Tigers Tamed in the Cottage

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It felt like I returned to America when I dropped by Craven Cottage to see Fulham’s 4-1 thrashing of Hull City in their FA Cup Fourth Round tie on 29 January.

The words “Visit Florida,” printed in blue above ocean waves, are splashed across the chest of Fulham’s white shirts. (I’ll never escape you, Florida.) US Men’s National Team stalwarts Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Kasey Keller, and Clint Dempsey have all played for the Cottagers; McBride has a restaurant named after him in the stadium. The American contingency on the pitch continues today with Tim Ream. Off the pitch, Shad Khan, a Pakistani immigrant to the United States who went from Illinois engineering grad to businessman billionaire to owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, now owns Fulham.

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And in the crowd, an eclectic set of American sports teams headgear was scattered through the Riverside Stand: a Penn State cap, an Anaheim Mighty Ducks beanie, your standard fare Yankees cap, a Cincinnati Bengals beanie, and a San Francisco Giants cap.

But I didn’t go to the quaint Craven Cottage to feel like I was at home. I was here to take in an historic ground, one I wouldn’t have had access to without the extra fixtures created by the FA Cup.

The atmosphere in Craven Cottage itself was tame—almost polite—for the first 20 minutes of the match, with neither side controlling the action on the pitch or in the stands. The home supporters on the Hammersmith End on the north side of the stadium and the away supporters at the Putney End on the south side took turns singing about their team. When it fell quiet in the stadium, one of the stands would start singing. The opposing supporters waited until they finished before responding.

Meanwhile, a ball was put out of play to allow Hull to bring on Harry Maguire for the injured Curtis Davies in the 10th minute. The tall and stocky Maguire looked like he would fit in better in a rugby game; his build made him the most imposing figure playing in this Cup tie.

The game finally sprung to life in the 24th minute, when Sone Aluko scored against his former employers to put Fulham up 1-0. Stefan Johansen curled a free kick that glided toward the far post, where Fulham defender/Chelsea loanee Tomas Kalas headed the ball across the face of goal for Aluko to slam home. Aluko celebrated against his old club, as it should be.

As the rain began to fall in the 30th minute, both teams had opportunities they should have scored on. Aluko had a run on his own to the net before Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic smothered the ball to safety. Hull had the ball in the box and caught Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli out of position, but they could only slam the ball against the crossbar as the refs whistled for an infraction committed by the Tigers.

Fulham went into halftime up 1-0, largely thanks to the composed play at the back by Ream and Kalas, whose partnership ensured goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli had little to do. It was good to finally see the tradition of an American doing well in a Fulham shirt for myself.

After the halftime whistle, I returned to the concourse of the Riverside Stand, shuffling through the tiny gaps of space left by the fans standing in line for concessions and the ones already eating the burgers and chips they bought. The gorgeous view of the Thames from the concourse is one reason why I chose to have my seat in the Riverside Stand for this match.

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Staring at the Thames drowned out the crowds chatting and chomping behind me and the sound of former Fulham and Palace defender Brede Hangeland’s center circle interview that was broadcast through the PA. The river had a sense of tranquility as it flowed by the stadium quietly and without any other visible life—save for the one rowing team that just had to pass through and force this aside—loitering in the water. If it was allowed, I would pay to just hang out at the concourse for the day, eat lunch, and watch the river.

Despite Fulham going into halftime with the lead and the momentum, Hull equalized through a diving header by Evandro in the 50th minute. No one in a white shirt was marking Evandro when Andrew Robertson’s cross met the Hull midfielder’s forehead.

The equal footing was brief, though, when Chris Martin gave Fulham a 2-1 lead in the 54th minute in the best attack of the game. Aluko, from just behind the center line, sent an incisive pass that sliced through the gap on the right side of Hull’s defense. Fulham left back Ryan Sessegnon, the club’s 16-year-old academy graduate, made a run down his left and cut inside to beat Jakupovic to the ball in the box. Sessegnon then sent a one-touch pass across the face of the net for the unmarked Chris Martin to one-time it into an empty net.

To reach the quota for the obligatory cliché: scenes.

Martin and Sessegnon immediately ran to each other, then Sessegnon leaped into Martin’s arms for the bear hug. After the hug, Martin and Sessegnon walked toward their teammates, with arms clasped around each others’ shoulders. As they walked together, Martin pointed at the teenager to get everyone to acknowledge Sessegnon’s superb run and pass in the build-up to the goal.

The floodgates opened for Fulham after that, with Sessegnon capping off another fine display of passing to give the Whites a 3-1 lead in the 66th minute. This time, Martin repaid the favor to Sessegnon with a one-touch pass into open space in the box. Sessegnon, who outran his marker in the space, just had to tap the ball through Jakupovic’s five-hole for the goal.

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Sessegnon’s goal sealed the tie for Fulham, but Hull’s shoddy defending continued and gifted Fulham their fourth of the match in the 78th minute. Tom Cairney, Fulham’s captain for the match, received the ball in space in the right side of the box. Cairney shook off two defenders—Cariney beat the second defender with a 180 degree twirl—then slid the ball, while falling down, toward the penalty spot. No one in an amber and orange shirt was there, but Johansen in white marauded to the ball and launched it into the net.

Those poor Hull fans who made the trip south for this mess. Little did they know that it was only going to get worse.

A foul in the box in the 86th minute gifted Hull a penalty kick. Abel Hernandez stepped up to the kick… and Bettinelli dove to his left and denied Hernandez! But then Bettinelli also brought down Hernandez in the box as they scrambled for the loose ball, so Hull had a second opportunity from the spot for a second consolation goal.

The men seated behind me predicted that Hernandez would again aim at Bettinelli’s left.

Hernandez stepped up… and Bettinelli dove to his left and denied Hernandez! Again! But the ball was cleared this time! They may have had four goals to celebrate earlier, but Craven Cottage hit peak euphoria at the double penalty saves by Bettinelli. So much so, the Hammersmith end poked a little self-deprecating fun at Hull.

“Are you Fulham in disguise?” the Hammersmith End serenaded to Hull and the Tigers’ supporters. (Finally: some vocal hostility between the supporters, even if it’s of lighthearted kind. Reading and Cardiff spoiled me.)

Fulham has been abject with penalties in the Championship this season, earning eight penalty kicks and scoring only two goals off them. Of those eight penalty kicks, three have been against QPR’s Alex Smithies—and none of them have gone in for Fulham. Hell, Fulham missed a last-minute penalty in the game that preceded this FA Cup tie, and it resulted in a 1-0 win for Reading.

But for one rainy Sunday afternoon, Fulham supporters had the joy of seeing another team suffer through the penalty woes that have plagued their club. It was the icing on the cake of an excellent team effort that pushed the Cottagers onto the next round of the FA Cup.

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The Hammersmith End

A Cold, Rainy Tuesday in Brentford

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We still don’t know whether or not Leo Messi can do it on a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Stoke, but on 31 January, I spent a cold, rainy Tuesday night in Griffin Park watching Brentford defeat Aston Villa 3-0 in a Championship match.

Yeah, finally. I have something on Messi other than my height.

My path from the United States to Griffin Park—a stadium best known for having a pub outside each of its corners; perfect for a near-teetotal like me—is a convoluted one. It started with a high school crush on Natalie Sawyer, a supporter of Brentford and anchor for Sky Sports News, the highlights show I watched when Fox Soccer Channel existed. While I was at UF, I found out Sawyer supported Brentford, so I started keeping tabs on them in League One.

In 2015, I learned that Brentford would eventually move to a new stadium that’s closer to Kew Bridge. Now I wanted to see a game at Griffin Park, which turned 111 years old in 2015, before club left its historic ground for a new, larger sleek, modern home.

That game should have happened in January 2016, when I had tickets to see Brentford host Leeds United in a Championship match. However, Leeds’ progression in the FA Cup forced them to reschedule their match against Brentford. The clubs moved the match from its original date on a Saturday to the Tuesday that preceded it.

That Tuesday was the day before I left the US for London.

This year, the Championship scheduled Brentford and Aston Villa to face each other at Griffin Park on the Tuesday after a weekend of FA Cup fixtures, so there was no chance the league would reschedule this game. Furthermore, my club, Crystal Palace, had a home game scheduled for the Saturday after the Brentford-Villa match, so I could still have my cake and eat it. Villa’s visit would also be my chance to see Mile Jedinak, the former Palace captain who moved to Villa in August 2016, play again and to maybe randomly bump into Sawyer, who still regularly attends matches at Griffin Park.


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I arrived at Griffin Park about 1.5 hours before the 7:45 pm kickoff. Obviously, Sawyer and I never ran into each other. (It was nice to dream, though.) Twitter later told me that Jedinak suffered a thigh injury a couple weeks before the Brentford match and couldn’t make the trip from Birmingham to London.

The irony that Jedinak was ruled out of the only chance I’d get to see him play was appreciated.

I took my seat in the Paddock, the lower tier of the Braemar Road Stand, just as the rainfall began to intensify. The heavy rain took a slow descent from the sky to the ground, combining with the illumination from the floodlights to make an oddly soothing scene of water flowing from darkness to light. A steady breeze into the ground kept things chilly, but there were no strong gusts of wind to make the cold unbearable.

The cozy confines of Griffin Park—the capacity of 13000 makes it the third smallest venue in the Championship—added to the sense of calm created by the rain and the light. Griffin Park’s location in a residential area, the small crowd, and simple design of the stands bring out a neighborly air to the stadium. It recalls a simpler time when you could support a team without the carrot of Premier League treasure dangling over the lower tiers, a tantalizing object of desire. The feeling that you traveled back in time inside Griffin Park is enhanced by the old-school technology: the two scoreboards only display text in red and green against a black background, the clock can’t count seconds, and substitutions are relayed in the form of text that scrolls across the board. The only other place I’ve seen outdated technology like this live past its expiration date is the Nassau Coliseum.

The noise created by the arriving Villa and Brentford supporters jolted Griffin Park from its pre-game slumber in the rain. As “Hey Jude” blared before the players came on to the pitch, the Villa supporters seated in the Brook Road Stand, located on the opposite end of the venue from from me, occasionally got loud enough to drown out the Beatles hit. The Brentford home supporters to my right on the Ealing Road Stand showed they could compete with the away support by singing along their own songs to drown out “Hey Jude.” This battle for the atmosphere was aided by how small the stadium is.


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Taking a page from the vocal pregame show by their supporters in the Brooks Road Stand, Villa got off to a fast start from kickoff. In the 8th minute, Villa striker Albert Adomah found himself alone against Brentford goalkeeper Daniel Bentley, but Adomah slid the ball past the wrong side of the post. A minute later, a close range effort by Villa forced a smart save from Bentley—the wet pitch gave the ball a hop that caused the ball to bounce off the head of Bentley as he went down to the ground. The home fans in the Ealing Road Stand voiced their approval with a rendition of “He saves with his head.”

In the 10th minute, the oldest absurdity for an old stadium happened: the lights went out in the Brook Road and Ealing Road Stands. The Villa fans immediately went to work poking fun at their odd viewing circumstances with a new song.

“We’ll sing in the dark

We’ll sing in the dark

We’re Aston Villa

We’ll sing in the dark”

As they reached the end of the song, a number of the away fans took out their mobiles, turned on the flashlight function, and held their phones up above their heads like this was the slow jam of an outdoor concert.

The power outage also marked the beginning of Brentford taking control of the game. The Bees began to dominate possession and pin back Villa by their own goal. This swarming of the Villains in their own end led to the Bees’ breakthrough in the 24th minute. Brentford midfielder Nico Yennaris slid the ball through the Villa defense to striker Lasse Vibe (the surname is pronounced “Vee-bay,” not like Cisco Ramon’s metahuman name), who put the ball into the net in a breakaway against Villa keeper Sam Johnstone.

Vibe’s goal to put Brentford up 1-0 deflated the away end and the home fans called them out on it with a song.

“You ain’t singing anymore… We’ll sing on our own,” the Ealing Road end chanted.

Villa struggled to climb out the pitfall it stepped on when they fell behind. Their strikers were isolated from the rest of the team, while Brentford had a field day running up through the space given to them on the flanks. The Bees repaid Villa’s generosity along the wings by going up 2-0 in the 37th minute. Brentford ran down the right hand side without much challenge before the ball was driven into the box. An unmarked Yennaris slid and stabbed the ball into the net to deservedly double Brentford’s lead.

The Bees took a 2-0 lead into the dressing room at halftime, but more importantly, the lights finally came back on in the Brooks Road and Ealing Road Stands. All the excitement and joy from the supporters must have powered the electricity back on.

The victory of working lightbulbs over darkness had a short victory, though. By the 49th minute, the lights went out in all the stands; the floodlights over the pitch remained illuminated, our shield against the darkness and a postponement or abandoning of the current result.

Vibe put Brentford up 3-0 and the game to bed in the 65th minute, though, with his second goal of the match. Brentford’s midfield maestro for the night, Josh McEachran, picked out Vibe with a pinpoint pass to kickstart a counterattack. Vibe dribbled through his defender, running into a more central position in the box before shooting the ball past Johnstone.

The celebration by Vibe was an adult rediscovering unbridled childhood joy. As the rain pelted him, Vibe ran toward the home supporters at Ealing Room with arms spread wide like wings, then slid headfirst toward the club’s adulating fans. Vibe’s teammates swallowed him in a pile of smiles as he laid on the ground before they all jogged back to the center circle together.

Sure, I didn’t see Natalie Sawyer, or Mile Jedinak, or Aston Villa after the first 20 minutes of the match, but the cozy atmosphere of Griffin Park and the crowd feeding off of an assured performance by Brentford made it one of the most fun sporting events I’ve attended. You can’t go wrong spending a cold, rainy Tuesday night shivering in an old English stadium just to watch a game of lower-division football.

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Royalty in Berkshire

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The United Center in Chicago apparently has a second home in the United Kingdom.

At the Madjeski Stadium in Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom, the PA for Reading F.C. played “Chelsea Dagger” during the warm-up and then “Sirius” before the players took to the pitch for the 28 January Championship contest between the home side Royals and Cardiff City F.C.

Then it turned into Fenway Park when “Sweet Caroline” blared moments before kickoff.

But after that, the unified voices of chanting supporters quickly made that feeling of being in an American stadium disappear.

The Madejski Stadium has a unique set-up that’s unheard of in the other stadiums I’ve visited. In most cases, the vocal home supporters and the traveling away support are placed in opposite ends of a stadium. Reading burns that concept to the ground by seating its liveliest supporters in the southern half of the East Stand and the away supporters taking their spot in the South End of the Madejski.

Yes, the boisterous home support and traveling fans are perpendicular to each other. And I was seated right in between the two on the East Stand.

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The proximity between the two groups is a pressure cooker. Instead of a long-distance aerial battle between the two sets of supporters found at most stadiums, the battle for control of the atmosphere is one of close combat. Supporters directly jawing at one another is inevitable. The dissing in the stands is a second front for the action on the pitch.

Oh, yeah, that’s right. We’re here for a game. And hey, look! There’s a football match on the pitch down there!

For about the first 20 minutes of the Reading-Cardiff match, the atmosphere was the most exciting thing in the stadium. Plenty of wanking gestures and middle fingers were exchanged between the two sets of supporters, but the England-Wales rivalry added an extra bite to the songs. The Reading supporters had a fondness for trotting out “England, England, England!”

Reading had the first real chance of the match in the 19th minute, when winger Gareth McCleary—cover boy for the matchday program—ran into the box from the right and sent a precise, low center to American Danny Williams, whose touch was too heavy to capitalize on the pass. A minute later, Cardiff hit the post after the Royals struggled to clear a set piece. The ref then missed a few legitimate fouls committed by Cardiff, but other than that, the action died down again for another 20 minutes.

Part of the reason why the first half dragged was that the build-up to Reading’s attacks were too slow and deliberate; Cardiff were happy to congest from the midfield to the goal and then counterattack. In the 42nd minute, Reading finally decided to play quickly and lo and behold, the home side took a 1-0 lead.

The goal came from Williams taking the ball and unleashing a low drive from outside the box. Cardiff goalkeeper Allan McGregor saved the shot, but the ball rebounded off him and started to roll toward the goal line to be out-of-play for a corner. However, McCleary ran after the ball and backheeled it just to keep it in play, and Reading midfield John Swift was in the right place at the right time to sweep the ball into the net.

Cardiff responded right before halftime, with Joe Ralls scoring a penalty that further stoked the grievances that the Reading supporters nearby me held against the ref. As the home support complained, bedlam ensued at the away end. Cardiff Fans rushed to their right, toppling over themselves and the chairs to taunt the neighboring home sections. More wanking gestures and middle figures made an appearance before the halftime whistle dispersed people back to the concourses.

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The second half began much like the first, with Reading not doing much with possession and Cardiff getting in one good chance off a counter. But in the 59th minute, Reading striker Yann Kermogant broke the deadlock with a beautiful free kick from 18 yards out that curled into the net at the far post.

Once again, both sets of neighbo(u)ring supporters had a go at one another. The gestures were now joined by the sarcastic applause of the traveling fans and a serenading of Kermogant’s name by Berkshire loyalists.

Reading and Cardiff probably each should have had one more goal, but they both squandered a couple opportunities inside the box. Whatever. The true entertainment was always in the stands in this game. Reading captain Paul McShane was treated to a rendition of “Paul McShane, My Love” after he hustled back to tackle the ball away for a throw-in. The home support also directed more barbs at the Bluebirds’ supporters with chants of “You shag your sister” and “You support a pile of [crap].”

Yeah, those last two songs aren’t that creative. The home support saved their most cheeky one for the 81st minute: their singing of the last lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” A smattering of Cardiff supporters greeted the end of the anthem with boos.

After the ref—who had a terrible day himself with so many missed calls—blew the full time whistle, both sets of supporters turned to one another to get their final punches in. A barrage of taunts and middle fingers landed on both clubs’ fans. The stewards formed a human tunnel around the main staircase of the South End to keep a steady flow of Cardiff supporters headed toward the exits. The home support got the last three words in, though.

“England, England, England.”

It’s a Privilege to Be Here

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I waited eight months to make my annual trek across the Atlantic to Selhurst Park and got to see Crystal Palace go down 0-4 to Sunderland by halftime and lose by that scoreline when the ref blew the full time whistle.

At least Palace kept a clean sheet in the second half.

After the match, much of the team walked straight into the tunnel. A forlorn Joel Ward lingered by the center circle, then walked toward the Arthur Wait, softly clapping the home support. He then turned to his right and gave the same gentle applause to the Holmesdale before trudging to the tunnel. The pained expression on Ward’s face on Saturday was nearly identical to the sorrow that overcame him nine months earlier, when Palace lost the FA Cup Final against Manchester United in extra time.

Ward’s dejection thawed me from the numbness that set in stoppage time of the first half. The sadness and hurt I tried to prevent by going stoic crept in and took over.

The resignation to defeat came when Defoe had the ball in the box before he scored Sunderland’s third goal. It was all too predictable: with only one defender to shake off and that short of a distance between him and the net, there was no way Defoe would fluff the opportunity. For the sake of sample size, Defoe repeated the same scoring procedure a minute later, but from the other side of the box.

Selhurst remained loud after Palace went down 0-4, but for all the wrong reasons. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” rained down from the stands to the feeble eleven in red and blue on the pitch, then the chorus of booing stalked the wounded Eagles when they trudged to the dressing room for halftime.

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A shortened stay in the dressing room failed to catalyze a number of sustained, dangerous attacks from Palace in the second half. Despite the valiant commitment of Wilf Zaha (in the few times he was given the ball) and Andros Townsend, both of whom put balls into the box, the fear that strangled the team in the first half retained its grip on much of the team in the second half. Too many passes still traveled backward or sideways despite the massive deficit.

Although he only played the second half, Townsend—someone I’ve singled out with skepticism about his commitment—showed the sense of urgency that his starting teammates should have had through all 90 minutes. When the ball went out into the Arthur Wait for a Palace throw, Townsend, eyes wide in anticipation, yelled “Come on! Come on!” to the supporters to get the ball to him quickly at the touchline. When he didn’t have the ball, Townsend directed his teammates on where to move the ball, where he would make a run, and where his teammates should be standing to receive a pass.

The display by Townsend is the type of vocal leadership you expect out of someone like captain Scott Dann or goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, that latter of which is the personification of the lack of character in the Crystal Palace dressing room. After being named Player of the Month in December 2015, the Welsh international has never recovered from his gaffe that gifted Aston Villa all three points in January 2016. Hennessey’s reaction to that dreadful visit to Villa Park has been the fearful playing style and poor decision making—despite being blessed with the right physical tools, a la Jay Cutler—that continues to make him less than the sum of all his individual qualities. That’s set the tone for the 10 Palace players in front of him and has been a major role in the club’s underachievement for the past year.

Someone needs to step up and provoke the right reaction to adversity—unity, team spirit, pride—from the squad. Not seeing that for the past year is starting to hurt more than the losing.

It’s a privilege for me as a supporter to come to Selhurst Park, even if it’s only once a season. Those 90 minutes at the home ground each year allow me to build a personal visceral narrative with the club that the locals make stories out of. This story began in 2015, with the chills and near-tears of seeing and singing along to the Glad All Over march before the 0-1 loss to Everton. It continued in 2016, when Zaha scored the first ever Palace goal with me in attendance in the 1-0 win over Stoke in the FA Cup, then Scott Dann following it up three nights later with one of his own in the 1-2 defeat to Bournemouth in the league. Even in the losses, I could take something positive from the effort on the pitch or in the stands.

On Saturday, all we got was capitulation.

After the debacle against Sunderland, Steve Parish’s speech, and the video breakdown on Sunday, I hope the individuals that make up Crystal Palace F.C. rediscovered—or finally grasped—the privilege that they have as players to come to Selhurst Park 19 times a season, slip on that red and blue shirt, and not just write their career C.V. and the club’s history, but the stories that the supporters take with them for life after allocating a chunk of their weekend to cheer the Eagles on.

But because that collective spirit still seems lost, the forlorn figure of Joel Ward will be my lasting image of Selhurst Park for the foreseeable future.

Dusting off the Place

Where is that light switch…? Ah, here we go.

Whoa. There are a lot of cobwebs scattered throughout and quite a few cockroaches running around here.

It’s been more than a month since I last wrote something and even then, it turned out to be a eulogy for our dearly departed shih tzu, Biscuit. That’s not the note I want to end the year on here, so I’m back for a little bit.

The year 2016 had a lot of crappy things happen: the results of a UK referendum and US presidential election, Zika virus, a rise in displays of hatred in person and online, and a world grappling with violence of all types. On a lesser scale, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl on a last-second interception and Crystal Palace lost my second Premier League match at Selhurst Park, then lost the FA Cup to Manchester United three months later.

But all of the terribleness of 2016 was redeemed by the Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series in October. (I only had to wait about three decades!) I can finally be a baseball fan without keeping that stupid drought in the back of my mind through an excessively long regular season and torturous and tortuous postseason.

Leicester City won the Premier League to make the most captivating title race since the 2011-12 season, when Manchester City won it with a goal in the dying minutes of the final game of the season to pip Manchester United for the title.

And, of course, I met a lot of great people (and dogs) and reunited with family and friends enough times to keep me going through the relative isolation I’m saddled with in Connecticut. Thanks, folks.

I’m taking on more projects for myself, but I’ll write with more frequency here come 2017. Yes, that is a tease for you and for me. Writing once a month here is not enough when you’re writing about the same defensive issues Palace have had every week of the season.

Party hearty and safely into 2017, folks. See you in January.

Biscuit

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In 1999, my dad had the brilliant idea to take his dog-averse kids, my younger sister and me, to a Downtown Orlando puppy shop* as a reward after work forced him to drag us into the office on a Saturday.

There were a lot of puppies sharing white cribs loaded with shredded newspaper. They scrambled and barked for the attention of the people who visited; my dad gave them plenty of it. He drove us home with a post-it note listing dog breeds I had never heard of.

For a family with a history of zero pet experience—unless you count feeding two goldfish named Buster and Babs for a few months—my dad, who wanted a dog since childhood, decided that one would be good for the family. He somehow talked my dog-averse mom into joining us for a second visit to this store on Sunday.

After we arrived, my dad pulled out an undersized white shih tzu with wide eyes and brown spots on her left ear and back from the bottom of a crib along the left wall. Other puppies had been trampling over her and barking to reach out the gawking people. Other people only noticed the shih tzu when she was in my dad’s arms. He walked to the other side of the store, set the shih tzu on the floor, and the first thing she did was walk head down toward my mom and lick the toe of her right Keds.

The smart and cute little shih tzu instantly won over the family. She would be going home with us.

My mom then suggested naming her Biscuit, after the children’s book series my sister was reading at the time. It stuck.

And that’s how this family with went in over its head and ended up with our Biscuit. After 17 years of joy, laughs, love, and plenty of peeing and pooping on the floor, Biscuit passed away on the morning of Election Day because of old age (and to avoid the fallout from how America voted).

Growing older gives you the perspective to better appreciate the value of the little things in life—having a dog in the family accelerates that process because of the empathy one can impart. Those little things are bringing me some comfort as I try to come to terms with Biscuit passing away so suddenly after being healthy two weeks ago and without a chance to have a formal goodbye.

Those little things included rubbing her nose side-to-side against anyone’s leg when her face was itchy, chewing the ears and other appendages off of her toys before ignoring the rest of the toys, her “singing” whimpers when she heard a harmonica, and her eagerness to open presents—and then play with the tissue paper more than the toy that was wrapped inside.

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When we returned home from school or work in Orlando, Biscuit always greeted us by the kitchen door that we entered from. Tail wagging, smiling if it was a hot enough Florida day for her to be panting. As soon as Biscuit saw us, she took the first step toward us. Then she’d stretch her body and bow—front legs and head down and outstretched to the floor, hind legs staying up—to say hello to us. We’d pet her as she bowed to us and as we stroked her head, she’d roll over on her back and ask for a belly rub. When she was impatient, Biscuit would go from bow to belly rub position in one fluid motion.

In Orlando, we slept with our bedroom doors ajar; Biscuit shared a bed with mom and dad. After her breakfast and morning trip to the loo, Biscuit would use her head as a battering ram to open the doors to my or my sister’s bedroom, sit and wait patiently for us to wake up, and then ask to be lifted up to the bed to nap next to us. She always took my pillow.

Biscuit also found an ingenious way to scratch the area of her lower back, by her brown spot, that her paws couldn’t reach. Using the gap between the floor and the frame of my parents’ bed, Biscuit would lodge her lower back against the frame and shake her back left to right to let the frame scratch the itch. The scratching sensation set off her left hind paw to move up and down rapidly, like Thumper in Bambi. Her backscratching on the bed frame became such a common event in our daily lives that we nicknamed it the Thumper. (“Oh, Biscuit is Thumpering again.”)

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Biscuit was paper trained, in that she’d use the bathroom in a set location on the house patio that was layered with old copies of the Orlando Sentinel. She’d stand by the patio sliding door and bark at us, sometimes ducking her head into the shades covering the door if she was impatient. As soon as the door slid open and the security chime bleated around the house, Biscuit would hop down onto the patio and then take her time getting to business. She would walk multiple laps around the pool, sit under the sun and enjoy the outdoor air, and walk some more before deciding that, OK, now was the time to do laps around her newspaper. She circled the newspaper like a vulture, with her walking speed increasing and the diameter of her circles decreasing before she finally squatted and let it all out.

Like any dog, she’d beg for scraps at the dinner table by sitting close to us and looking up at the table. Of course, we obliged. On road trips from Orlando to Chicago, she didn’t even have to beg; she’d sit on the laps of one of the passengers and we’d just willingly hand her scraps of the McDonalds or White Castle we ate in the car.

Cataracts robbed Biscuit of her eyes in the second half of her life. We never changed the floor plan of the homes in Orlando and Chicago so she could keep her independence and walk unimpeded. After an adjustment period with some depression on her end, she learned how to navigate everything to the point where she didn’t seem blind. Her resilience here is something we’ll always be proud of.

As a puppy, when she ran, her legs moved in place for a few seconds before she darted forward, like Scooby Doo. This blur of energy caromed off the walls and under the couches as she zipped through the house. As she got older and her mobility diminished, she was content to let us carry her like a puppy again.

But no matter what, Biscuit loved sharing space with us the most. She’d sit on our laps while we watched TV or did homework. If we were lying down on the couch, she’d sprawl her body over our stomachs and lie down on top. As she reached her elderly years, Biscuit added “licking the face as much as possible til boredom” before she settled in. I don’t know what prompted her to start being so aggressive with licking, but I can smell her breath and remember how wet and warm she made her licks as I type this. I need to wash my face now.

I saw Biscuit in person for the last time in September, a week after she celebrated her 17th birthday with a sausage patty from McDonalds. A delayed flight meant I didn’t arrive until midnight. But when I entered the house, Biscuit perked up, slowly walked toward the door, and sat there waiting for me to pet her. I obliged with a pat on the head, then sat down on the floor, cross-legged, and started rubbing the top of her head. She then took a front paw and put it on my leg and started to climb all over me to get to my face.

She licked me. Game over. I lifted her up so she could be closer to me and let her lick until her doggy breath got the better of me. A few minutes later, I laid down on the couch and laid her on top of my stomach, and we just hung out silently in peace until she got bored and wanted to go to bed.

1

The last time I saw Biscuit alive was on Skype with my parents two weeks ago, just before they went to Hawaii for vacation. Biscuit was groggy from eating dinner and her evening bathroom break, but she still perked up when she heard my voice. She stayed seated on my mom’s lap until the internal clock in her body told her it was bedtime. When I said bye to my parents on Skype, they turned their laptop toward Biscuit. She was curled up into a ball, sleeping peacefully atop an air mattress, undisturbed by our farewells.

Sleep well, Biscuit. Thank you for all the love, joy, and smiles you shared with us over the last 17 years. We love you.

*Yes, another lesson we learned in this adventure with Biscuit: we’ll adopt next time.

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I Can’t Quit the US Open

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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]”

[INT] Introduction
[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
[EXIT] Departure

———————–

[INT] Introduction

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.

Perfect.

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

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Day Session
Johanna Konta [13] v. Anastasija Sevastova
Madison Keys [8] v. Caroline Wozniacki
Rafael Nadal [4] v. Lucas Pouille [24]

Night Session
Angelique Kerber [2] v. Petra Kvitova [14]
Novak Djokovic [1] 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.”

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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.

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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 [13] 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.

Bounce
Bounce
Bounce
Bounce
bounce

Whack

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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.

Bounce
Bounce
Bounce
bounce

Whack

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 [8] v. Caroline Wozniacki – 1:20 pm

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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 [4] v. Lucas Pouille [24] – 3:20 pm

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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.

CLANG

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.

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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

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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.

Oh, no.

Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova, the competitors for the first night session match at Ashe, were warming up.

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[NIGHT1] Angelique Kerber [2] v. Petra Kvitova [14] – Sometime around 8:40 pm

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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.

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[NIGHT2] Novak Djokovic [1] v. Kyle Edmund – Sometime around 10 pm

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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.

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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!)

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[EXIT] Departure

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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.