Enduring, and then Enjoying, Day 9 at the US Open
Sitting there in Louis Armstrong Stadium, I couldn’t focus on the Williams sisters’ doubles match below. I was preoccupied with my t-shirt. It felt as if someone had ironed it onto my chest. Barely there 20 minutes, it was soaked through, and blotches of sweat were appearing on my shorts.
Day 9 at the US Open was a hot one. After a cool August, the humid 93-degree temperatures felt like a scalding, wet slap in the face. Both Louis Armstrong Stadium and Arthur Ashe, if you’ve never been, might as well be mirrors for the sun. So there I sat with my cousin and her boyfriend, wedged into seats about as comfortable as Fenway’s century old grand stand, trapped in between a mirror and the sun. Ants under a magnifying glass came to mind. Tennis felt secondary; survival seemed important.
Below, the Williams sisters weren’t clicking. Their opponents, Makarova and Vesnina, might have been the reason for that. They were playing like they had just discovered kryptonite, and Superman was faltering. Their strategy? Hit just as hard as the Williams sisters – use their pace, and send it back. On the baseline, Venus couldn’t move her feet fast enough, and consistently pushed the ball in the net after two or three shots. At net, Serena was trying to dominate and disrupt Makarova and Vesnina’s rhythm, but she wasn’t serving well, and each time the Williams sisters broke serve, Makarova and Vesnina broke back. Late in the first set, neck-in-neck, the Williams sisters blinked, losing 7-5 in the tiebreak.
Up in the stands, as the Williams sisters discussed what went wrong on the court below, I was cataloguing the mistakes I’d made: I didn’t wear athletic clothes, bring an umbrella for the sun, or bring a towel to soak in cold water. Out of my seat and watching from the standing room areas, we had a decision to make. We needed more sunscreen, water, and some shade, but the Williams sisters were tied in the second set.
We left and went to the practice courts, where the Bryan brothers were warming up. Thanks to a nearby scoreboard, we saw that the Williams sisters had lost – kryptonite had taken down Superman. Watching from the shade, we unstuck our clothes and reapplied sunscreen. The Bryan brothers were making fools of their practice partners. A coach would feed the ball, the practice players would hit it, and one of the Bryan brothers would put it away.
We moved on to Arthur Ashe, where Dimitrov and Monfils had already started. Almost as soon as we arrived, Monfils pulled a McEnroe. Angered by Dimitrov’s slow play, Monfils walked up to the service line before Dimitrov’s serve and motioned for him to start. From that position on the court, it was clear Monfils wouldn’t have a chance of returning the ball. Think David Ortiz in early August walking away from the plate before the pitch. But besides the occasional tantrum and leg grabbing, Monfils took it to Dimitrov. Although Monfils has a big forehand and serve when he wants to, he prefers to use the opponent’s power to punish them. He’s essentially an athletic counterpuncher. And that’s what he did against Dimitrov, nicknamed Baby Federer because of his style of play, but not yet Federer’s equal tactically.
By this point, clouds had mercifully descended upon Flushing Meadows. As we watched Monfils demolish Dimitrov, the temperature dropped just enough to slow the sweat reclaiming my shirt. During Monfils’ post-match interview, he was asked why he preferred playing in Louis Armstrong stadium. It was a weird question – maybe ask him something about the match? – but it made us realize we prefer watching there, so we walked over.
Back in the cheap seats in Armstrong, but much closer to the action, we watched the last three sets of Cilic and Simon. It was hard not to feel conflicted about this one; earlier, I had definitely wanted the Williams sisters and Dimitrov to win. But before me was the Frenchman Simon, a player I used to like because of my time in France, but also the only man on the men’s tour to insist that men deserve more prize money than women. With that idiotic comment he had lost my respect, and so I cheered on the Argentine who managed to pull out the win 6-3 in the fifth.
Looking at our watches, it was now past 7pm, the time when our tickets expired and the night crowd started entering the stadiums. As we walked across the upper deck headed for the exit, I caught site of a men’s doubles match being played directly below us, the court just 20 feet down. It was the Bryan brothers, and they were playing their very best tennis against a former top ten singles player, Verdasco, and his very capable partner Marrero. Here, right below us, playing a match we never expected to see, was the best tennis of the day. As the sun started setting and the lights came on, we clung to the railing and watched the best doubles match I’ve ever seen.
First of all, anyone who tells you doubles is boring hasn’t watched it. It’s fast paced and all about reflexes, and each point delivers something different. Doubles players use angles singles players could never dream of hitting, and if they misjudge the shot and hit it too softly, they’re suddenly confronted with a 100 mile an hour forehand flying at their face. In singles – still somewhat a gentlemen’s game – you’re generally not supposed to hit the ball at the player if you can avoid it. But doubles players relish it. With four players, the court becomes much smaller, and slamming a winner at the net player is perfectly acceptable. Except when it isn’t, and that’s when arguments break out. In many ways, it can be much more entertaining than singles.
As we left Flushing Meadows, lumbering away on the 7 subway, I reflected on the sweaty, unforgettable day. Not all of my favorites won, but leaving after the Bryan brothers captivating victory made it easier to bear. I’ll be back next year.