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[Arrival] – The Williams Sisters practice
[Match One] – Azarenka v. Lepchenko
[Match Two] – Wawrinka v. Young
[Match Three] – Pennetta v. Stosur
[Intermission] – Dinner Break
[Match Four] – Kvitova v. Konta
[Match Five] – Federer v. Isner
[Departure] – The 7 Train to Manhattan
The idea was great. To mark the unofficial end of summer on Labor Day, one of my best friends from high school booked us day and night session tickets for the US Open Round of 16 matches held at Arthur Ashe Stadium. We would watch five tennis matches, starting at 11 am under the sun with Viktoria Azarenka versus Varvara Lepchenko, until one of Roger Federer or John Isner won match point under the floodlights of Ashe Stadium in a match that was estimated to begin at 9 pm.
The annoying thing about ideas is when reality weighs in. The projected high for New York City on Labor Day was 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
This leads to Rule One, if ever you decide to ever undertake the same marathon we sat through on Labor Day: dress appropriately for the hotter daytime weather, not the cooler nighttime conditions. My buddy wore a white undershirt and cargo shorts. I arrived in Billie Jean King Tennis Center in red running shorts, a white Uniqlo polyester polo, and a blue Cubs hat. Although I was covered in the colors of Old Glory, the blocking of the red, white, and blue made me look like a rotated, walking version of the French flag.
The caveat for Rule One is that you’ll never win the battle against the weather. You’ll be sweaty and sticky to a degree that’s somewhere between wet poodle and a frog covered in mucus, but you can make it manageable for yourself if you don’t go enter the grounds like you’re on a date night in dress shirt and slacks or in jeans. But it’s New York — there’s always someone dressed in his Financial District salary for something casual like an outdoor sporting event.
**[Arrival] 10:34 am, Monday**
The US Open always lists the start time for the Day Session at 11 am for Arthur Ashe Stadium, but with the television coverage needing time to squeeze in a pregame show and the accompanying commercials, matches never start until 11:20 am. My buddy and I used the 50 minutes or so before first serve to check out the practice courts on the west end of the campus.
The entrance to the practice court is on the east end of the area, which means the courts count backward as you walk the section. Practice Court 5 is the first one you see, then Practice Court 4, and so on until Practice Court 1. On our near end of Practice Court 2, there stood Venus Williams in a pink top and white leggings, returning serves from one of her coaches. Venus was probably practicing her returns because her quarterfinal opponent was her sister, Serena, the complete player marching toward an historic Calendar Slam. We watched Venus return about 10 serves before we walked further west past Practice Court 1 and toward the gated press area, where ESPN and Britain’s Sky Sports News held their pregame shows, then turned around.
As my buddy and I circled past Practice Court 1 again to head to Ashe Stadium, I did a double take at the player wearing a yellow top and black leggings — Queen Bee — standing on the near court.
I almost walked by Serena Williams twice without realizing it.
It turned out that while Venus practiced returns on her own practice court, Serena hammered serves to her coach on the adjacent practice court at the same time. Even when they would be competing against each other the next day, the sisterly synergy between Serena and Venus continued during practice. Sibling bonds, what a beautiful sight.
Around 11 am, my buddy and I entered Ashe and climbed the stairs to the 300 level of the stadium for our seats. I committed to staying hydrated by purchasing a 750 mL bottle of Evian water from the concession stands, a cool $5.50 price to pay for not passing out under the sun. When I entered Section 307 to find my buddy for my seat, I made an amateur mistake: I ran up the stairs to my seat.
This leads to Rule Two: don’t overexert yourself. I let emotion — of being in the US Open, of memories of running stadiums at The Swamp when I was in college — take control of me when I ran up those steps. Sure, I arrived at my destination quicker, and sure, running up the stairs in a Cubs cap got a “Go Cubs!” from the cute brunette with a bob haircut (Oh! She’s holding the hand of the guy next to her. Got it!), but I already put myself in a hydration hole by turning my seat search into a workout.
Besides, the hours of sitting that’s put into watching the five matches plus the heat will be exhausting enough as it is. Don’t run because it’s tiring, but do use the commercial breaks to stand up from your seat and stretch the legs.
**[Match One] 11:20 am – Round of 16: Varvara Lepchenko v. Viktoria Azarenka**
Lepchenko (left court) v. Azarenka
A shadow engulfed the southern half of the court and most of the northern half, but our seats put us in the presence of the sun. It was hot.
Azarenka (Belarus) and Lepchenko (born in Uzbekistan, but now an American resident and citizen) both hail from former Soviet states, but where they now reside intrigued me. Azarenka, who came over to the United States to hone her tennis skills with the help of NHL goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, won two Grand Slams and channeled that success to a home in the millionaires’ playground of Monte Carlo. Lepchenko, who has had a more modest career, lives in Allentown, Penn.
Despite the contrast in fortunes, the two played a similar defensive game in the match. Azarenka and Lepchenko both set up shop along the baseline, working toward hitting shots that would paint the sideline and bounce away from the opponent at a shallow angle. Azarenka and Lepchenko both hit 19 winners and only three unforced errors separated the two players (Lepchenko had 19 unforced errors; Azarenka, 16). Timing is everything, and the timing of the errors and winners is why Azarenka won the match in a flattering 6-3, 6-4 in 1 hour, 38 minutes.
The match ended at 1 pm, but I already finished that bottle of water by 12:33 pm, when Azarenka was up 6-3, 3-2. It was shaping up to be a long day already.
The first bottle of water. Even though she withdrew from the US Open from injury, Maria Sharapova still had a presence in New York.
Azarenka v. Lepchenko Match Stats
**[Match Two] 1:30 pm – Round of 16: Donald Young v. Stan Wawrinka**
Young (left court) v. Wawrinka
At 1:16 pm, I acknowledged the dominance the New York summer exerted on me. I bought a 591 mL Fruit Punch Powerade for $5.50. There goes $11 in just two hours.
The only men’s singles match of the day session came with a sentimental favorite: Donald Young, the unseeded American and former junior world number one. The mixture of nationalism and the underdog story — if Young defeated Wawrinka, Young would advance to his first career US Open quarterfinal — helped make this match the biggest draw of the three daytime matches my buddy and I sat through. However, Wawrinka, who defeated world number one Novak Djokovic in this year’s French Open, boasted “HOLY CRAP” power that Young wouldn’t be able to match.
The might of Wawrinka was on full display throughout the match. The tennis balls exploded upon contact with Wawrinka’s racket and zipped back toward Young. The one-handed backhand shots of Wawrinka looked like they were hit with a forehand. It was a bit frightening to imagine being on the other side of the net for those shots, even from the nose bleed point of view we had.
To Young’s credit, he showed no fear with an aggressive net game. It didn’t always work as well as desired, but he put Wawrinka in awkward positions multiple times to make things interesting for the Swiss player. The power play of Wawrinka earned him a hard fought 6-4 win for the first set — 17 winners to 14 unforced errors from that cannon of an arm — but that power made Wawrinka his own worst enemy in the second set.
As I learned from playing too much Gran Turismo as a kid, you sacrifice control when you increase power. The control that accompanied Wawrinka’s strength in the first set deserted him and gifted Young a 1-6 second set win on a platter. Shots flew all over the place and into the net; Wawrinka had 14 unforced errors to six winners in the second set.
The crowd thought that this was Young’s opening, that a combination of momentum for Young and total loss of control for Wawrinka would seal the upset. However, Wawrinka found the control that frustrated Djokovic at Roland Garros and cruised to a 6-3 third set win and a 5-4 fourth set lead to serve for the match.
Knowing that Young needed to break Wawrinka to stay in the match, the crowd gave Young a rousing ovation as the American stepped onto the court. Young responded to the adoration with an extra spring in his step, leaping in the air multiple times to get loose before play resumed. The glimmer of hope that the crowd hadn’t felt since the end of the second set returned after Young went up 0-15 with a shot that took a lucky bounce off the tape of the net. But Wawrinka demonstrated again that might brings fright when he won the next four points to take the match, with the winning shot coming from a strong forehand at the net to opposite sideline of Young.
Wawrinka won the match 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, in 2 hours and 10 minutes of play, but Young got an applause worthy of a winner as he exited Ashe.
On the hydration front, I finished that bottle of Powerade at 2pm; the match ended at 3:40 pm. Things should have gotten worse with how quickly that drink went. Thankfully, a shadow crept over our section and made it relatively cooler, so I didn’t need to go for any more cold drinks in the day session.
Wawrinka v. Young Match stats
**[Match Three] 4:05 pm – Round of 16: Samantha Stosur v. Flavia Pennetta**
Stosur (left court) v. Pennetta
The fatigue began to take over. My friend started to nod off and fall asleep. I had tennis fatigue, cabin fever in the stadium, and skipped lunch, so I just wanted the match to go in straight sets so I could grab dinner at a campus concession stand. That’s the good and bad thing about tennis: like soccer, the action is nearly continuous, but the timelessness of tennis makes it tough to accurately gauge when everything comes to an end.
Meanwhile, most of the crowd emptied out of Ashe and a number of the ones that remained ran over to the 300 level of the east side of the stadium to look out over the wall for a bird’s eye of view of neighboring Louis Armstrong Stadium. Over at Armstrong, Andy Murray was losing his Round of 16 match to South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, a 6’8’’ giant of a player.
Hope for us came in the form of Pennetta entering this match with a 6-0 lifetime record against Stosur, and a breeze and shadow that made the Cubs hat redundant. That lifetime record looked to be fraudulent, though, when Stosur quickly dashed to a 1-0 lead after rattling off four consecutive points. Pennetta grew into the game, though, and her defensive play invited the power-hitting Stosur to take her swings and hit into a glut of unforced errors.
In short, we watched what Stosur demonstrate what would have had happened if Wawrinka couldn’t rediscover how to keep the ball inbound against Young in the previous match.
Wawrinka showed how offense can win and Pennetta countered that argument with a 6-4, 6-4 win built on defense. The match, which took 1 hour and 18 minutes and finished at 5:23 pm, had a fitting defensive ending: Stosur ran to the net and hit a rocket of a forehand to Pennetta at the baseline, who replied with a soft shot that glided past Stosur and into the opposite corner of the baseline where Stosur stood.
Pennetta v. Stosur Match Stats
**[Intermission] 5:40 pm until 7:00 pm**
We survived the day session.
Granted, we were sore, sweaty, stinky, and sluggish, but the hard part of the day was finished.
After all that sitting, it was a joy to walk slowly through the crowds in the King Tennis Center. Important looking people in dress clothes with a badge hanging off a lanyard walked among us normal people just here to take in the festivities. Line judges, ballkids, and juniors tournament entrants also mingled with the crowd as they searched for a Ben and Jerry’s or a bottle of water, depending on whether or not they were done with action for the day. The sun began to set; the sky was a blend of cerulean and red-orange when we sat down for burgers and 500 mL of Evian water for dinner, bringing the grand total of a day’s hydration to $15.50 for 1841 mL of fluids.
This leads to Rule Three: after finishing that first purchased bottle of water, save it for free refills at the water fountains. I absentmindedly recycled my first bottle of water and Powerade bottle before my friend reminded me of the water fountains, but I made sure not to make that same mistake with the 500 mL bottle.
Predictably, I ended up not getting a refill of water at the fountains to stay hydrated. The cooler weather for the night session made me comfortable enough. Timing, again, is everything…
**[Match Four] 7:20 pm – Round of 16: Petra Kvitova v. Johanna Konta**
Konta (left court) v. Kvitova
The start of the night session means that Ashe Stadium becomes the hottest nightclub in New York City, hosting a capacity crowd of nearly 23,000 people to strobe lights, amped up dance remixes, and the date night arrivals. The sky turned navy and then black while the nightclub pre-match hype continued. When the hype ended, the floodlights switched on and the business of tennis could continue.
The main song played at Ashe Stadium in the build-up for the marquee match of Federer v. Isner
We moved to Section 306, one section to the left of our day session seats and at the corner of Ashe. The majority of the crowd showed up on time in anticipation for the grand finale, Roger Federer v. John Isner, but was ready to devote its attention to Kvitova and Konta. A number of nighttime newcomers, however, hung around the eastern edge of the stadium to watch Murray continue to go down fighting against Anderson.
Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion and fifth seed of the US Open, has overcome the effects of mononucleosis to return to her high competitive level. On the other hand, Konta earned her spot in the US Open as a qualifier and went on a run that included an upset of ninth seed Garbiñe Muguruza to reach this stage of the tournament. Despite the disparity in seeding between Kvitova and Konta, it would be the most even match at Ashe we’d see thus far.
The story of this match was dominance on the service games. Kvitova, who always bounces the tennis ball four times before the toss, survived five break point situations, but captured all six of her service games in the first set. Konta, whose first serve starts with four waist-high bounces and a fifth knee-high bounce and whose second serve has one fewer waist-high bounce, actually fared better with just one break point situation in her six service games of the first set.
Unfortunately for Konta, the lone break point situation came when Kvitova was up 6-5 in the set. Unfortunately, again, for Konta, her only double fault in the first set came during that break/set point for Kvitova.
Timing is still everything.
The second set followed a similar script as the first set, with Kvitova and Konta dominating their service games. The service trouble in the second set found Konta earlier, though, when she was down 4-3 and trying to stay on serve to make it 4-4. Konta was ahead in the game, Kvitova clawed it back to deuce, then Kvitova immediately grabbed the Advantage.
And once again, Konta, whose serve was otherwise reliable in the second set, double faulted at the worst possible opportunity to hand Kvitova the game and allow her to serve for the match up 5-3.
Kvitova made quick work of Konta in that service game—heck, she didn’t even allow Konta a break point in the second set—to win 7-5, 6-3 at 8:30 pm in 1 hour and 28 minutes of play.
This was a perfect match, in that it was competitive, but still a straight set victory for one player. At this point of the marathon, I just wanted short, but even, matches just so I could return to the hotel and shower off 10 hours of New York summer sweat off my skin.
Kvitova v. Konta Match Stats
**[Match Five] 9:14 pm – Round of 16: Roger Federer v. John Isner**
Isner (left court) v. Federer
John Isner was the visiting opposition for this Ashe crowd, in the Grand Slam that his native country hosts, all because the guy that would be playing on the other side of the net was Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time.
Isner, as an American, got a loud applause from the crowd as he entered the court under the Ashe strobe lights; the crowd gave Federer the louder rock star welcome to the court. However, Isner had one very vocal fan — wearing a Yankees cap, obviously — sitting in the section adjacent to mine, who always chanted “U-S-A!” or “BULLDOG!” (Isner graduated from Georgia) or “ISNER” whenever he felt the love for Roger got overbearing. Yankee man was clearly inebriated each time he stood up and professed his support for his compatriot.
This match-up seemed destined to be the present day equivalent to those Andy Roddick v. Federer duels back in the naughts. Federer, in white Nike apparel that would probably be within dress code of his hallowed Wimbledon, still possessed the precision and technique of a master at his older age. Isner possessed the big serve and power play that Roddick had — and they even shared Lacoste as the playing gear supplier. The 6’10’’ Isner reminded me of a behemoth in his navy garb.
Federer and Isner seemed to borrow the script from Kvitova and Konta — they were unbreakable. Federer, even with the unforced errors that were uncharacteristic of his peak, still hit those deceiving passing shots past a net-charging Isner whenever Isner managed a clean return. There were too many moments of magic from Federer to detail — whether the wizardry with the racket was on display through a one-handed backhand, a forehand, or an over-the-shoulder shot, those momentous shots oozed with flair.
Other times, Isner helped Federer out with a number of unforced errors into the net, which seemed to be the result of poor positioning by Isner. The American showed flashes of brilliance, but more often than not, those occasional successes were cancelled out by the inconsistency of putting himself in the right place for the right shot. There were too many times throughout the match when Isner had to shorten his reach just to make contact with the ball.
Isner, for his part, rocked Federer with first serves that reached as high as 138 mph. If the first serve failed, Isner relied on a second serve that hovered around 120 mph; Donald Young’s first serve usually peaked around 115 mph.
At some point, the US Open organizers had the brilliant idea to temporarily take away all the goodwill in this match and show Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez in the four video boards. The crowd welcomed him with an overwhelming boo while he waved twice into the camera.
The two men rolled into a tiebreak by holding all their service games, then Federer took over. Anderson defeated Murray at the Armstrong with a 7-0 tiebreak in the fourth set. Federer took a similar tact against Isner and also went 7-0 in the tiebreak to secure the first set.
My desire for a shower and to go to sleep intensified over the lengthy 45 minute first set, but Federer and Isner were intent on not deviating from the script of the first set. In fact, like good scientists trying to establish a theory, they succeeded in replicating the story of the first set in the second set. Federer continued to gracefully win his service games with that mix of art and deception, while Isner bulldozed his way through his service games. (This included Isner rounding up all his challenges in the third game of the second set — his second service game of the set — and burning through them in that game, like a parent frantically striking multiple matches to try and light the candles of his or her crying kid’s birthday cake.)
Once again, after 12 games in the second set, both men were tied 6-6 and off we went into another tiebreaker. At least this one, Isner remembered he could play well, and he contributed to some drama in the tiebreak. The turning point of the tiebreak came when Isner was up 5-3 and serving to go up 6-3. If he won this service point, Federer could win his next two service points, and Isner would still be up 6-5 and serving for set point. However, Isner lost that point to see his tiebreak lead fall to 5-4 and Federer seized the opening. Federer held off Isner with two brilliant winners to the sidelines to win the tiebreak 8-6 and go into the third set with a two set lead after hard fought 7-6, 7-6 set wins.
At this point, Isner’s lone loudmouth fan in the Yankees cap, overcome by the disappointment of Isner’s tiebreak struggles and the alcohol, turned on the American tennis player. “You haven’t done jack!” was one of the refrains Yankee man resorted to, despite Isner taking the greatest tennis player of all time to a tiebreak in each of the first two sets of a Round of 16 draw in a Grand Slam by simply going full throttle with each serve and forehand blasted at the Swiss legend.
Also in between sets, the US Open organizers atoned for showing A-Rod on the boards by highlighting Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott in the crowd. The crowd responded with a polite applause, but then ramped up the positive energy when they saw a successful engagement on the board a few moments later.
Even after plowing through the first two sets at the maximum number of games allotted, Isner was still breaking 130 mph with his first serve. Unfortunately for him, Federer was still finding ways to make the crowd gasp in awe. We seemed set for yet another tiebreak when Isner suddenly gave Federer a triple break point opportunity with the American down 4-3 in the set. Isner climbed out of the hole by overpowering Federer (what else?) to stay on serve 4-4 and put Federer in a 0-8 hole in break points for the match. (Isner went 0-5 on break points the entire match.)
I was enjoying the match and the skill I saw, but the desire for a shower and sleep was strong. It was getting to the point where I wouldn’t object to a Federer break just to save us from the uncertainty of yet another tiebreak.
Wish eventually granted.
Federer and Isner each held a service game for a 6-5 third set and now Isner needed to hold serve to force the third tiebreak. The service game soon went 15-40, but Federer wasted another break point to go 0-9 on the night. On his 10th break point opportunity, Federer finally hit a timely winner past Isner — another stunner that got the crowd oohing and ahhing — and saved us all the madness of another tiebreaker.
Federer won 7-6 (0), 7-6 (6), 7-5 in 2 hours and 39 minutes, with the winning shot hit at 11:53 pm. Just like the Kvitova v. Konta match, Federer v. Isner was about as perfect of a competition as I could ask for: close, thrilling, yet still ending in straight sets so we can all leave Flushing Meadows before 2 am.
After 13 hours and 20 minutes — from the start of Azarenka v. Lepchenko until the end of Federer v. Isner — the US Open Marathon at Arthur Ashe was finally over. Destination: Manhattan.
Federer v. Isner Match Stats
**[Departure] 12:20 am, Tuesday**
How about that: my buddy and I entered Billie Jean King Tennis Center on Labor Day and left the grounds on a Tuesday morning. It felt like we were cheating because everyone else had to go back to work on Tuesday except us.
I could finally taste the cleansing water of the shower and silence of sleep, especially when we found out that the MTA runs Express 7 trains between Flushing Meadows and Manhattan just for the US Open.
The express trip took about 40 minutes.
At this point, I was apathetic to time. After nearly 14 hours in one location and 13 of those spent sitting under the sun and then the moon, I was content just standing underneath the AC vent in the subway car.
After walking back to the hotel, showering, then packing up some of the bag for checkout nine hours later, bedtime arrived at around 1:45 am.
That’s how 13 hours of watching tennis ends: in sweat, tears (from aiming your face at the shower head in a futile attempt to cool down quicker), and snores. If you can binge watch a show on Netflix, you can sit through an entire day of tennis under the sun. Just remember to dress for the hot weather, don’t overexert yourself, and use those water fountains to stay hydrated, and you’ll ace the endurance test.
As for me, I’m happy to watch the remainder of the US Open on ESPN plopped on my couch, with the AC on, eating a pint of ice cream because the bathroom is only a few steps away.