Farewell, Louis Armstrong Stadium
In lieu of chapters you can click on — I’m lazy after typing out more than 8000 words — you can hit ctrl + F and type in the bracketed item to arrive at the section you want to read. For example, you can skip to the Nadal match by ctrl + F “[DAY3]”
[SAT] The Night Before
[ARR] Arrival and Practice
[DAY1] Johanna Konta v. Anastasija Sevastova
[DAY2] Madison Keys v. Caroline Wozniacki
[DAY3] Rafa Nadal v. Lucas Pouille
[FOOD] Snack Break
[NIGHT1] Angelique Kerber v. Petra Kvitova
[NIGHT2] Novak Djokovic v. Kyle Edmund
When I bought my ticket to the US Open in June, I told myself I would never sit through a doubleheader of Day and Night Session tennis at Arthur Ashe Stadium again. On Sunday, September 4, I arrived at the Billie King Jean Tennis Center in Queens, New York, at 9:40 am and didn’t leave the grounds until Monday, 12:40 am.
Yep, I slogged through another doubleheader.
My attempt to avoid the Day/Night Session doubleheader in Ashe is a carryover from last year’s trip to the Open with Javier, one of my best friends from high school. We attended the first Saturday night session, then spent our Labor Day doing the back-to-back at Ashe. While we saw Viktoria Azarenka, Stan Wawrinka, Americans John Isner and Donald Young, Samantha Stosur, eventual women’s Open winner Flavia Pennetta, and the legendary Roger Federer all play on Labor Day, we withered under the sweltering heat of that day. The film of sweat that coated me all day put me off the idea of giving more than 12 hours in a row to live tennis again.
So in June, that lone US Open ticket I bought got me a seat in the nose bleeds for the night session on September 4.
When the Open began on Monday, August 29, 2016, Men’s World Number 1 Novak Djokovic and Women’s World Number 2 Angelica Kerber were given the honor of playing the first night session matches at Ashe. Rafael Nadal, the last of the Big Four in men’s tennis I had yet to see, was given the last Day session match on opening day.
In 2015, the organizers of the Open tended to give the top players an alternating pattern of day and night session matches at Ashe. For example, Nadal playing the Day session on Monday would mean he’d play at night on Wednesday, during the daytime on Friday, and then on Sunday night, when I had a ticket. I would finally see him play in person.
I was right through the first two days. Nadal did, in fact, play on Wednesday night. But on Thursday, the Open threw me a curveball: Nadal would play a second consecutive night session on Friday. That meant that Djokovic would likely get the Sunday night session. I love Djokovic and was happy that I’d get a second opportunity to see him play, this time as the World No. 1, but I knew I also couldn’t pass up the chance to see Nadal.
As soon as I returned to the apartment after work on that Thursday, I hopped on StubHub and snapped up the cheapest ticket I could find for the Sunday day session at Ashe. (Coincidentally, the Sunday ticket I purchased came from the same StubHub seller I bought US Open tickets from in 2014, so I now know how she makes extra cash on the side every Labor Day weekend.)
Oh, yeah, it should also be noted that when the Open announced that Venus and Serena Williams wouldn’t begin play in the US Open until Day 2, Tuesday, August 30, I snapped up tickets to the first Saturday Night session. This was my way of guaranteeing that I’d see either Venus or Serena play for the first time ever–and that Queens would be my home for a couple days.
[SAT] The Night Before
Sunset at the Grandstand
On Saturday night, I arrived at the King Tennis Center at 6 pm, only to see that Andy Murray’s long-running Day session match at Ashe locked me and the other Night session ticket holders out of the court. I wandered around King Tennis Center to pass the time, taking in an atmosphere that felt oddly egalitarian in spite of how expensive tickets can get. Unless you’re one of the star players on the ATP or WTA tour, everyone — fans, media, line judges, ballkids, junior players, employees — all loiter and wander through the same plaza to get from court to court.
Shortly after my arrival, the sunset turned the sky into a blanket of orange above us. Umpires done with their jobs for the day stood around chatting with each other, some clutching a bottle of Coke or a container of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream as a reward for getting through another grueling set of matches. Junior players lugged their equipment bags while coaches tailed closely behind, trying to not let the crowds separate them from their players. Pretty women in summer dresses and handsome men in collared shirts and slacks — hey, let’s overdress for sitting on a plastic seat for a couple hours because it’s New York — sipped alcohol from their tables in the food court and watched the crowds stream on by. Unlike last year, a cool breeze and a temperature in the high 70s kept the grounds pleasant.
The big screen monitor above the gates of Ashe showed Kei Nishikori and Nicolas Mahut playing in the Grandstand. This match-up appealed to me for tribal reasons; I hadn’t attended a Nishikori match yet, and I like him because he’s also Asian and wears Uniqlo. Yes, I’m a sucker for the endorsement deals Uniqlo secured with Nishikori and Djokovic, and they are why that store is the official supplier for the inexpensive collared shirts I wear at work. (And the socks. And my undershirts. I’m a walking billboard for Uniqlo.)
Grandstanding (Nishikori is on the right and Mahut is on the left)
I walked to the packed Grandstand, whose upper level had open seating and standing spots for anyone in the grounds. The sunset was now at its most intense and Mahut — he who lost the longest match in tennis history — just took the first set off Nishikori at 6-4. Nishikori seized control of the match in the second set, though, with a ridiculous point. Mahut, standing in his left service box, hit a drop shot that Nishikori ran down from the baseline, smacking the ball right at Mahut. The Frenchman spun on reflex and, with his back facing the net, volleyed the ball to his opponent. Nishikori then hit a forehand to the opposite service box to win the point, prompting the pro-Nishikori crowd to holler “Kei Kei Kei Kei.”. I left the match on a good note — Nishikori secured the second set in a 6-1 romp when I exited.
Hingis and Paes warming up
My jaunt next took me to Court 5, where the mixed doubles pairings of Martina Hingis/Leander Paes and Coco Vandeweghe/Rajeev Ram were warming up for their second round match. The narrow standing section of the court went three deep to catch a glimpse of Hingis, whose past success in singles and present success in doubles attracted the crowd.
Doubles tennis is similar to volleyball in that the teams promote a positive attitude. Every point, whether for or against, is greeted with a smile and high five with the teammate. The happy atmosphere in this match had an extra layer to it: Hingis and Vandeweghe are partners in the women’s doubles draw and hours before they were standing here on opposite sides of the net, they had won their second round match in the women’s draw. In between serves, Hingis and Vandeweghe exchanged playful smiles at each other, an acknowledgment of the ironic competition that the tournament put them through.
From where I stood in Court 5, I saw that the hoard of human of beings waiting outside the gates of Ashe Stadium had dwindled to a manageable clump, so it was time for some night session tennis. My trip from Court 5 to Ashe took me past the ESPN primetime broadcasting set, where Hannah Storm, Chris Evert, Brad Gilbert, and John McEnroe gave their previews for the Venus Williams-Laura Siegemund and Nick Kyrgios-Illya Marchenko matches to be played inside Ashe.
Venus (left) serving against Siegemund
Venus’s match (a 6-1 6-2 victory) turned out to be more one-sided than I anticipated. Everything worked for her: her movement wasn’t sluggish and the forehands and backhands hit the open spaces with pace and power. Venus’s only issue was getting the timing of her serve correct. She had at least five errant tosses in the match before I stopped counting.
Siegemund’s terrible night in the office made it easy for Venus. Siegemund broke Venus twice, but the German player won only a single service game in the match — her first service game in the second set. (The PA played Bananarama’s “Venus” following Siegemund’s hold.) Siegemund’s drop shot was the only thing that had a degree of success against Venus, while the backhands kept crashing into the net.
Alec Baldwin, seated next to his wife Hilaria, served as the celebrity of the match on the four big screens. He blew a kiss to the crowd. I hoped my hair would be as good and intact as his when I reach his age.
Kyrgios (right) serving to Marchenko
The wind entering Ashe picked up, but the crowd shrunk, after Venus and Siegemund finished their match and Nick Kyrgios and Illya Marchenko took the court. Kyrgios brought the energy to the stadium with his fast pace of play, speeding through serves in an attempt to get the quick points off aces. But if Marchenko returned a serve, the match settled into a baseline battle.
Kyrgios’s best point came off a Marchenko drop shot to the Australian’s left sideline. Kyrgios ran to the net and slid to reach the ball. The lift that this racket provided got the ball to barely clear the net for a point, earning the applause of Marchenko and the crowd.
After that point, though, Kyrgios wasn’t the same anymore. A hip injury suffered at some point in the match knocked out Kyrgio’s mobility and power; a visit by the trainer between the second and third sets provided no relief. By the third set, he resorted to trying to score aces as his main source of points, but he got nothing out of it. After winning the first set 6-4, Kyrgios lost the second set 4-6 and the third set 1-6 before he retired from the match.
Kyrgio’s retirement meant that I left Ashe shortly after 11:40 pm and returned to my Manhattan hotel by 12:30. I fell asleep around 1 am; I’d need all the sleep I could get for the long haul on Sunday.
[ARR] Arrival – 9:40 am
My internal clock woke me up at 6:30 am. Adulthood sucks.
I hopped on the Long Island Railroad just after 9 am and arrived at the King Tennis Center just after 9:30 am. The schedule for the long haul ahead of me was packed with high pedigree players:
Johanna Konta  v. Anastasija Sevastova
Madison Keys  v. Caroline Wozniacki
Rafael Nadal  v. Lucas Pouille 
Angelique Kerber  v. Petra Kvitova 
Novak Djokovic  v. Kyle Edmund
The gates to Ashe didn’t open until 10 am, so I used my free time to wander the grounds. I first ventured to the marketing booths by the Grandstand, where Evian, USTA, and Visit Orlando have exhibits set up to entice attendees to try their product. Yes, you read that correctly: my old hometown of Orlando is advertising in a Grand Slam. It just so happened that at the Venus match on Saturday, I met Mariangelica, one of the marketers working for Visit Orlando during the tournament. She had the seat next to mine as she ate her dressing-less salad for dinner and took in part of the match during her hour-long break; we struck up a friendship just by talking to each other while watching the match. I stopped by to say hi and to see how Orlando promoted itself.
The marketing crew set up a photo spot where guests sit behind the nose of an orange roller coaster car. A high speed fan is placed in front of the car and turned on to simulate the wind you feel on a thrill ride. I was asked to promote #VisitOrlando with a photo of me pretending be riding that orange roller coaster, posing with my arms up in the air and a Visit Orlando fan in my right hand. As a testament to my acting skills, I instead produced “overexcited winner of a silent auction.”
I next ventured to the practice courts to see who was out there for a morning hit. Behind the fence covered in blue mesh were Serena, Venus, and Caroline Wozniacki. Serena practiced her returns. Venus and Wozniacki practiced their serve by hitting to a partner, the partner gently returned the serve so that the ball landed on the net or returned to the server, and the cycle restarted.
These practice courts, with just a fence separating the spectators from the athletes, offer the closest access that fans can get to the top players in the Open. They’re also a stark reminder of how tall these players are. The fans treat the sessions like a match, limiting the noise to whispers of excitement to family and friends nearby, but otherwise watching silently as the players get their hits in. This is the underappreciated side of being a pro tennis player: even with the travel around the world and quarterly glamour of the Grand Slams, a good performance boils down to showing up in the practice court and hitting serve after serve after serve. The repetitive nature of tennis practices make them as mundane as an office gig.
Serena walked off the practice court around 10:40 am, while Venus and Wozniacki switched from the near side of the fence to the other end to practice returns. It was time that I took my leave and headed to Ashe to officially kick off my sitting marathon in the stadium.
[DAY1] Johanna Konta  v. Anastasija Sevastova – 11:20 am
I took my seat in Row W of Section 333 in Ashe Stadium, an island of a human being surrounded by a sea of empty blue seats to see Britain’s Johanna Konta play Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova. When the PA announcer asked everyone to please rise for the playing of the national anthem, it looked like there were barely 100 of us in a stadium that had a capacity of 23,771.
Instead, the early bird fans crammed into the Grandstand to watch Gael Monfils play Marcos Baghdatis in a fourth round match. I don’t blame them: Monfils has been an entertaining character his entire time on the tour, and both Monfils and Baghdatis were experiencing resurgences in their play this Open. Throughout their match, cheers from the Grandstand crowd would occasionally infiltrate Ashe while Konta and Sevastova played.
The temptation to join the Grandstand crowd for Monfils v. Baghdatis lurked in the back of my mind before I went into Ashe, but the men lacked something that I hold dear: a serve as fascinating as Konta’s.
Konta (left) on serve
Konta is as habitual with her serve as a baseball pitcher is with his delivery. Her first serve consists of four knee-high bounces of the ball plus a fifth, lighter bounce of the ball that still bounces as high as her knee. Her right arm twists her racket after each bounce. After the light bounce, Konta pauses, sets her racket, left arm, and legs, and pauses one last time — like Clayton Kershaw here — before tossing the ball in air. Konta’s second serve has only three regular bounces of the ball, but otherwise is the same as her first serve. The routine slows down the pace of the match, but for the second straight year, I found the elaborate ritual to be mesmerizing.
The story of the match, though, was Sevastova. The Latvian retired from tennis due to health problems in 2013, returned to the sport in 2015, and now tied her farthest march through a Grand Slam in this US Open. To get to this point in the tournament, Sevastova upset third seed Garbiñe Muguruza in the second round and breezed through the previous rounds without dropping a set.
When the match began, the open roof above Ashe allowed the sun to cast a shadow over the south end of the court, while sunshine bathed the other side of the court; the sunshine would gradually reach the baseline of the southern half. Sevastova held her first service game of the match, then followed-up by breaking Konta’s first service game. Those first two games set the tone for the remainder of Konta’s match: a number of her shots kept flying long and she had struggled to hold her serves because she lost the majority of her first serves. Despite her struggles, Konta remained stoic throughout the match, while Sevastova emoted and scolded herself after her mistakes.
At her best, Sevastova’s shots were powerful hits with a low arch that Konta couldn’t catch up with from the baseline; at her worst, Sevastova had the opposite problem of Konta, with the strokes hitting the net. Like Konta, though, Sevastova also struggled to win her service games. The first two times that Sevastova broke Konta in the first set, the Brit responded by breaking the Latvian’s serve in the following game. It was perhaps fitting that the first set ended when Sevastova won it at 6-4 by breaking Konta’s serve for a third time.
It was pretty much the same story in the second set as it was in the first, with Konta and Sevastova trading breaks twice in the set. (Sevastova’s first successful break included a hit ball that struck Konta in the back. There was an audible shriek from Konta as the ball made contact.) Sevastova won the match 6-4, 7-5 by — how else? — breaking Konta. It was an error-heavy match for Konta — she only won 46 percent of her first serve points — but Sevastova hit timely winners and limited the mistakes in the high-pressure situations toward the end of each set.
It’s not a US Open match without the camera crews giving some air time to a person everyone knows, and Hugh Grant won this honor for the opening match of the day. Except, well, Grant was looking at his phone when the cameras pointed him out. After a few seconds, someone got Grant’s attention and told him to look up, where a perplexed Brit greeted the camera. When he finally realized what was going on, he smiled.
[DAY2] Madison Keys  v. Caroline Wozniacki – 1:20 pm
Keys serving to Wozniacki as the shadow clears the court
Ashe began to resemble a full house as the grounds crew prepared for the second match of the day, Madison Keys vs. Caroline Wozniacki. I moved one section to my right, to the seat my ticket granted me, Section 334, Row W, Seat 5, after overhearing a conversation that said I was seated in Section 333. (Whoops.) I then grabbed a cup of french fries and a 500 ml bottle of water and ate and drank as the video boards showed Baghdatis hitting a shot wide of the left sideline, the winning point for Monfils’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Baghdatis.
The crowd showered Keys and Wozniacki with an equal amount of love as each player entered the court; people cheered for both women whole-heartedly. Keys, the American, had support as the home country representative, while Wozniacki’s support was drawn from her past success as a World No. 1. The crowd would be happy either woman as the winner as the match.
This match played out similarly to its predecessor: a lot of errors on one end and the trading of broken serves. Keys packed power in her shots, but she often failed to get the elevation required for the ball to clear the net. Over and over again, Keys would launch a bullet of a shot that just zipped down into the net. Meanwhile, Wozniacki played for her famed defensive game, lurking along the baseline, but making the runs needed to get to wherever the ball landed. Unlike Keys, Wozniacki placed her shots well — Keys had 33 unforced errors in the match to Wozniacki’s 7.
The unforced errors proved to be Keys’s downfall; the match played out like a terrible practice session for the American, with Wozniacki content to keep the ball in play until Keys hit into a mistake. Wozniacki won the first set 6-3 when a Keys forehand flew straight into the net. In the second set, Keys broke Wozniacki to get back on serve 2-2, but then handed the break back to Wozniacki in the following game with three errors and then a double fault on break point. Keys never regained control of the match from that point on, losing the second set 6-4 and the match with a forehand return that hit the net.
Vanessa Williams and Michael Chiklis shared the honors as the highlighted celebrities of the match. Like Grant, Williams was on her phone until she realized she was on camera, in which she waved like any other crowd member. Chiklis, standing in his area, was aware that the cameras trained on him and he also waved hello.
I was in a good place physically and mentally at the conclusion of Keys v. Wozniacki. The weather remained pleasant and the first two matches of the day were straightforward: the Sevastova match took 1:41 and Wozniacki needed only 1:20 to win her match. The last match of the day session, Rafael Nadal v. Lucas Pouille, would begin around 3:20 pm and if it finished in straight sets — I had an estimate of 2.5 hours, worst case — I’d be out of Ashe and into the food court for a dinner break by 6. Yum.
The optimism was so high that I held off on a bathroom break and spending another $43795.34 at the concession stand for another fries and bottled water snack combo. Nadal’s got this, right?
[DAY3] Rafael Nadal  v. Lucas Pouille  – 3:20 pm
Nadal (right) serving to Pouille
I have never seen Clash of the Titans, nor do I need to see it after watching Rafael Nadal and Lucas Pouille play tennis against each other.
A sold out crowd filled in every blue seat of Ashe Stadium for the final match of the Day session, a seed vs. seed pairing that evolved into a heavyweight title card bout over the course of more than four hours. The two men would stretch many games out to multiple deuces or 40-30 over those four hours, momentum swaying back-and-forth as both of them failed to exert total control over the match. Towards the end of the tug-of-war, the crowd fluctuated in its support between Nadal and Pouille—the cynic will call it fickle, but the crowd knew that this was the most exciting tennis it may ever witness in a lifetime. I know it’s true for me.
In the beginning, though, all the love from the crowd went in one direction. The spectators gave a polite applause for Pouille as he entered the court, but when Nadal followed Pouille in, the crowd screamed the most noise I heard up until this point. It was a rock star’s welcome for a living legend.
Pouille was not unnerved by the member of the Big Four standing on the other side of the net or the crowd’s adoration for the Spaniard. The Frenchman went on the attack in his first service game, playing shots that sent Nadal running around until the latter hit the ball long and out. OK, fine, it’s only the first game and Nadal could patch things up when he took his turn to serve.
But the shots kept going long.
In his first service game, Nadal dug himself into a 15-40 hole by failing to keep the ball in play. The unease in Nadal’s play took hold of the crowd, which tried to rally him before the double break point serve by yelling “Come on Rafa” and other words of encouragement. Nadal got the serve in play, but the point ended when another one of his forehands sailed over the baseline and landed on the out-of-bounds green acrylic. Pouille carried the momentum from the break through the rest of the set, consolidating his break in the next game, breaking Nadal one more time, and then hitting an ace to win the first set 6-1.
Some sort of Freaky Friday body exchange during the changeover. The set started with Nadal serving and he held his serve thanks to errors committed by Pouille. In the following game, Pouille continued his impersonation of Nadal from the first set, mishitting a number of shots to let Nadal immediately break him in this set. Nadal kept the pressure up — Pouille now took his turn running circles like a panicked chicken — and pinned the Frenchman on the defensive en route to a 5-2 lead in the set. In the perfect ending to the second set, Nadal won it at 6-2 off a double fault from Pouille.
The ease with which Rafa won the second set re-energized the crowd, whose cheers for the outcome of this set dwarfed the reaction to the finale of the first set. The cheers may have lingered into the start of the third set, but both players left the court for a lengthy bathroom break, and the cheers eventually subsided for dance music blaring over the PA system.
It was during the bathroom break that I decided that I would give my backing to the player who won the third set, in the hopes that that man would also win the fourth set and send us all out of Ashe. The tennis I was watching was great, but I was ready to walk around the plaza and get some blood flowing in the legs again, then eat dinner before taking in the night session matches.
When Nadal returned to the baseline for his serve, he was in prime position to capitalize on the tumultuous ending to Pouille’s second set. The bathroom timeout seemed to refresh Pouille — he broke Nadal right away then held serve the next game to consolidate the break at 2-0. It could have been 3-0 to Pouille in the following game, when Nadal and Pouille slogged through six deuces — four of which ended with Pouille holding Advantage, only for the Frenchman to throw away each opportunity with an error. Nadal won this game after two more errors from Pouille.
Nadal switched up his play to serve and volley and approach and volley to some decent success, but he couldn’t muster enough timely points to break Pouille back. The Frenchman won the third set 6-4 after a lob from Rafa sailed high and long; in the interest of my now noisy stomach, I declared my membership in the Pouille bandwagon. Win it in four for our dinners, Lucas.
An innocent start to the fourth set — 1-1 after Nadal and Pouille held their first service games — jolted into life with a thunderous collision in the third game. In the first point of that game, Pouille returned Nadal’s serve with a backhand that exploded off the racket. Unfortunately for the ball boy kneeling to the right of the chair umpire, Pouille had no control on that shot, and the ball ripped toward the youth like a cannonball. Thanks to reflexes that would make Barry Allen proud, the boy ducked just before the headhunting ball would have rammed into his head.
A moment after the ballboy avoided the projectile, the tennis ball crashed into the base of the chair umpire’s seat.
“Ooooooh,” the crowd gasped. There wasn’t much applause after the jarring collision. A sheepish Pouille raised his arm up in apology to the ballboy.
The first “Lucas! Lucas!” chants broke out in the crowd after the Frenchman held his serve to tie it at 2-2. Those cries were not sustained beyond that initial outburst.
After five straight games of held serves, Nadal broke Pouille to take a 4-2 lead in the fourth set. I now optimistically assumed that Nadal would breeze the rest of the way to win the fourth set and they could get on with the fifth set as soon as possible.
But Pouille broke back to make it 4-3. Then Nadal broke again to go up 5-3 and the crowd went wild. The roar from the more than 23,000 people in attendance after that break point transformed Ashe into a cauldron. They wanted that fifth set. And after five consecutive holds and then three consecutive breaks, Nadal could now serve to send the match to a one set playoff.
Nadal held to win the fourth set 6-3. The energized Nadal, forever wearing his emotions on his sleeve, celebrated with a leap and fist pump after winning his set point. The crowd whipped itself into a frenzy in anticipation for that fifth set. The Spaniard and the New Yorkers were feeding off each other.
Everything seemed to come together for Nadal to grind out the comeback victory now.
Nadal continued his path toward the storybook ending by breaking Pouille at 15-40 in the first game of the fifth set. The former world no. 1 was driving the New Yorkers to higher volumes with each point he won and celebrated. At 15-0 in the next game, Nadal hit a leaping backhand to win the point and celebrated with the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag. The crowd lapped up the gesture, while a demoralized Pouille — who hit that same leaping backhand into the net in an earlier game — trudged back to his baseline for the next serve. An error by Pouille and a forehand winner by Nadal sealed the second game for the Spaniard, who was now up 2-0 in the decisive set.
The outcome of the match seemed inevitable amongst the crowd now.
From 2-0, Pouille and Nadal each held multiple serves to reach 4-3 in the set, with Nadal serving to put himself one game away from advancing in the Open. Then a funny thing happened in this game: both players reverted to their forms in the first set.
Pouille rediscovered the powerful forehand that stymied Nadal, while the control issues for the latter resurfaced and helped bring this game to deuce. Pouille hit a forehand to gain a break point, then Nadal responded with a forehand lob of his own—which sailed high and long.
“Oh f**k,” I muttered to myself as the tennis ball made a rainbow over Pouille’s head.
It was now 4-4 with Pouille back on serve. The players and the crowd had endured three hours and 35 minutes of attrition, and with neither player asserting himself, there was no end in sight.
The bottled emotions in the two players started to take their toll in the next game, a cluster of points littered with untimely errors and many deuces. It felt like both players were trying to prevent fatigue from causing them to make a mistake with how pedestrian some of the rallies looked. In the end, an error by Nadal after the third deuce put him behind in the fifth set for the first time at 4-5.
It was now Pouille’s turn to ask for love from the New Yorkers. After winning his fifth game of the set, he waved his arms at all four sides of the stadium for support. The crowd obliged with cheers that were as loud as those for Nadal just a set earlier.
Both players held their remaining serves to force them to decide the outcome of the match in the cruelest manner available: a tiebreak.
At this point, some in the crowd were already gone by the fourth set to get back to wherever they needed to be for dinner. Those who stuck around, including me and the Canadian family of seven seated behind me, remained fatigued during the break. We would have to live off the tension in the match until we could get out of Ashe and grab dinner.
Pouille had the first serve in the tiebreak. The Frenchman would hit the ball into the net on that point to put Nadal up 1-0.
In Nadal’s first serve of the tiebreak, Pouille recovered from his earlier error with a backhand winner at the net to tie things up 1-1.
Nadal’s second serve of the tiebreak didn’t fare well for the Spaniard, either. He hit a forehand into the net to give Pouille a 1-2 advantage.
Pouille served for the next point in the tiebreak and ripped a blistering backhand down the sideline to gain a 1-3 lead against Nadal.
Pouille followed up his great backhand with an ace to give himself a 1-4 mountain of a lead for Nadal to scale if the Spaniard were to get back into the match.
At this point, the crowd knew the match was getting away from Nadal and intervened on his behalf. Cheers of “Come on, Rafa!” and other words beckoning Nadal to push forward took over the stadium after the applause for Pouille’s point.
The cheering seemed to have the intended effect. Pouille served again, but this point ended 2-4 to Nadal after a Pouille backhand crashed into the net.
Pouille’s failed backhand gave Nadal a lifeline back into the tiebreak, now that the Spaniard was serving for the potential tying points. A backhander from Pouille hit the net and now at 3-4, Nadal was only a point away from tying things up. At this point in the match, four long hours had passed since the first serve of the match.
Nadal blew the opportunity to tie it. During play for the next point, he hit a shot wide left to give Pouille a 3-5 lead.
Pouille won the next point with a forehand winner that the crowd gave a roar of approval for. Now up 3-6, match point seemed like a mere formality for the Frenchman.
The nerves got to Pouille, though. A forehand from the Frenchman hit the net again to cut his lead down to 4-6. It only got worse from there for Pouille.
Nadal reasserted himself with a cross-court forehand that blew by Pouille to make it 5-6. In the next point, Pouille then mustered the power for a forehand to match Nadal’s previous winner, but the Frenchman’s efforts sailed long.
The crowd loved it.
After the bail flew past the baseline, the atmosphere became a raucous celebration of Nadal surviving three match points to equalize Pouille at 6-6 in the decisive tiebreak. It was as loud and jubilant as any celebration of a home goal in a European soccer stadium or a touchdown for the home college football team. Everyone was all-in again on Nadal.
He had the momentum. He had the crowd. He had the perfect shot handed to him on a platter by Pouille during the play for 13th point in the tiebreak.
Nadal ran up from the baseline and approached the net. He wound up to unleash his forehand on the floating tennis ball that Pouille hit just to keep things in play. Nadal followed through on his forehand and the ball rocketed out of his racket.
There was no lift, though. The ball made a high-speed collision into the net. Pouille now led 6-7.
The crowd let out a massive groan after they saw Nadal’s forehand hit the net. The shot that would have set Nadal on his path to winning the match now became the crux that he would lose this match on.
With possession of his fourth match point, Pouille made his forehand count. The blistering shot blazed along the sideline, out of reach for a Nadal stranded too far centrally in the court to reach the ball.
Pouille collapsed in shock, exhaustion, relief, exhilaration after his match-winning forehand. The Ashe crowd rose in unison to give a standing ovation to Pouille for his 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6) victory over a titan in tennis, a roller coaster match of attrition and emotion that required four hours and five minutes to settle.
As Nadal left the court in defeat, the spectators remained standing and gave him a send-off worthy of a match-winner. Pouille got his curtain call for a second standing ovation as he followed Nadal into the locker room.
Nadal vs. Pouille wasn’t a championship match, but it was as emotionally draining as any title-deciding Game 7. At its best, that’s how sports should make us feel, and these two titans made it happen.
(Celebrity fan of the match: tennis Grand Slam champion Yannick Noah, father of Gators and Bulls star Joakim. Yannick had a Knicks hat to represent his son’s new team.)
[FOOD] Snack Break – 7:15 pm
Old Bay + French Fries = Happiness
My escape from Ashe Stadium took me as far as the concourse.
You see there’s this thing called capacity. The Ashe concourse was jammed with spectators standing on the concourse. The plaza outside Ashe was jammed with spectators standing outside the front gate. I took a glance down from the concourse to the plaza and the swath of humans assembled below resembled the Imperial Army awaiting the grand entrance of Emperor Palpatine.
So the US Open had a conundrum to solve: how do they let out thousands of people in Ashe without straining a plaza filled to its brim of other human beings?
I don’t know what they did, because the mob and I in the concourse alternated between a standstill and taking two steps at a time — the walking version of rush hour on the 405. I’m pretty sure the Open just alternated between letting out a certain clump of people from the concourse and then letting in a certain cluster of folks from the plaza. A number of day session spectators inside Ashe who also had tickets to the night session just stuck around the concourse as the rest of us slowly flowed out of the stadium.
The dense blob of people that I was packed in made it into the plaza after about 20 minutes in the concourse, as dusk settled over New York City. That first step onto the plaza was euphoric for me.
All the sluggishness from sitting for so long in Ashe — thanks extending my day, Rafa and Lucas — evaporated as I powerwalked around the groups of people hanging out at the tennis center. I felt recharged and more and more awake as I zipped by person after person; they didn’t know it, but they were my welcoming crew after encasing myself in the bubble of Ashe Stadium for nine hours.
I returned to the Visit Orlando booth to say bye to Mariangelica, who gave me the best parting gift I could ask for: Old Bay fries. She tipped me off that the seafood concession stand between the Grandstand and the practice courts was selling french fries topped with Old Bay. (Thank you to my coworker and the city of Baltimore for enlightening me to the magic of Old Bay.) Without knowing it, my new friend gave me my solution for a quick yet satisfying dinner that would get me back to Ashe in time for the start of the night session.
With my tray of Old Bay fries and bottle of red Powerade in tow, I sat down, content with life, at a table that faced a Grey Goose Bar and its TV. As I was about halfway through the tray, I noticed two blonde women on the screen hitting light shots to each other.
Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova, the competitors for the first night session match at Ashe, were warming up.
[NIGHT1] Angelique Kerber  v. Petra Kvitova  – Sometime around 8:40 pm
Kerber (left) with a serve to Kvitova
I inhaled the rest of my Old Bay Fries and rushed back to Ashe, arriving about 10 minutes after the start of play. By the time I took my seat in the middle of a filled-out row — sandwiched between a 20-something couple on a date night and three old men on a guys’ night out — Kerber and Kvitova were tied 2-2 in the first set, with Kerber holding break point. Kerber won that break point.
Kerber and Kvitova played an identical game of hanging around the baseline and playing defensively, trying to force mistakes out of each other. Kerber got the better of Kvitova with ease; Kvitova had 14 unforced errors through the first eight games. By the end of the first set, which Kerber won 6-3 after a forehand winner down the left sideline, Kerber only had four unforced errors to her name; Kvitova finished the set with 17 unforced errors and three double faults.
The second set was routine, no frills, hold serve tennis from both players until it was 3-2, with Kvitova serving to tie things up. This game was a microcosm of Kvitova’s entire match, a see-saw affair that highlighted her lack of control that night and the talent that helps make her a top 20 player. Kvitova kicked off the game with an unforced error, 0-15.
She followed that up with another unforced error, 0-30.
And another unforced error, 0-40.
…All right, Kvitova is a philanthropist and donating this game to Kerber…
Kvitova saved some face with a winner to make it 15-40. Fair play to her.
Then Czech player hit another winner to make it a respectable 30-40. OK, the scoreline is flattering to Kvitova, but whatever.
But Kvitova hit yet another winner. 40-40. It was a minor miracle after all the wayward shots she hit up until this point.
Kerber hit an uncharacteristic error to hand advantage to Kvitova, who seized the reanimated opportunity for this game with a forehand winner. After throwing away the first three points of the game, Kvitova stormed back and won the following five points to tie the second set up 3-3. Unreal.
The two players continued to hold serve and their baseline positions until it was 6-5 Kerber; Kvitova had to win her serve to force a tiebreak. Kvitova controlled this entire game:
She hit a winner for the first point (15-0)
Then she hit an unforced error (15-15)
Kvitova followed that up with another winner (30-15)
Then she cancelled out the previous winner with another unforced error (30-30)
Kvitova redeemed that error with yet another winner for game point (40-30)
But she threw away the opportunity with an unforced error again (40-40)
It was deuce, but the control that comes with being on serve gave Kvitova an edge in forcing a tiebreak for the second set. Just get the ball in play.
“Fault,” said one of the line judges.
The crowd had a premonition and acted on it. For the first time all match, with Kvitova’s back against the wall, the Ashe crowd began chanting in support of her. The people in the stands were going to will Kvitova back into this match.
“Fault,” said a line judge.
“Game, set, match, Kerber wins 6-3, 7-5,” the chair umpire declared.
Kvitova’s sloppy play threw away too many opportunities to make it a more competitive match for Kerber. In that context, it was fitting that the double fault — the most basic of errors — sunk Kvitova’s comeback efforts in the end.
[NIGHT2] Novak Djokovic  v. Kyle Edmund – Sometime around 10 pm
Djokovic (left) serving near the end of his match with Edmund
There were plenty of tough questions going into the US Open’s Day 7 nightcap featuring Men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Britain’s Kyle Edmund. Is Djokovic finally be healthy enough — physically, mentally, and emotionally — to play at his fullest potential again? Will Edmund retire from the match? Am I still awake enough to pay attention this match? (The answers are Yes, No, and Thank God, respectively.)
Ashe Stadium remained packed to its brim as the court crew changed removed the Chase-sponsored net from the Kerber-Kvitova match and installed the Mercedes Benz-sponsored net for the Djokovic-Edmund finale. With so many bodies crammed into each row, leg room and arm space was nearly nonexistent. The tight sitting quarters contributed to a pseudo-club environment, though, as the stadium lights shut off and the strobe lights and smoke machines turned on. The DJ turned on Swedish House Mafia’s “Greyhound” to welcome Djokovic and Edmund to the court and the party at Ashe officially began again.
Up until this point in the tournament, Djokovic played only six whole sets of tennis while battling a myriad of injuries. Except for a double fault, he didn’t look rusty in the process of winning his first service game to tie the first set at 1-1. Djokovic broke Edmund for the first time in the following game, which was the first time I felt that I finally appreciated all of Djokovic’s talent and skills. The Serbian broke Edmund by going on the offensive, his mobility allowing him to run cross court to keep play continuing and using the whole arsenal of drop shots and shots pumped with pace and power.
The trait of Djokovic’s that was most striking was his anticipation of where the ball would land. It’s tough to pick that out on TV when the cameras are fixed behind a baseline, but it’s noticeable from a bird’s eye view of the court. (To be fair, I’m sure I’d say the same about Federer, Serena, etc. if I saw them from the same vantage point.) He has this foresight to see how play would pan out before it happened, so that on more than one occasion, it seemed that Djokovic would take a couple steps toward the direction of where Edmund would hit the ball before the Brit got to it. And even if he was wrong, Novak’s quick reflexes allowed him to cut and change directions and still get a piece of the racket on the ball.
Peak Djokovic swept the first set 6-1 in 34 minutes, then the second set 6-2 in another 34 minutes. The clock neared 11:30 pm after the second set; that was enough good tennis from the World No. 1 to convince a good chunk of the crowd to stream for the exits and go home.
The third set began like the first two: Djokovic holding serve in the first game, then breaking Edmund in the second game to go up 2-0. Then the Serbian fell asleep in the middle of the set.
An error-plagued service game for Djokovic followed, which gifted Edmund with a broken serve to make it 2-1. Edmund won his next service game to make it 2-2, then Djokovic’s next serve was broken again because of a number of unforced errors. Edmund now led 3-2 and with the self-inflicted damage Djokovic absorbed, a fourth set seemed realistic.
I was ready to sleep sprawled in a comfy bed, not sit upright through another set.
But to my sleepy approval, Edmund hit a wall in his next service game, hitting errant shot after errant shot before Djokovic could continue his own downward spiral into a 4-2 hole. Instead, Edmund’s errors—Djokovic didn’t hit a single winner during this game—gifted the world no. 1 a 3-3 lifeline into stealing the third set away. It was midnight when Djokovic tied it.
Djokovic calmed down to hold his next two service games, which sandwiched a held serve by Edmund. With Djokovic now leading 5-4, Edmund had to win his next service game to stay in the match.
Edmund had a midnight meltdown instead.
The Brit gave away four straight points with four straight unforced errors. Just like that, match over at love. Djokovic clinched the third set 6-4 due to Edmund’s travails, rather than with his own world class talent. No complaints whatsoever from me on the manner of victory, though.
Djokovic gave his customary #BringTheLove celebration after the match, in which he brings his hands to his heart, then outstretches his arms wide and toward each section to the crowd, as if he’s releasing his love and gratitude to the people in the stands for their support. The World No. 1 brought the love to my section of the stadium first. I never felt so special before Djokovic reached out to me like that.
(Kidding, Mom and Dad!)
It was 12:17 am when Edmund hit the error that secured the victory for Djokovic. About 10 minutes later — after #BringTheLove, the on-court interview, and running down the steps of Ashe — the King Tennis Center teemed with people streaming for the exits. It’s strange, and a little sad, to see the plaza still filled with people, but without any of the eating, drinking, and socializing that make the grounds such a fun place to hang out.
I departed Mets-Willets Point station at 12:40 am and a special 7 express train got me to Manhattan in about 30 minutes. The streets surrounding the perpetually lit Times Square were mostly empty, another strange sight to take in during the walk back to the hotel.
I went to bed knowing that this was definitely, permanently, forever the last doubleheader I will pull off at the US Open. At least until I change my mind at the last minute in 2017.