The Open City

What a Perfect Burg for This Racket

The big show is here. Sure, we get the U.S. Open golf every once in a while, and for the past few years it has seemed as if the World Series lives here. But year in and year out, the U.S. Open tennis tournament is the sporting event in New York, the thing that makes the No. 7 train a true melting pot. What do you need to know about this tournament? Here are some FAQs.

Can I score tickets? While things aren't as loose as when my friend Reggie Doherty not only snuck into the tournament but also into the players' locker room and schmoozed a pile of shirts from Adriano Panatta, the short answer is yes. If you want to go to Super Saturday or the finals, you'd better have some serious connections—or serious dinero. But on the first day of the tournament, you could walk up to the window and buy tickets. And while those corporate boxes go to the CFO for the finals weekend, tix for midweek night matches often filter down to the weird guy in the copy room, so ask around. Furthermore, the USTA's policy of selling daily grounds passes that allow you to see everything but stadium matches has loosened up the ticket resale market significantly. Smart scalpers are now content to buy below face value and re-sell for a modest profit.

But it's on TV. Why should I watch it live? Aside from the fact that you don't have to listen to John McEnroe? Tennis is like hockey or basketball. Only by seeing it in 3-D with your own two retinas can you appreciate the foot speed of the players and the otherworldly bounces caused by all that topspin. And if you actually play, your game will improve by osmosis—really.

Can Pete Sampras win this tournament? Uh, no. While 31 is just middle age in baseball or even basketball, it's colostomy-bag time in tennis. McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, and Borg were all done winning slams by age 26. And for that matter, Pete hasn't won a major anywhere besides Wimbledon since the Australian Open of 1997. But that doesn't mean you should ignore him. If you had a chance to see Babe Ruth or Bobby Jones live and in person, would you take it? Well, you've got that chance—maybe your last chance—with Sampras. Shot for shot, Sampras is probably the best player to ever pick up a racket, yet like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and precious few others, he competes as if every point were his last. He's lost a step, but the shadows of his majestic game are still there: that sneaky-fast service motion, those throwback volleys, that buggy-whip running forehand, that tiny old-school Wilson Pro Staff racket. It plays way better live than on ESPN Classic.

So who will win on the men's side? There's a bigger power vacuum at the top of men's tennis than at the White House. Top seed Lleyton Hewitt has huge holes in his game—he runs like Kathy Freeman and he competes hard, but he's also too small to trade winners with today's big hitters. Think of him as a latter-day Mats Wilander or a Jim Courier Lite. Scratch the surface of his admittedly impressive record and you'll note that he's beaten a running-on-empty Sampras and never-played-on-grass-before David Nalbandian in his two slam finals, and in his last hard-court major, he lost in the first round. If you're as sick of this Aussie punk as I am, take solace in the fact that he won't be No. 1 for long.

Who can challenge Hewitt? Wouldn't it be sweet if the fast-improving James Blake—who took the high road after Hewitt hurled a racial slur at last year's Open—beat him in the third round?

Who else has a chance? Well, everyone and no one. As I said earlier, Sampras has slipped a lot, Andre Agassi has slipped a little, and Gustavo Kuerten never could play on hard courts. The twentysomethings who should be dominating—Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Tommy Haas—are head cases more content to be rich than to be the best. Sure, any of them could win, but . . .

So who's on the horizon? The U.S. Open has been very kind to breakthrough players—in the past five years, there have been three first-time slam winners: Hewitt, Safin, and Patrick Rafter. Quentin Tarantino look-alike Roger Federer of Switzerland, the 13th seed, has a beautiful, poetic game—a virtual clone of Sampras's. An even better bet is Andy Roddick, the 19-year-old American who just cracked the top ten. Roddick, you will remember, came within one brief meltdown of winning last year's tournament. When he got a questionable call late in the fifth set against Hewitt, he launched an atypical F-bomb on the umpire and promptly pissed away what was left of the match. Don't bet on him wasting a similar opportunity this year. If you're buying futures, keep an eye on French teen Richard Gasquet, who lost in the qualifying. He's considered to be the best prospect out of Europe since Boris Becker.

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