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.

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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

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[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.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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.

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[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?

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[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.

———————–

[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.

———————–

[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!)

———————–

[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.

Titans at the 2016 US Open

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Rafa Nadal (right) serving against Lucas 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 the way

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.

Two Days in San Francisco

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It turns out that the shorter the itinerary, the worse I would be to have as a travel companion.

That’s what I gleaned from the 48 hours I spent — as a party of one, mind you — in San Francisco at the end of May. After all, I did run on the Golden Gate Bridge, watch a soccer game, eat a sandwich named after a SportsCenter anchor, watch a baseball game, and attend a concert — and that was just my last day in San Francisco.

Whew. I’ll slow down a little and start from the beginning.

Upon landing at San Francisco International Airport at midnight on a Friday, I was too wired to fall asleep at my lodging for the first night in San Francisco, the terminal that my JetBlue plane landed in. That was the lone downside of sleeping through the cross-country flight from JFK to SFO: staying awake and browsing the internet on my phone until I fell asleep on a chair at 2 am, then waking up 2.5 hours later because I already slept five hours on the flight.

Some time around 6 am, I boarded the BART Commuter Rail for downtown San Francisco. After dropping off my backpack at the hotel, I made my first mistake of the trip an hour later. I decided that I would walk two miles from the hotel to the Painted Ladies, the famed homes you saw for the first time during the opening montage for Full House.

Two miles is a piece of cake to walk in New York, so why not get around that way in San Francisco. In my rush to get going, I failed to account for the topography in San Francisco, so that inclines I ran into made the two mile walk feel like four miles. (A detour to a Safeway to buy a drink kept the jaunt on the comfortable side.) I planned to sit in the Alamo Square Park across from the Painted Ladies, and recreate the Full House view of the Painted Ladies, but the entire green space was closed off for construction. So I had to settle for hogging up a street parking space for this portrait of the famous homes.

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I smarted up and took a bus downtown for the next touristy task on hand: riding the famous San Francisco cable car. It turns out that riding the trolley is like catching the subway during the evening rush hour.

The operators of the cable car cram in as many people as possible at the Market Street terminal. You’re crushed like sardines if you end up like me, standing in the aisle, flanked by the folks who grabbed the seats on the sides of the cable car and up against fellow standers to your front and back. The folks seated and standing up front with the operator of the trolley had a little more leg room, but if you’re lucky enough to get something in the front, you might as well go all-in and hang on to a column on the edge of the trolley.

The ride itself felt like a Disney experience. The car rattled as it drove forward and the hilly terrain caused me to hang on to dear life as the trolley plunged downward when we hit a dip in the road. Riding the trolley is a fun, if pricey experience — the $7.00 lopped off a third of the $20.00 I invested in a Clipper card — but if you’re claustrophobic or get motion sickness, you’re better off staying away from the trolley.

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The trolley stopped just outside Fisherman’s Wharf, a pretty tourist trap by the sea. A coworker told me that San Francisco is the home of sourdough bread, so I hung out at the Boudin Bakery. The presentation of the bread here is amusing. Sourdough bread is available in the shape of a simple circle (the wheel), a gator (Go Gators!), a crab (hello, Maryland!), a teddy bear (your kids will never let you eat that), and a turtle (soft-shelled), a heart (the new Straw Man), and the San Francisco Giants logo (psh, pandering). They’d make great centerpieces for a fancy dinner with family and friends.

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The sourdough bread is better here than anywhere else I’ve had it, because the bread is soft all over. But I made the mistake of ordering an entire wheel of sourdough and trying to eat it with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich held together by — what else? — sourdough bread. It took me an hour to finish everything and throw away any opportunity I had of getting an official endorsement by the Atkins Diet organization.

Guilty over all the bread I ate for brunch, I walked from Fisherman’s Wharf and up the massive hill — pausing twice for a few minutes each to catch my breath — to Lombard Street, the famed crooked road of the city. The red-bricked road is open to motor vehicles only, but there are stairs for pedestrians that flank the corkscrews of the road. I don’t know why anyone would own a home on that road because the crowds Lombard Street attracts are huge, but it’s a neat little diversion in the city. My only wish was that I could have skipped the stairs and ran up and down the entire stretch on the main road itself.

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I walked back down the steep hill to Ghirardelli Square to go to the original Ghirardelli ice cream shop, despite the sourdough still weighing me down. For my belated dessert, I indulged in the Crissy Field — the Cookie Bits sundae consisting of a scoop of vanilla ice cream and two scoops of cookies and cream ice cream topped off with whipped cream, chunks of chocolate chip cookies, hot fudge, and Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel Minis. It was so good and so sweet and so rich and so filling — I barely finished the scoops of ice cream before they melted and the chocolate caramel minis, but the second half of chocolate chip cookie chunks defeated me. When I take my next trip to Orlando, I’m going to the Ghirardelli at Disney Springs, ordering the Crissy Field, and finishing everything this time around.

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Bloated, I walked to the nearest bus stop and waited alongside a fellow 20-something and her mother visiting from Chicago, so we ended up talking sports and food in the Windy City until their bus arrived. (I could have done without the food talk for once.) After 20 minutes of waiting and a 20 minute ride west, I arrived at one of the most beautiful sites in the country: the Golden Gate Bridge.

I spent 1.5 hours staring at the bridge and the vista surrounding it, savoring every minute of that beautiful view and the fresh air. This redeemed the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge a couple years ago — through the window of a bus for about two minutes, because I needed to stay on that bus and get back to SFO before the end of my 3.5 hour layover.

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The weather cooperated with stare down against the red-orange Golden Gate Bridge: clear sky, sunny, no fog. The ideal conditions made the structure and its surroundings look like they were ripped straight from a painting. It’s a testament to the engineers and construction crew who designed and built the bridge to blend in seamlessly with the mountains and Pacific Ocean that share the space.

After I had my fill, I took a bus back downtown, walked to my hotel, checked-in, and went to sleep an hour later.

It was 7 pm when I turned in for the night.


I went to bed at dinner time for normal human beings so I could wake up at the ungodly time of 4:30 am to catch a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. An hour later, I was at the bridge for a sunrise run at the historic landmark, an item on the bucket list I can check off. The temperature was in the comfortable 50s, but strong winds made it feel about 10 degrees cooler as I shivered through my pre-run stretches.

Running the bridge was way more fun than standing around and just looking at the bridge. My arrival at dawn meant I basically had the whole pedestrian path on the bridge to myself during the run. I’d run; stop to take pictures of the bridge, the ocean, the mountains, or Alcatraz; continue running; stop to take more pictures of the landscape and bridge. After the second stop, I forced myself to continue uninterrupted into the Marin County side of the bridge.

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The span of the bridge is 1.7 miles, so a round trip between the San Francisco end and the Marin County end equates to a 5K and change. I couldn’t have asked for a better run: just me, the sunrise, the mountains, the ocean, and the wind. Those 30-ish minutes were bliss with Earth.

The rest of the day went up and down after that. I went to the Pig and Whistle with about 50 other Crystal Palace supporters to watch our club lose the FA Cup Final in heartbreaking fashion in extra time. The loss still stings, but the friendships I made there sort of make up for it.

I then went to Ike’s Place to try ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jaymee Sire’s “Jaymee Sirewich,” the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had. The fried chicken is topped with a mustard-based BBQ sauce, lettuce, and tomatoes, all of which is sandwiched within a sourdough (of course) roll. The wait for the sandwich was about 20 minutes and it’s messy to eat, but it was worth the wait and the napkin shortage I incurred.

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Afterward, I made my way to AT&T Park to watch my Cubs play against the San Francisco Giants. Outside of Wrigley Field, AT&T Park is the most beautiful baseball stadium I’ve visited — the San Francisco Bay is the perfect backdrop for the retro-classic design of the ballpark, like what the Thames is to Fulham’s Craven Cottage. I’m glad I enjoyed the sights and sounds of AT&T park, because the Cubs joined Palace in the defeated circle after suffering a 5-3 loss to the Giants. The Cubs scattered 10 hits, but couldn’t execute the timely hits to drive home runners in scoring position, while starter Jon Lester gave up all five runs and got pulled before the end of the third inning.

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But my last day in the Bay Area ended on a high note at The Social Hall, where I watched my favorite band Idlewild perform its first West Coast show in a decade. After waiting 10 years for the band to return to the United States on tour, the Scottish band’s stop in San Francisco marked the third time I attended a concert of theirs in a seven month span. (I would make it four Idlewild concert dates in seven months a couple days later when I flew down to Los Angeles to watch the band perform at the Sunset Strip’s Roxy Theatre.)

The show ended at midnight and I made it to my hotel shortly before 1 am. After cleaning and packing, I fell asleep at 2 am. My phone alarm went off at 3:30 am—time to check-out. I had a 6 am flight to Los Angeles to catch.

And that’s how I ended my 48 hours in San Francisco the same way I started it: exhausted.

Temporary Texan: Not in Love

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The arrival of my Friday, April 29, 2016, flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Dallas Love Field was scheduled for 10:50 pm. Perfect timing. I could toss out a “FRIDAY I’M IN LOVE” check-in to Love Field after the Southwest Boeing 737 hit the tarmac and the flight attendant announced that we could now use our mobile devices.

But a storm rolled into Baltimore and hovered over the airport. The Southwest gate attendant for my flight held a contest for the passengers to see who could fold a paper airplane that would fly the longest distance. Twenty passengers took up the challenge; two planes tied for the longest distance and went into a sudden death fly-off to decide the winner. The first finalist threw his paper airplane straight up into the ceiling. The second contestant gently tossed his plane in such a way that it glided in a straight line for the win.

Another hour passed after the end of the paper airplane contest before we were allowed to board our flight. The delay pushed our arrival into Dallas close to 1 am on Saturday. Golden social media opportunity missed.

After sleeping over in the airport, I picked up the rental car and drove off toward Fort Worth for breakfast at — where else? — a Whataburger, the ubiquitous fast food chain that can be relied upon because they’re all open 24 hours. I had a Whatburger, then hopped back in the car and continued west to the campus of Texas Christian University. Tim, a friend of mine from high school who moved to Dallas after our freshman year, attended TCU, and settled down in the area. I would be spending the next day with him — our first time hanging out since 2007, when he visited Orlando for Christmas — so I figured that walking the TCU campus and bringing up some observations would make for good conversation. (And for working off two percent of the calories I ingested in that Whataburger breakfast.)

The campus of TCU reminded me of the campus of home, the University of Florida. They’re both big campuses that seem tiny because all the academic buildings and athletic facilities are concentrated near each other. I spent most of my time at Amon G. Carter Stadium, the on-campus football stadium for TCU. (Did Carter’s parents have a sneaky sense of humor? Amon G.? Among?) Again, just like how UF keeps The Swamp open for people who want to run stadiums or tour the facility, TCU left one of the Carter Stadium gates open for visitors. My favorite part of the walk was learning that LaDainian Tomlinson attended TCU after stumbling upon a banner of his image in the stadium.

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After I got my fill of Horned Frogs, I drove the hour north to Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the venue for Edgefest, the 26th edition of alternative radio station KDGE 102.1 FM’s annual music festival. At the ripe old age of over-25-years-old, I don’t have the stamina to joust for position among the crowds of the General Admission pits, so I paid for a cheap seat in the stadium to watch the sets. The Struts turned in an amusing set that was half concert, half audience participation, with the lead singer getting the pit to follow his directions on when to sing, dance, or shout. I liked the tunes that The Joy Formidable and Foals chose for their sets; the volume of their instruments overpowered the microphones of their lead singers and I didn’t hear many lyrics.

I burned under the sun for 1.5 hours listening to these good bands, plus two others I don’t remember because I’m writing this two months after the fact, as the opening acts for the 20-minute set I traveled down to Texas for: Chvrches. Maintaining my three year streak of seeing the Scottish trio live, especially with Clearest Blue — my favorite song from the band — anchoring their setlists this year was the main excuse for visiting Dallas.

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The trip was worth it. The sound team for Chvrches has been amazing in every intimate, indoor venue I’ve seen the band play in, but Edgefest was the first time I heard the band in a large setting. The sound crew nailed the acoustics for the open-air environment without a hitch; the synthesizers blasted my ears, but they complemented the voice of lead singer Lauren Mayberry, whose lyrics I could still hear clearly.

On Sunday, the first day of May, I returned to Fort Worth to meet up with Tim and catch up on the last nine years. (That took all day.) Our first stop was turn around and return to Arlington for brunch at Mac’s Bar and Grill, which has the excellent Eggs Point St. George, an Eggs Benedict with crab meat, and the all-you-can-eat cinnamon roll bar. Then we made the short drive to watch the Texas Rangers host the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (Orange County California United States Earth The Universe… apologies to Owen Meany) at Globe Life Park to knock out ballpark 11/30 on my tour.

The thing I didn’t find out until I arrived at Globe Life Park is that the ballpark sits across the street from Arlington’s second theme park, Jerry World, the behemoth AT&T Stadium that looks more like a grounded unidentified flying object than the home of the Dallas Cowboys. The contrast between the two stadiums is striking and, in a way, apt for how baseball and football have entrenched themselves into American culture. The colossus that is AT&T Stadium is futuristic-looking, a large and out-of-place building in what’s otherwise an office park area of Arlington, while the retro design of Globe Life Park evokes the nostalgia for pre-1960’s ballparks and Texan pride with a pattern of longhorns painted throughout the exterior.

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The Rangers tossed out ace Cole Hamels — who threw a no-hitter against my Cubs the last time I saw him — against the Angels’ Opening Day starter, Garrett Richards. Despite two top-of-the-rotation starters pitted against each other, this game was so painful to watch because there was too much offense. The Angels’ 9-6 victory over the Rangers that day came with a combined 28 hits, 17 left on base, and my soul withering away as the game broke the three-hour mark. The game came to a merciful end 33 minutes later.

After the game, Tim and I celebrated our survival of LOB baseball with dinner at Babe’s Chicken House. For the low price of about $13.00 per person, you get four giant pieces of fried chicken and family-style sides of collared greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, salad, and biscuits. And this being Texas, the meal isn’t complete with a glass of sweet tea.

But as great as everything up there sounds — and it is all excellent food — let’s talk about those biscuits. Placed at the center of every table are glass containers of honey and molasses. The honey and molasses are to be poured on those biscuits. This may seem unimportant to everyone else in the world in the face of fried chicken, but for me, this was a dream come true.

Molasses was back in my life.

Thanks to Babe’s, I had molasses in a meal for the first time since fourth grade, when my class had a Little House on the Prairie lunch with venison and molasses and other stuff the Ingalls family ate. I poured molasses on top of the first biscuit and ate the soaked biscuit with a fork and knife. For the second biscuit, I stole an idea from a neighboring table and cut the biscuit in half, so that the bread in the center was exposed, and saturated each half of the open biscuit with molasses. (Turns out that’s the proper way to do things with biscuit and molasses, but Tim and I didn’t know that.) My pairing of the biscuits with the sweet tea would have earned me a scolding from Wilford Brimley.

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After we finished our meal, Tim told our waitress that I was visiting Arlington in my trek to watch a game at all 30 MLB ballparks.

“Have you been to Wrigley Field yet?” she asked me.

“Of course! It’s my hometown club. I’m a Cubs fan,” I said.

“So am I!”

No freakin’ way.

She spent part of her childhood south of Rockford, Illinois, then her dad moved the family down to Texas for a job, where she’s lived since. She said she’d return to Wrigley over the summer to play the Rangers and that she wants a Cubs-Rangers World Series this season so that she could try to attend a game.

One tiny dream came true in Babe’s on that May Day when the molasses landed on the biscuits. Based on the Cubs’ NL-leading record of 51-26 and the Rangers’ AL-leading record of 51-28 (as of the morning of June 30, 2016), her dream may also become a reality in the fall. Let’s hope it does.

Temporary Texan: Seven Hours in San Antonio

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The three-hour drive west on Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio starts with four lanes of highway in Houston. After passing Katy, the interstate gradually narrows to two lanes; the suburban amenities of restaurants, gas stations, and big box stores give way to miles of trees and grass for grazing; and the speed limit jumps from 60 mph to 80 mph. But what defines this section of the 10 as uniquely Texan are the work zone signs that reduce the speed limit to a mere 60 mph in the presence of construction workers. Safety first!

I undertook the long drive for this reason: dinner at Cured at Pearl. In an uncommon example that the site can be used for good, Twitter told me about Cured, and then I looked up the menu. Five glorious words on that document told me it would be worth the trip: PORK CHEEKS POUTINE (‘Nuff Said).

But since Cured doesn’t open up for dinner until 5 pm, I figured I could use the day to fulfill the obligatory tourist visits to the Riverwalk and the Alamo and partake in Fiesta. Fiesta is a two-week festival that takes over San Antonio; everyone comes together to celebrate the diverse cultural heritage of the city. It’s amazing how Fiesta has evolved into a world renowned spectacle, considering its humble roots in the 1890s as a single parade held in celebration of the defenders of the Alamo. The Fiesta Flambeau Parade, the largest illuminated parade in America, was scheduled for 7 pm. As I drove around downtown looking for an open parking garage, people were already camping out for spots along Broadway, the main corridor of the parade.

It was 11 am when I drove by these folks.

I parked the rental car in the parking garage of a Hilton just off the highway and began the walk through the Market Street and Commerce Street branches of the Riverwalk. Similarly to the tidal basin in Washington, D.C., the Riverwalk is a scenic site with plenty of photo opportunities and plenty of people — and the fear that you could fall into the water with how narrow the walkways become because they’re always packed with people. The crowds swelled that day for a happy reason: new members of the Air Force in their cadet blues took a day trip with their families to the city to celebrate the end of field training.

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The walk through the two branches of the Riverwalk finished in about 1.5 hours. My favorite segment was the Arneson River Theater along the Market branch. The river separates the stage — which features the façade of a villa — from the grass steps that the audience sits on. It’s a relatively tiny venue, but there’s an air of tranquility about it because of its size and the physical break between stage and seats. Although I passed through in the heat of midday, the theater seems like an ideal place to spend evening under the stars.

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After the Riverwalk, I made my way to the Fiesta carnival outside Cathedral of San Fernando. There were dueling concerts going where the music somehow didn’t interfere with each other and plenty of concession stands. It was tempting to grab a full meal here, but with Cured looming a few hours away, I went for a bag of mini churros instead.

As I continued walking around the cathedral while chomping on churros, I got my firsthand lesson on the importance of medals in Fiesta. The people of San Antonio are serious about collecting them — scores of people walked by me wearing sashes covered in medals or shirts with a quadrant adorned with them. The people loaded with medals embodied how I imagined Pokemon trainers would wear their eight badges when they made the Victory Road trek to the Elite Four. (/nerd)

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I turned my walk around Cathedral of San Fernando into a 10 minute walk to the Alamo. When I learned about the Battle of the Alamo and “Remember the Alamo” in school, I expected a sprawling fort akin to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Castillo San Cristobal. After all, why else would a bunch of Americans and a few Europeans hunker down there and fight to the bitter end?

When I arrived at the site, I had to do a double take. Sure, the façade standing right in front of me looked like the Alamo, but from my spot at the cenotaph across the street, the entirety of the Alamo was at eye level with me. The building seemed too short and too narrow to be *The* Alamo. Then I went inside the historic site, found out that what I knew of the Alamo — the façade ahead of me — was a chapel on a former Catholic mission, and the size of the compound made more sense to me. The Alamo was never designed for war; man just turned it into a spot for battle, because that’s what man does best.

In light of its history, I like how the Alamo is now a research facility and a quiet place for reflection, even with many tourists like me wandering around the grounds. After I finished my tour, I took a seat in the second row of an outdoor theater within the facility where I could escape the heat and drink the All Sport I bought at a vending machine outside the bathrooms. (Who knew All Sport still existed? Of course I had to buy one; it had been 10 years since I last saw a bottle of the drink. The lemon lime still tastes the same, just without the carbonation.)

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There was a guy my age seated at the top row on the opposite end of the theater. He broke the silence and the physical distance separating us by doing something that’s pretty foreign to my generation: talking to me. I told him my name, that I was just visiting, and it was my first time in San Antonio. He told me his name, that he has spent his entire life in San Antonio, and that he’s a photographer for the Alamo. We were both waiting for 4:30 pm, when his girlfriend got off work, and when I could finally begin my walk to Cured.

He steered the conversation to video games. We bonded over games of the past (old Final Fantasies, Pokemon, Halo, whatever) and debated whether each of us should get a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. He’s a good guy whose willingness to open up to a stranger became a big highlight of my visit and I hope his photography gets to take him around the world one day.

Finally, 4:30 came and it was time to go to Cured. I had to walk the two miles to it because the Flambeau Parade ran through Broadway, the main thoroughfare between the downtown center and the restaurant, and the city closed the street to car traffic. My walk along Broadway was one of the more astounding one I’ve taken: so many people walked the streets that the scene resembled how films portray the aftermath of an apocalyptic event; scores of chairs and bleacher seats lined Broadway; food stands sold burgers, kabobs, and funnel cakes to people looking to grab dinner before the parade; street vendors rolled carts lined with light-up toys and hats to sell to people attending the parade. This was an all-out pre-parade tailgate that rivaled the tailgate atmosphere at UF before football games. (And because it’s Texas, the experience was complete with insufferable heat, too!)

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The crowds gradually thinned as I got closer to Cured. At first, I thought it was because Pearl, the neighborhood that the restaurant resides in, was more residential than downtown. But then I saw all the stores lining the entrance to Pearl were closed for the day in honor of Fiesta.

Oh boy. What does that mean for Cured?

I walked past those stores and approached the cool standalone building that houses Cured. There looked to be no one entering or exiting the restaurant or the bakery next door to it; only the coffeehouse to the left of Cured had patrons coming in and out, while other people just sat on the lawn in front of Cured, playing with their kids or taking engagement photos.

I whipped out my phone, opened up Twitter, and read Cured would be closed for Fiesta.

Womp womp.

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I sat a tad dejected on the lawn for a few minutes before I walked back toward the downtown center. Seeing the anticipation and excitement for the parade on the attendees’ faces cheered me up and I even wanted to stick around for the parade, although watching so many Disney parades killed them for me. But seven hours of fasting in the heat and a three-hour drive back to Houston before an early flight out the next day told me that it was time for me to go. I’ll have to return to San Antonio one day and spend more than a workday there for Cured, the Spurs, and more Fiesta fun.

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When I got on the highway for the drive back to Houston, I still needed a place to go for dinner. Thankfully, I knew of a restaurant that would always be open, fill me up after a long day, and have a location within minutes of where I was.

I had Whataburger for dinner. I should have gotten a medal for that.

Temporary Texan: Dining in Houston (New Yorkers Say it Wrong)

I probably should have paid rent to the state of Texas for the month of April.

Work obligations and the MLB ballpark tour combined to make me spend nine of the last 14 days in the month of April (plus the first two days of May) in The Lone Star State. I set up shop in Houston for the first six days for work, split the seventh day between San Antonio and Houston, returned to the Northeast for five days, then settled down in Dallas-Fort Worth for the last two days of April (plus the first two days of May).

Yeah, exhausting.

Part one of this three-part set of posts focuses on Houston. San Antonio and Dallas will each get their own bits afterward.


As soon as I landed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on 17 April, I was in a race against time.

My 2:30 pm landing gave me about two hours before the 5 pm closing time for Killen’s Barbeque in Pearland, an hour south of the airport. This was the top item of places to visit in Houston because of The Dan Patrick Show’s Paul Pabst, who repeatedly name dropped the restaurant as the home of the best brisket he’s had. To test Pabst’s assertion (and because I fasted all day for this), I opted for a two meat plate of brisket, macaroni and cheese, and creamed corn.

Oh my God, Paulie was right.

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The brisket was flavorful on its own, but I’m a barbeque sauce guy, so I poured some of the sweet barbeque sauce at Killen’s on a few slices of brisket. The great thing about the sauce was that I didn’t need to pour a lot of it on the brisket to taste the tangy flavor of the sauce. The smooth texture of the creamed corn and the macaroni and cheese complemented the brisket without completing for stomach space — I didn’t feel bloated finishing the sides before the meat. The food was so delicious, I had to remind myself to take sips of the sweet tea sitting behind the tray.

I finished up at Killen’s right as the restaurant closed at 5 pm, took the non-toll highways west to Katy, and checked into my hotel. By 7 pm, the storms rolled into the Houston area.

The torrent didn’t end until 4 pm the following day.

With so much rain hitting Houston in a short period of time, flooding hit the metropolitan area. The local TV news coverage avoided the silly practice of airing live shots of reporters driving through flooded roads. Instead, stories focused on the rescue efforts being made by civilians and emergency crews alike, city hall’s response to the disaster, and the road closures caused by the flooding — solid coverage all around.

The storms cancelled my first day of training for work. Ensconced in a hotel room where the power flickered on and off throughout the day, I watched portions of the Boston Marathon when the power stayed on, used the elliptical machine at the gym for my first cardio of 2016 (a pinched nerve sidelined me), and pondered over where to grab dinner when the rain subsided. I zeroed in on one place once lunchtime passed and I had nothing for that time of the day: Whataburger.

Whataburger is to Houston as Dunkin’ Donuts is to the northeast United States: a ubiquitous establishment that pops up every mile. The sun shone over the entire distance I drove between my hotel and the nearest Whataburger — a five minute drive. I ordered the No. 1 meal: the classic Whataburger with cheese, fries, and a medium drink. The burger is simple — lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, cheese — but juicy and filling. The fries were a little plain because they weren’t salted, but that was fine with me because I had Whataburger’s fancy ketchup to add some flavor to the potatoes.

The cup for a medium drink embraced the philosophy of “Everything’s bigger in Texas”: a 32 ounce Styrofoam Big Gulp waiting for me to fill it with sweet tea.

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Because of the cheap prices, filling meals, the high number of nearby locations, and the 24-hour service, I ate at a Whataburger for dinner three out of the six full days I spent in Houston. Except for a quick trip to BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse for a pizookie, I spent the remaining dinners with friends who knew the local restaurants with broader palettes for dinner.

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One of those restaurants my friends took me to was Uchi, a hip Japanese plate and sushi restaurant that you visit for a date night of splurging. My dates for Uchi: the couple I became friends with at an October taping of Colbert’s Late Show. I wasn’t much of a sushi guy when I arrived, but Uchi changed my perspective — I’m a believer in the dish now. The hama chili treats the taste buds to a duel between the spiciness of the Thai chili and the cool sweetness of the orange supreme. The Brussel sprouts, a vegetable I never eat in normal life, were cooked in such a way that they tasted like meat. My pals gave me a plate of the biendo makimono, and even though we’ve only seen each other for two days in our lives, they knew me well; the tempura shrimp spring roll and grapes of the biendo combined for a sweet, candy taste that gelled perfectly with my anti-sour preferences.

The last noteworthy food place I made time for in Houston: the massive H-E-B grocery store at Bunker Hill, the second largest grocer I’ve visited behind the Loblaws at Maple Leaf Garden. The wares at H-E-B had the usual stuff you see at any grocer, but the real local treat was the opportunity to take home Whataburger ketchup, mustard, and barbeque sauce. (If I didn’t have to fly back to my place, I would have.) However, my hotel had a fridge, which presented me the unique opportunity to buy a sheet cake and chocolate milk for myself. I mean, what else would you use a fridge in a hotel room for?

I bought the cake and the bottles of Promised Land midnight chocolate milk—the best chocolate milk out there, which the great grocer Publix introduced me to — on a Tuesday night and had until check-out Saturday morning to finish the cake. The cake seemed small enough and easy to finish by Friday and my consumption of the cake proceeded at a speedy rate at first. The chocolate cake and buttercream frosting was as close to the perfection that is a Publix cake that I’ve had since I left Florida. That kept me going through Tuesday and Wednesday; it was my breakfast before training and midnight snack while studying.

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By Thursday night, I realized I made a huge mistake getting this sheet cake.

The buttercream frosting, while delicious, started to become a hindrance because of how filling it was alone. Plus there’s that health concern of ingesting so much sugar when there is a history of diabetes in the family, but hey, I didn’t that far in advance when I bought the cake. All I saw was the chance to put a fridge to good use.

On Saturday morning, I finished the cake and the last of the chocolate milk for breakfast. I’m a survivor of gluttony. (I’ve only had two slices of cake since.)

Finally, my trip to Houston wouldn’t be complete without squeezing in some time for the MLB Ballpark Tour. In a wonderful coincidence of great timing, the Houston Astros began a homestand at Minute Maid Park against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, hours after I took my final exam for training. (Two of my classmates had the idea to also attend the game and we met for a mini class reunion at a bar across from the ballpark before the game.)

Minute Maid Park was stadium number 10 out of 30 on my trek, but for the first time, I didn’t attend a game alone. I took my musically-inclined friend from Rice University to the game — her first baseball game, period — as part of what we called a “cultural exchange.” The night before, I attended her final recital at Rice instead of studying for my final, where I learned that chamber orchestra pieces are longer than the ones that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd used for their operatic cartoons. Nope, pieces don’t last a mere 10 minutes — they go as long as 1.5 hours without a break. I had no problem with that, though; in fact, I felt cultured and enlightened after the lengthy performance. (Yes, she knowingly withheld the run time of the concert when we talked in the locker area afterward.)

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So it was my turn to teach my friend the basics of baseball while watching the Red Sox slug the Astros out of the park. Going over the many nuances and rules in baseball with her opened my eyes to just how convoluted and complicated the simple game of hitting a ball with a wooden bat is. Describing infield shifts hurt my brain; explaining a sac fly and the quirks of baserunning gave me ulcers. The only person I described with ease was David “Big Papi” Ortiz, whom she saw up close for the first time during batting practice. Based on the atmosphere, the beauty of the Minute Maid Park, that silly train, the batting practice baseball that almost hit her in the outfield, the Blue Bell cookie dough ice cream we had, and all the offense that the Red Sox provided, I think she had as much fun at the game as I had at the concert. You’re welcome, Rob Manfred.

Next up: a road trip to San Antonio.

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