Flushing Meadows

Written by  //  August 28, 2011  //  Sport  //  3 Comments

I was at Flushing Meadows earlier this week – to watch the first day of the qualifying rounds for the U.S. Open – and I must say I was utterly underwhelmed. Not with the quality of the tennis, which by qualifying rounds standards was excellent, but with the general vibe of the arena.

The US Open moved from its Forest Hills venue to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 1978 at Flushing Meadows and has since then been played on hard courts. The venue has seen the tournament grow into a commercial behemoth. The place palpably lacks a sense of history; it has a plastic feel to it – you don’t get the impression that a John McEnroe or a Chris Evert once strode there with imperious grace.

There are, however, snippets of the past to consume if you are willing to walk into areas that are otherwise barren, such as the ‘Court of Champions,’ which celebrates the past winners with dedicated plaques, located near the South Gate. Even that, though, is essentially unimpressive. And barring that, all you will see is food stalls selling pretzels and pizzas, the official merchandise store selling t-shirts and caps, all at exorbitant prices.

In brief, you don’t get the feeling that you’re in a place truly historic. Yes, the arena is relatively new, but the tournament isn’t, and you would have thought greater emphasis would have been placed on its cultural significance. Sadly, however, the place brims with commercial garishness and does little justice to the repute of the event that it stages.

***

That’s enough of the rant, though. As gaudy as the arena was, the tennis was beautiful. I had the chance to recall, the late, David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay on the physics and metaphysics of tennis, titled “The String Theory.” In the paper – which I rate as one of the best pieces of writing that I’ve ever read on the sport – Wallace writes about the experience of watching Michael T. Joyce, then a top hundred player, at the qualifying rounds of the Canadian Open in Montreal. He deconstructs the game, with gorgeous delight, to explain the thin margins that separate a very good player from a truly great one.

Consider this paragraph for instance:

“Even more illuminating than watching pro tennis live is watching it with Sam Aparicio. Watching tennis with him is like watching a movie with somebody who knows a lot about the technical aspects of film: He helps you see things you can’t see alone. It turns out, for example, that there are whole geometric sublevels of strategy in a power-baseline game, all dictated by various PBers’ [read: power-baseliners] strength and weaknesses. A PBer depends on being able to hit winners from the baseline. But, as Sam teaches me to see, Michael Chang can hit winners only at an acute angle from either corner. An “inside-out” player like Jim Courier, though, can hit winners only at obtuse angles from the center out. Hence, wily and well-coached players tend to play Chang “down the middle” and Courier “out wide.” One of the things that make Agassi so good is that he’s capable of hitting winners from anywhere on the court — he has no geometric restriction. Joyce, too, according to Sam, can hit a winner at any angle. He just doesn’t do it quite as well as Agassi, or as often.”

Wallace also posits that television doesn’t let you “appreciate what real top-level players can do.” I couldn’t agree more. I have seen a few of them play at the Chennai Open and the power and the accuracy of their strokes boggles the mind. This, though, was a different opportunity for me. I was going to see some very good players from really close quarters. In some cases I was going to be at a distance no longer than six feet from the tramlines.

First up, I visited court 9. Estonia’s Jurgen Zopp was playing Sergei Bubka, the son of the legendary, world-record holding, pole-vaulter, Sergey. Bubka, 24, has been on the tour for many years now, struggling to break into the top echelons. He is ranked just outside the top 200 and has never made it to a Grand Slam main draw. As one would only expect, he is athletically built and on the evidence of this match, he has a strong serve and is particularly good on his backhand wing, which he hits with a double-handed hold. He is even capable of jumping onto it, a la Marat Safin, and hitting it with serious venom.

Bubka steamrolled Zopp in the first set, winning it 6-3, in just 25 minutes. It was only the first round of qualifying, but he seemed a class apart. His first serves were quick and placed at the edge of the service box and his second were swerving and clever.

In the second set, Zopp found greater rhythm. Bubka was still the superior player, holding his service games with ease and stretching Zopp on his. But Zopp, somehow managed to hold on to his serves, and took the set to a tiebreak. In it, the Ukrainian’s class again shone through. There were difficult moments to counter, but he served with rare confidence and took the tiebreak 7-5.

Watching from the side, I was astonished at the sheer pace of Bubka’s groundstrokes. If this was how hard the World’s 210th ranked player could hit the ball, I wondered how good the truly great players were. The margins, though, must be really thin. It cannot be merely be a case of power. While Bubka, can hit backhands on the run with amazing power and accuracy 7 times out of 10, maybe Djokovic and Nadal can make it 9 out of 10 times. Regardless, I was watching someone who is exceedingly good in his craft even if he was just short of being a great player.

***

After Bubka was through, I shifted my attention to court no. 4 where France’s Arnaud Clement, once ranked as high as no. 10, was to play Canada’s Frank Dancevic. Clement is now ranked 154 in the world, while Dancevic is 183rd.  Clement reached the finals of the Australian Open in 2001, losing in straight sets to Andre Agassi. Incidentally en route to that final he defeated a young Roger Federer. He has also reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the US Open in the past.

He is short for a tennis player – only 1.72 meters tall – but his calves are muscular. He is essentially a counterpuncher – his style involves scurrying across the baseline and making the opponent play one ball more than he would like to.

Frank Dancevic, is Canada’s third best player. He was ranked 65th in the world in 2007. But, since then troubled by back problems, his ranking has plummeted. Nonetheless, he looks a proper tennis player, athletically built, standing at 1.85 meters. He plays too, as I found out soon, beautifully.

The bleachers on Court 4 were filling up. Even though Clement was, arguably, the biggest draw of the qualifiers, the crowd was surprisingly large. Dancevic, however, was the one who shone brightest. He served hard and accurately and made Clement work very hard in his service games, pushing him around the court and dominating imperiously.

Dancevic’s backhand, I must say, is a thing of beauty. I have a particular predilection for single-handed backhands, and Dancevic’s, regardless of his ranking, was one that stood out for its sheer magnificence. Often the ball seemed to stand still, as he readied himself to stroke his backhand.

Time is often the decisive factor that separates the good from the great. Dancevic certainly had the goods on his backhand wing. He could slice it delicately, either dropping it just over the net or deep into one of the corners, with sharp spin; he could hit it flat with pace and accuracy, increasing the tempo of the point; or he could hit it with top spin, sliding the racquet head up and over the ball when striking it.

Dancevic dominated, nearly, from start to finish, winning the match 6-3, 6-3, breaking Clement’s serve four times and allowing himself to be broken only once. I had expected to watch Clement showcase his artistry, but I was nevertheless satisfied at watching, from such close quarters, a player strike his backhand with rare elegance. I suspect had Dancevic not been plagued with injuries, we may have been hearing of him more now.

***

I also watched Lithuania’s twenty-one-year-old Richard Berankis disposing off Spain’s Guillermo Alcide 6-2, 6-2 in just three-quarters of an hour. Berankis is certainly one for the future – he varies his rallies by sometimes going for power and at other times opting to change the rhythm with little slices and dabs.

France’s Caroline Garcia, who was ever so close to upsetting Maria Sharapova in the French Open, though, came up a cropper against Russia’s Regina Kulikova. Garcia won the first set, looked in fine touch, serving well and finding corners of the court with remarkable ease. But Kulikova upped her game in the second and third sets, even as Garcia’s own game began to wane. Still only eighteen, however, Garcia showed enough skill to suggest that she is likely to make a definite impact on the women’s game in the future.

***

The day, though, wasn’t only about the qualifying rounds. I saw Andrea Petkovic practice with her coaches at Louis Armstrong and she struck the ball with so much power and with so much style that I could sit there watching for hours. Robin Soderling and Mikhail Youzhny played a practice match, a little later, on the same court. Soderling, suffering in recent times with a wrist injury, certainly looked a bit off, not hitting the ball with as much as power as one is accustomed to seeing from him. Youzhny, however, made for a sublime sight, with his single-backhanded backhand glittering in the radiant sunshine. Somdev Devvarman and Janko Tipsarevic had a hit at the Grandstand stadium with the Serb pummeling the Indian from the back of the court. Somdev had his moments, but for the most part, Tipsarevic was utterly dominant.

At the end of it all, I was left a little stunned. I knew these players hit the ball with great power and found angles of geometric brilliance. But witnessing it from as close as I did, gave me a whole different perspective. Tennis, I have always thought, is the world’s most beautiful sport and any lingering doubts, have now been put firmly to rest.

3 Comments on "Flushing Meadows"

  1. Arghya August 29, 2011 at 4:24 am ·

    Lovely Suhrith.. definitely names for the future, some of them! If this is what you felt during the qualifying, can scarcely imagine what you’ll feel after watching the likes of Federer and Nadal (and Djokovic). Hope you have the right tickets!

  2. Suhrith August 30, 2011 at 3:25 pm ·

    Thanks, Arghya. I was there yesterday and should be there on Sunday too. So hopefully will get to see some of the greats.

  3. sudha hariharan September 2, 2011 at 7:38 am ·

    Liked the article. Thought the focus on the lesser known players was very insightful.
    Sudha Hariharan

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