Ladies and Gentlemen, “Thank You, Quiet Please, Players are Ready …”
Its here – and its finally here. In less than 24 hours the first ball will be served in one of the four (well – five, this year) most important tournaments of the year. As much as Sharapova, Kvitova and Federer would love to win in Toronto, Ohio, Madrid and Monte Carlo, it is inevitable that they themselves consider the majors as a significant ‘yardstick’, when it comes to judging excellence at the end of a fabulous career. Over the years, I have gotten myself to call it – “The Open”. There is a certain sense of justified ambition and understated presumptuousness to it, if Wimbledon can call itself (just) – “The Championships”, then New York City can call this “The Open”. So, let us just stick to that – “The Open”. Its like Sean Parker dropping the ‘The’, from Facebook. I like it – it sounds better. Welcome, and make yourself comfortable because you are going to be here for a couple of weeks. Pizza and beer – are on the way.
I used to fly up to Bridgeport or Westchester County (New York), or where ever my best friend was to watch each grand slam final for four years during my graduate school. I can visualize the metamorphosis with time, at times I can imagine myself to be a boy who refuses to grow up and take the next step into an adult world – a world filled with responsibilities and commitments. Its not too dissimilar from trying to fit a square peg into an elliptical void. Similarly, I remember cringing when a young Djokovic taking on an adoring home crowd (Roddick’s crowd) after defeating him, only to have the entire crowd root for his opponent, two days later. Djokovic had the crowd eating off his hands here in New York – with his imitations. “Whether you like it or not, its like that“, as Djokovic said – I kept thinking, disaster, a nightmare of a PR disaster. That is the sort of statement that sends your PR team pulling all-nighters for two weeks straight.
He might have won more down under, but this is really the place where he navigated through the slippery slope, transitioning from being an entertainer, to becoming a champion. I think he just got tired of warming up the seat for the ‘FE-DAL’ Battle Royale. He took his hits along the way, but he finally got his trophy last year. Any tennis fan would tell you his semifinal victory the first time (2010) against Federer in the fifth set, after being two match points down is in more ways than one – ‘A Watershed Moment‘ in his career. That very second saturday was when – “The Joker”, became – “Novak Djokovic”. “Its one of those matches which you would remember for the rest of your life”, right Novak ?
With time, the tradition of spending time analyzing grand slam finals together with my friend died, but the memories survived. It feels like another decade when that happened, it probably is another decade. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, housed ten miles east of Times Square finds itself caught in the energy and fuel of “The City that Never Sleeps“. The phrase is not just metaphorical, you can quite nonchalantly get stuck in traffic at three in the morning in downtown Manhattan. Because of its position in the calendar year at the end of the North American swing, “The Open” either solidifies a player’s year, or it provides renewed confidence that he or she can take into the upcoming indoor season and world championships, depending on whom the winners are.
It is indeed very hard to look past Serena this year, given her form coming into New York. There is little doubt that when she is on, there are very few (actually – none in the current field) who can hold their own with her on the baseline. But quite ironic isn’t it ? that New York is also the place where she has had monumental meltdowns. Defaulted against Clijsters, and that “Aren’t you the one who screwed me over last time again ?, that’s not cool, that’s totally not cool, we are in America the last time I checked“. I cringe – as I cringed with Djokovic. As critical as other people are, as a fan one cannot help but admire such visceral emotions on the court. They unmask a raging desire to win regardless of whether they are justified or not, approved or not, or even – legal or not ? That’s the thing about New York, it provides entertainment – The Good, The Bad – and ofcourse, The Ugly. Serena should blitz the field if she can keep her temper in check, Kvitova and Sharapova are contenders for the title as well. Speaking of whom, have you tasted the new Sugar-Povas ?
More often than not, 9/11 co-incides with the US Open, and the players are sensitive to that. Last year, both Djokovic and Nadal paid respects to the victims and families during their speech after the finals. This year, the tournament ends a couple of days before the day – but you can expect references to 9/11 in the award ceremony.
The tennis purist in me roots for the Olympic Gold Medalist – Andy Murray, so that we have each member of the top four win a grand slam this year. Besides, Murray feels home on the hard courts of New York more than anywhere else, and one cannot help wonder, if the Olympic win against Federer is probably the catalyst he needs to get that first slam win. Many will follow, after the first one. For that to happen – he needs to send the five time champion and eternal crowd favorite – Roger Federer packing. Remember, this is where Federer donned the “DARTH – Federer” all blacks ensemble that put Metallica to shame, and its so unique that it can only be successfully pulled off in the US Open. This is one of the few times Murray ended up in Federer’s half, and hence they are set to meet on the second (SUPER) Saturday. It will be electrifying if Murray takes on Federer with the golden sun about to set beyond the skyscrapers, after a warm and toasty evening in New York City. Its a coin toss on who would win that encounter, and pardon my indulgence in picking Federer.
If Juan martin Del-Potro is feeling it (more like – feelin’ it), then there are few players who can send him packing, and he finds himself in Djokovic’s half. Del-Potro is as serious a dark horse we can get. But for an evening of inspired tennis from Del-Potro, we should expect Djokovic to keep his date for the second sunday. Is it too early to think about the second sunday now ? Ofcourse, but where is the fun in not predicting results ? The defending champion is the best defender and returner on hard courts, and his strength predicates on how quickly he can transition from defense to offense. His game is tailor made for faster hard courts, and if he might have pulled out the second set in Cincinnati against Federer in that breaker, we could have had a barn burner in the end. It was closer than the scoreline suggested. He failed to show up against Federer in the Wimbledon semifinal – and by his standards, it was a disappointing performance. We had one of those matches where Federer ventured into ‘Fed-TOWN’ for those rarefied five minutes at a crucial juncture in a match.
However, at this point in their careers, on a good day, I pick Djokovic over Federer on hard courts – and the Serb has had a lot of those in New York City the past three years. The betting man in me says Djokovic, the purist in me pulls for the Scot, the romantic in me wants Del-Potro, and nothing really is out of the Swiss Maestro’s reach every time he wields his wilson. Somewhere deep inside though, we all miss the the resounding sound of a ‘Vamos‘, deep in the fifth inside Arthur Ashe – as the ball curves in from way outside the doubles alley to kiss chalk on the sidelines. As we say – “It Must BE LOVE“
Welcome to New York !