Early dominance and spectacular shots for Federer

Greetings from Flushing Meadows and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, site of the US Open! I caught plenty of action on the grounds during the day, and night matches on Arthur Ashe on day two of the tournament. There’s far too much to report, but I’ll give it my best. 

A quick note: the great thing about the US Open is that you really do get to watch tennis from about as close as possible, at least on the side courts in the early rounds. You are actually all but on top of the players, to the extent that you can hear every curse screamed in Serbian, every softly spoken “Vamos!” and every sound of the ball fizzing across the court, propelled with much greater speed than normal people, or even normal rocket launchers, are capable of mustering.

Arriving a little later than I would have liked (matches start at 11 AM, I arrived at about 1 PM due to a meeting), I immediately started running in circles, attempting to see as much as I could. I peeked in an exit hallway on Court 17 to see the first Japanese man to break the top ten, Kei Nishikori, serve out his first round match. 

I popped over to a side court to see one of the next generation of American players, Noah Rubin, lose definitively to Federico Delbonis of Argentina (remember, Rubin just took the boys’ singles title at Wimbledon and received an entry to the Open this year for winning the junior US championship. He may end up playing more junior tournaments before all is said and done). 

Then I dashed over to try and see the end of Ivo Karlovic’s match, wanting to see what his huge serves look like in person. Sadly, I arrived too late, but decided to stick around the area, watching one 34-year-old qualifier, Victor Estrella Burgos turn his match around while I waited to catch a glimpse of Andy Murray (the last of the Big Four that I haven’t seen in person) on the practice courts. I also caught a little of Milos Raonic on the practice courts, who will look to break through emphatically after reaching the Wimbledon semis this year. It was Estrella Burgos’ debut at the Open, and at 34, he is the oldest player to make his first appearance there, as well as the first person to represent the Dominican Republic. 

Things slowed down a bit after that, when I realized that I just couldn’t see everything, though I certainly tried. It’s a sad thing when you know there’s so much awesome tennis going on that you’re just going to have to catch highlights of later. I saw a little of Eugenie Bouchard on Court Louis Armstrong looking rather impressive in easily dispatching her opponent in straight sets, then zipped over to Court 17 again to catch Richard Gasquet finishing his takedown of Denis Istomin.

By then, we were closing in on 5 o’clock, and an unseeded Japanese woman had taken the first set off Victoria Azarenka (seeded 16th and working her way back from injury, but still) over on Grandstand. While Grandstand wasn’t my original plan, my interest was piqued by Azarenka’s surprising loss, plus it helped that one of my favorite players to watch, Gael Monfils, was up next there. I figured I would catch the rest of Azarenka, some of Monfils, and then take my seat in Arthur Ashe for the main event of the night: Roger Federer, followed by Serena Williams. 

Azarenka’s opponent, Misaki Doi, just would not allow Azarenka to run away with either of the final two sets, and they traded breaks for five games before Azarenka overpowered her to take the second. It was all Azarenka on the scoreline in the third, but watching it told a different story. Doi didn’t make errors so much as Azarenka made winners. 

Scorelines in tennis are some of the least reflective of what the action on the court might actually have been like, it isn’t neatly reducible to a series of numbers, like a baseball game. It takes nuance to see what’s happening under the surface. It takes some depth of knowledge to see that while a player may have only won a few more points over the course of a set than another, she may have beaten her opponent by one break or two, and a 6-3 set score might seem straightforward, but it can mean a single break or two breaks, and it contains no way to discern how the set actually progressed.

But I digress. As I was watching the Monfils-Jared Donaldson match (another American wild card), a guy behind me was going on and on about the young American, about how much better he was than many of the American young guns, like Rubin or Stefan Kozlov, how he could be top ten, what a confident person he was, yada yada yada. Donaldson started out strongly, winning his first service game and then getting three break points on Monfils’s serve in the next. Monfils then easily won the next five points to take the game and threw him a look of “welcome to the big time, kid.” I couldn’t help but think that the showman Monfils did it on purpose. 

Donaldson fought really hard, and gave Monfils a decent run for his money (for a first round match) but the athletic Frenchman was too much for him, and he made too many errors, cracking under the pressure of the moment. However, the straight-set victory scoreline for Monfils in no way illustrates how well Donaldson played, the intensity with which he took his game to a vastly superior and more experienced player, and that though he went down, he went down swinging. I actually believe he could be top ten at some point, and I feel pretty privileged to have seen his first US Open match. 

Jared Donaldson, one of America's next generation of young tennis players, made his US Open debut against Gael Monfils on Tuesday. He lost convincingly, but there is hope for the future.

Jared Donaldson, one of America’s next generation of young tennis players, made his US Open debut against Gael Monfils on Tuesday. He lost convincingly, but there is hope for the future.

On to Federer. This year he has opted for a variation on the Darth Federer all-black outfit with which he captured the title in 2007, and came out against Marinko Matosevic of Australia looking strong. I’ve realized that it isn’t the shots that he makes that makes him so special. Lots of players hit really great passing shots. It’s the way that he makes you feel it’s a foregone conclusion that he will hit them. 

He’s just effortless out there, floating around on a different plane than almost all of his opponents, the racket an extension of his arm and natural movements, ostensibly playing tennis but really playing a different game entirely. What got me the most wasn’t that I kept leaving my seat to clap for some spectacular shot or other. It’s that I had this stupid grin on my face as I did it, wondering how what Federer does is actually still called, “tennis.” 

He hit one gorgeous backhand passing shot after another. He volleyed well and never hesitated to come in after a serve. But the crowning achievement of the night was a shot that didn’t even count. Coming to net to volley, Matosevic lobbed Fed and sent him chasing after the ball toward the baseline. The crowd started to tense up, sensing something special about to happen. Someone gave voice to it, shouting, “tweener!” referencing his spectacular between-the-legs winner against Novak Djokovic on this very same court back in the 2009 semifinals. The ball was out, but Federer attempted the tweener anyway, and hit Matosevic with the shot as the Australian had turned around before Fed reached it, sensing that it was out. The crowd roared, and Federer laughed.

As Brad Gilbert peppered the five-time champion with idiotic questions and references to Michael Jordan (in the crowd) after the victory, I realized that what he was saying wasn’t really that funny, and yet the stadium was echoing with laughter. When Roger Federer makes a joke, you laugh. That’s just how it is with champions, especially after they’ve just put on a show.

Somewhere in there I got lunch, and dinner, and perhaps a little too much sun. Somewhere in there, Petra Kvitova easily dispatched her first round opponent, and Rafael Nadal mourns the pain in his right wrist, knowing it might have been his lot to show a young American hopeful how long and hard the road to championship tennis is. Somewhere in there, the US Open swept me up with its magic and deposited me on the 7 line back to the city smiling and anticipating my next trip with bated breath (I am actually going one more time this year, to see men’s quarterfinals). Oh yeah, and Serena Williams demolished her opponent easily and looks like she might very well make it three straight in New York.

Keep it right here for more updates. I promise my next post will have a detailed look at the draw, as well as predictions for the next rounds, and the extraordinarily unlucky run of Ryan Harrison.