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.
What about the women? Will anything stop a Williams sisters final? We never say never, but logic argues that this tournament, too, will be between the sisters. For whatever people say about Richard Williams, let’s get one thing straight. He’s been right about his daughters being number one and two in the world, and about Serena being even better than Venus. Richard’s daughters have met in the finals of the last three Grand Slams in which they’ve both played—Serena skipped the Australian Open. And now that they’re seeded first and second in the tournament, there’s no reason to expect anything different at Flushing Meadows.
Can Jennifer Capriati break through? The good news for her is that she won the Australian Open. The bad news is that she’s 0-4 career against Venus and has lost her last five against Serena.
What about Davenport and Hingis? Even before suffering injuries that cost them most of the season, Hingis was getting overpowered—remember the way Serena pummeled her in last year’s semis?—and Davenport has always lacked the speed to keep up with Venus and Serena. They’ve got about as much chance as Anna Kournikova.
So whatever happened to Anna? After a serious foot injury, she’s slipped to 37th, and she got bageled in the first round by Angelique Widjaja. But Kournikova once had some game. She made the semis at Wimbledon and beat every top player at least once. As for the Anna wannabes, first-round loser Ashley Harkelroad and Dominique Viele are well on their way to becoming never-wases. But ESPN mag pinup girl Daniela Hantuchova is really a high-quality player, and she’s one of the few with a real chance against the Williams sisters. And while she’s marketing herself as the next Kournikova, 16-year-old Danira Safina, Marat’s sister, has already done something that her idol couldn’t—she won her first pro tournament.
And why do they have to reroute the planes from LaGuardia? Because tennis players are like bats, using the tone and pitch of the thwock of the ball to determine its speed and trajectory. What about those Mets outfielders who are supposed to be off with the crack of the bat? Maybe that explains Roger Cedeño.