US Open friends. There are still plenty of activities available to pass the time until play gets underway again. Here are five:

Wine Down Wednesday!
1.) Drink champagne.

Because it's 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and you're at the U.S. Open.

Bottoms up.

I don't think the keychain is supposed to go on your ear, sir.
2.) Buy a Mercedes.

The 7 train back to the city can be crowded at times and your nose hairs don't deserve the insufferable smells that often permeate from some of the subway's passengers. Is that urine? I think it's urine.

So why not leave Flushing Meadows in style behind the wheel of a brand new Mercedes? Yeah, it's an impulse purchase, an expensive one at that, but it can be yours for the cost of four of those 2013 U.S. Open fleece jackets you were about to buy.

I see you checking The Outer Courts on your mobile device.
3.) Stand with these people outside the indoor training facility.

Everybody's doing it. Look at how much fun they're having.

I want a bag with puppies on it.
4.) Visit the Time Warner Experience.

Time Warner Cable's new customer and fan lounge outside the East Gate of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center has everything one would need to follow the tournament; from interactive maps to live audio and handheld controllers featuring action from six different courses.

Just don't ask to watch Dexter or Ray Donovan. The Showtime breakup is still a touchy subject.

Got enough tennis balls?
5. Shop in the US Open Collection Store.

Unless, of course, you bought the Mercedes.