Tuesday, August 30, 2011

US Open And The Looming Fifth Major

No matter what is going on in my life, I always approach opening day at the US Open with childlike awe. Yesterday was no exception.

Family members and friends know this routine: we must be ready on time and leave home promptly; we worry about where we will park despite many years of experience finding just the right spot; we must park very near the exit directly on to the Whitestone Expressway; we must not dawdle while walking from Shea (now Citi, but old habits don't even fade away) over Roosevelt Avenue to the Open entrance; we must get on a short line; finally, there will be a period lasting about an hour, during which I will want to see a piece of every match in progress on the Field Courts; I will not go near Ashe or Louis for hours, if at all.

And, while we're at it, we may as well share the following with you, Dear Readers, since we tell it each year to anyone close by: 1) I attended the first game ever at Shea in 1964, 2) my high school tennis team practiced at Sterling Tennis's red clay courts, now gone, which were a few hundred yards east BJK-TC off Roosevelt; 3) I have been coming here to play or watch tennis and whatever you call what the Mets do forever.

Now, let's take a look at the numbers:

  • There are 256 men and women in both draws: only 29 of them, 11%, are from the US.
  • There are 64 total seeds in the mens' and women's draws: 4 of them, 6%,  are from the US; only one, that is to say, a singleton seed in the Mens' Singles!
  • 11 of the 29 Americans in the open, 38%,  are Wild Cards, who were granted entry despite current rankings or playing records. A total of 3 WC's come from other countries.
  • There are 15 US women in the US Open; Russia has 16 women in the US Open. Russia.
  • There are 14 US Men in the US Open; France has 14 men and Spain has 13. France.
  • During the years 1985-2010*, 3 American men have been US Champion a total of 8 times.
  • In the same period, 3 American women have been US Champion a total of 6 times, only one of them not named Williams.
  • Total base Prize Money for the US Open is $23,718,000. This is not a typo.

Numbers don't lie. American tennis has been fading for years and is now on life support.

Despite this fact, you will see a fabulous international pageant in Flushing, and we urge you to go. Many affordable tickets are available this week through the Open Ticket Exchange. Okay, so you won't find many American players. Young Americans have apparently abandoned tennis in favor of many other sports, while others, notably from Eastern Europe, especially women, have embraced the sport.

You will see some long baseline rallies, but you will not see many volleys. We watched two German women, Kristina Barrois and Julia Goerges (you know her; she's seeded 19th!) play on Court 11. They both treated net-play as if it was like crossing an autobahn blindfolded. They seemed terrified to try it.

In fairness to the women, we also watched Alex Dolgopolov (you know him; he's seeded 22nd!) play Frederico Gil. Alex D floated soft spinning backhand after soft spinning backhand and Gil would not venture to the net to put them away. Consequently he was put away, quickly and early.

We watched one of the Frenchman, Gasquet (13), play the first-ever match on the new, beautifully designed Court 17. The next match there featured the German, Tommy Haas, a US crowd favorite vs.......yes, another Frenchman. All of them seemed truly frightened by the net, and so stayed far away.

Still, we love the international flavor of the place, the good company of friends, the bright sun and the ability to stroll through the field courts and pick and choose matches to watch for as long or short a time as we please.

Best Vantage, Behind Courts
Last night, back at home (after a perfect exit form Shea parking!)we watched, sort of, as Federer (3) played Giraldo. It was mildly comic to listen to the McEnroe brothers try to inject some enthusiasm into the festivities.

They talked and talked as if filling in the gaps of a Mets game across the road, but they never mentioned what was painfully obvious to anyone paying the least bit of attention: the match was boring, excruciatingly so except for the fact that Fed was there to gaze upon. They never mentioned the "b" word, never mentioned that maybe it's time to cut the early mens' rounds to three sets from five...

...And they never mentioned the thousands of empty blue seats**, visible to everyone in TV land. How long can the US Open remain the US Open, with $23Million in prize money, when everything is put together so well, but Americans just aren't interested in tennis anymore?

5th Major?
Russia and China are lurking as possible new 5th Major locations (or 4th replacing Australia?). Offering twice the prize money in either place, at a time of their own choosing, might seem like an offer the players cannot refuse. Maybe then Americans will begin to pick up racquets once again and place them into their childrens' hands, while locking up the lacrosse sticks, football helmets, and soccer cleats.

*It was something of a surprise to check the previous 25 year (1960-1985) American record to find: only 3 American men, but 10 titles, and only 4 American women won...14 titles. That record, by a few players, built the current popularity of the US Open.

**In fairness, it was the day after Irene and many were still caring for their homes or stuck in an airport. But, still, you'd thing the powers that be would have let people fill the lower seats for the TV cameras.

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