Monday, 25 January 2021

US Open elevates tennis on a grand scale

Once again, I have made my way back to New York City, and thanks to a two-day press credential issued by the United States Tennis Association, I returned to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows to bask in the glow of the opening day festivities of the US Open Tennis Tournament.


This year, kicking off the two-week marathon, the evening ceremony honored Althea Gibson with her induction into the US Open Court of Champions in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her historic title victory at the US National Championships.


Only three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Althea became the first African American to do the same in the tennis world. It would take a few years, but in 1957, Althea was the first African American, male or female, to win a Grand Slam tournament in the United States. The tribute to this pioneering African American woman featured a rousing musical performance by the legendary Aretha Franklin.


Unlike other sporting events that focus on a single game at a time, the US Open offers more tennis matches than anyone could possibly absorb all at once. Day and night sessions occur at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the primary venue that has assigned seating. Meanwhile, daytime matches occur at the Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand, two venues with a mix of assigned seating and first-come, first-served accommodations.


As if that is not enough, tennis matches were also taking place opening day on 12 additional courts that have only limited seating capacity.


Choices have to be made, and on this first day of tennis, I was joined by an old friend, a former college professor who has serious knowledge of the rules of tennis. Courtesy of CBS Sports, we had two tickets for the Arthur Ashe Stadium, but judiciously chose to move about other venues as well.


Now my friend was probably more annoyed than amused by my limited knowledge of tennis rules, and as if to underscore my ignorance, I purposely asked dumb questions. At a tennis match, you don’t ask who’s throwing out the first pitch and how many innings are played in one set. As a player rushes the net for a ball certain to drop low, one doesn’t yell “slide.” As a matter of fact, tennis is a game of decorum in which silence is golden during play.


One thing to keep in mind about the early rounds of the US Open tournament is that the top-seeded players face opponents who may be unranked and qualified for tournament play in a number of ways that I am unable to explain.


Roger Federer, the Swiss phenomenon, is ranked No. 1, and this year he is bidding to become the first man since Bill Tilden in 1923 to collect a fourth consecutive US Open Championship title. On opening day at Arthur Ashe, Federer breezed to three straight set wins over American Scoville Jenkins.


It was the most boring match of the day, as Federer hardly worked up a sweat. In fact, the only press that Federer generated on this day was by responding to a press conference question about Althea Gibson by saying “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Apparently his grasp of tennis history is confined to more recent times.


My friend wisely picked the match between young American John Isner, a wild card ranked at No. 192, and Jarkko Nieminen from Finland, ranked No. 26. This showdown was scheduled for the Louis Armstrong Stadium, where we were fortunate to grab a pair of unassigned seats.


The match was the towering upset of the day, in which the 22-year-old American, having played earlier this year for the University of Georgia, made a remarkable Grand Slam debut by toppling one of the game’s craftiest players with both power and panache.


Despite some bone-headed plays and questionable shot selections, the lanky Isner, standing 6 feet 9 inches, played a quality match with his powerful serve. On this day, the young American became the crowd favorite, and eventually he moved on to a third round shot at Roger Federer.


The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are also crowd favorites, so perhaps it was fitting that they would play in the featured matches of the opening night session, although obviously not against each other.


Venus, ranked No. 12, easily dispatched her Hungarian opponent, Kira Nagy, in two straight sets. Meanwhile, Serena, ranked No. 8, who has not played since Wimbledon due to injury, didn’t have as sharp an outing in this first round as her sister, having to work a bit harder to secure at 6-3, 7-5 victory over her German opponent, Angelique Kerber.


Given that the Althea Gibson ceremony kicked off the night session, it seemed only proper that the African American sisters would play the featured matches.


Another fan favorite is American player James Blake, currently ranked No. 6. He even has his own rooting section, known as the “J-Block,” where his fans sport the same type of headband Blake always wears.


In a rare matchup with a fellow American, Blake was a featured player on the second day at Arthur Ashe, beating Michael Russell after surviving two tense tiebreakers. Blake’s style of play is fun to watch, but he’s somewhat erratic and prone to mistakes that can prove costly.


With the possibility of spending an entire day at the US Open, it is no small matter that the best food concessions in sports are found in Flushing Meadows. Courtside box holders have access to filet mignon and crab cakes at the Aces restaurant. Regular folks can get a Maine lobster club sandwich and all sorts of international foods in more casual dining areas.


Just as the Kentucky Derby has its mint julep, the US Open is pushing its own signature cocktail, the Honey Deuce, a concoction put together by Grey Goose that blends vodka and lemonade with a float of Chambord raspberry liqueur. Sadly, two days is not enough time to sample all the great food and libations.


Tim Riley writes movie and television reviews for Lake County News.


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