Whacko! U.S. Open Monsters Invade

Welcome to the U.S. Open in this strange and menacing year of 2003! Forget your troubles and slouch with me toward the USTA National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows. Jump into the gridlock on the Grand Central, or mingle with the fragrant masses on the Flushing line; join the happy hordes marching over that beautifully tatty boardwalk entryway (which, to my mind, is like a dream-walk straight out of a Saul Steinberg drawing, a symbolic pathway from New York summer to New York fall). Ignore the slightly obscene ticket prices, or the fact that the closest to the action you can sit, as a non-fat-cat prole, feels a lot closer to the planes on the LaGuardia approach than to the action on the court. (Who’s that down there? Is it Tom Brokaw warming up with Heidi Klum?) Disregard the $12 hot dogs and the ever more creepily hermetic security cordon around the venue! Pay no attention to the visually neutral, anti-romantic DecoTurf II court surface (cf. Wimbledon grass and Roland Garros red clay)!

And forget Forest Hills. Not that there are 75 fans who still remember the sweet, storied and intimate suburban Queens club that stood as a living symbol of the game’s bosky yesterdays, hosting the U.S. Nationals (the tournament became the Open in 1968) from 1924 until 1977, when Flushing Meadows landed in the midst of American tennis like that colossal alien ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind .

There were many complaints about the National Tennis Center then, and there are many now. Forget them. Suck them up. Make your snail-like way out to Flushing, savoring the Zen of being a mere particle amid the throng. Bring your own refreshments. Resign yourself to that $40-minimum ducat, the grounds pass, and be a happy groundling. You could spend a lot more and see a lot less. There’s a lot of great tennis to be viewed here, as intimately as the game ought to be viewed-which is to say, right smack next to it-on the outside courts.

Wander where the crowds aren’t. Witness the awesome skill and determination of the latest Russian teenager, girl or boy, gutting it out on Court 14. Delight in the finesse and vast, cumulative tennis wisdom of the seniors-the Sherwood Stewarts and Marty Riessens and Cliff Drysdales and Eddie Dibbses. Or, if you crave bigger, newer names, camp out by the practice courts. Last year, I stuck my nose into the chain-link fence and watched in mildly horrified fascination as Andy Roddick, just a couple of feet away, hit tennis balls harder than I have ever seen a human being hit tennis balls in my life (and I’ve been watching human beings, on the tour and off, hit tennis balls since the balls were white). Patrick McEnroe, Roddick’s Davis Cup coach, was warming him up on Practice Court 1, gamely slicing and floating back the balls that Roddick kept smiting with distorting power. There was a brick utility shed behind McEnroe’s baseline, and when Roddick began to serve, for an instant I literally feared for the structural integrity of that shed.

And that wasn’t all. Three courts down, as if in some strange double vision, John McEnroe was practicing with 1987 Wimbledon champ Pat Cash. You could literally shift the focus of your eyes back and forth and witness the past and present of men’s tennis. (Although Johnny Mac, by the looks of the fury he was investing in an ostensibly meaningless match, wasn’t exactly shuffling off gently into posterity.)

Still, there are many tennis lovers who aren’t so thrilled with the game’s present. The pro game, especially on the men’s side, continues to struggle for cultural clout and TV market share: Ratings for this year’s double- who??? Wimbledon final between Swiss Roger Federer and Aussie Mark Philippoussis were the lowest ever recorded, even worse than last year’s cratering numbers for the equally American-free Lleyton Hewitt–David Nalbandian final.

Yet even though the ranks of recreational players (always an index of tennis’ general health) remain thin compared with the glory days of the mid-70’s to the mid-80’s, the Big Circus at Flushing Meadows has gotten bigger than ever, a huge moneymaker for the United States Tennis Association and a commercial bonanza for CBS Sports ….

Until, possibly, right now.

Oh, the USTA will be O.K. The Open, after all, is “The Show,” it’s New York-more people stream across that boardwalk every year, most of them (one suspects) as interested in the spectacle on the grounds as in the matches on the courts. Television, though, is another story. This is the year, you see, of No Serena and No Pete. The first year since 1971 when neither defending champion is returning to defend. A year when, due to Serena Williams’ knee surgery, an all-Williams women’s final, the biggest (one hesitates to say the only) real attention-getter in professional tennis, is an impossibility. A year when, following Pete Sampras’ all-but-official retirement, there are but two Americans-the ancient Andre Agassi, 33, playing his 18th(!) Open, and hot young gun Roddick, who will turn 21 in the middle of the tournament-among the top 20 men’s seeds.

And while the big cheeses at CBS Sports are devoutly praying for an Agassi-Roddick final, both players face a minefield of very tough, very hungry and very non-marquee foreign opponents, players such as the fifth-seeded Argentinean Guillermo Coria; his countryman, the above-mentioned 13th-seededNalbandian;the Spaniards Juan Carlos Ferrero (seeded third) and Carlos Moya (seventh); and that always riveting German, Rainer Schuettler (eighth).

On the women’s side, with Serena out and Venus nursing a pulled abdominal muscle and a waning interest in tennis, the most likely final-for a million dollars! on Saturday night!-is a replay of the French Open final between those two crazy Belgians, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

One pictures the CBS Sports guys banging their heads against their office walls, smoke coming out of their ears.

Tennis as media event has a few problems. Nowadays, beyond the Williams sisters, the game’s star power largely depends on the stars the players hang out with-à la Andy Roddick’s relationship with Mandy Moore, or Mark Philippoussis’ with Tara Reid, or Jennifer Capriati’s with Matthew Perry.

The chief problem is that a star system in any sport requires continuity. And again, beyond the Williamses, tennis has virtually none. The problem goes right back to Andy Roddick’s brick-busting strokes.

While Roddick is one of the very hardest hitters on the tour (American up-and-comer James Blake has said that even when he knows where A-Rod is going to put that 140-mile-per-hour serve, he can’t necessarily do anything about it), he is much more the rule than the exception. Space-age equipment and incessant conditioning have turned the game, both the men’s and the women’s, into a whaling exhibition. Recreational players find it harder and harder to identify with all that speed. The game is more two-dimensional, less fun to watch. And the ever-greater pace (both of the game itself and the tournament schedule) means more physical and mental stress on the players, and-especially on the men’s side, where the depth of talent is far greater than on the women’s-ever less continuity of excellence.

There are just too many strong players whanging the ball at each other, and oftener than not, the first guy to make a mistake goes down. And oftener than not, the last guy standing is a different guy than last week.

It used to be so different.

Time was, a single player-a Connors or a Borg or a McEnroe or a Lendl-could dominate the tour for months, even years at a time. Those days are gone. When Roger Federer won Wimbledon this year, he was the seventh player to win the last seven Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian, French and U.S. Opens, plus Wimbledon).

Tennis fans are less piqued by the variety than just plain bewildered. These days, you need a scorecard to tell all those Spaniards and Frenchmen and Belgians apart. Wham! Slam! Carlos who??? Sebastien wha??? It’s hard not to wax nostalgic for the dynasty days, the golden kings of yesteryear.

We had faces then.

(Actually, the sublimely gifted, second-seeded Federer, with his close-set dark eyes and little scowling mouth, has a face-he looks a lot like Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, though, while he plays like an angel, he has the personality of a bowl of Cream of Wheat. And the 6-foot-4, eighth-seeded Philippoussis-they call him “Scud” for his supersonic serve-seems to have a dark, looming menace gathered between those dark eyebrows, but that’s where the menace stays.)

Former French star Yannick Noah blames the supposed lack of color among today’s men on excessively strict code-of-conduct rules. Maybe. It’s hard, sometimes, not to miss the days when Jimmy Connors-even as he closed in on 40, for Chrissake!-could turn the stadium at Flushing, through the force of his tennis, bad-boy charm and sheer guts, into his own personal Nuremberg rally, whipping the New York fans (we were always, it seemed, thrilled to be whipped) into a slavering frenzy. Those steaming late-summer-night matches were wild. They were fun.

On the other hand, it’s easy to forget what an absolute boor Connors (or, not just to pick on Jimmy, Johnny Mac or Ilie Nastase) could be, how mortifyingly and unimaginatively obscene. It made you miss good old Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall-total gents on the court and, oh yes, both a bit of a bore, personality-wise.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

But even if the great Australian champs of yesteryear-Rocket and Rosewall and Tony Roche and John Newcombe and Lew Hoad-weren’t charismatic, their tennis, back in the wood-racquet days when everyone had a different style, was. The Aussies also had a delightful habit of unwinding with a beer or eight and occasionally breaking up the furniture. Today’s players are so deep into their relentless training regimens, and the ceaseless grind of the tour, that apart from the very occasional drug scandal, it’s hard for any spicy bad behavior to emerge, let alone a dominant figure.

There are exceptions.

Lleyton Hewitt really seemed to be going somewhere for a while. Not only did the feisty little Aussie hold a virtual hammerlock on World No. 1 throughout 2001 and 2002, he also managed to put off a good many people with his cocky demeanor. There was that wonderfully bad incident at the 2001 Open when Hewitt, during a match against the African-American James Blake, appeared to make a racist remark to a black linesman-accusing him, in effect, of favoring his ethnic fellow-and then slimily refused to ‘fess up to it afterward. (John McEnroe, from his CBS commentator’s chair, harrumphed at great length about Hewitt-inadvertently gathering the younger man into the select Superbrat fold by conveniently forgetting that he, McEnroe, had done precisely the same thing himself with an Indian linesman during a 1981 Wimbledon doubles match against the Indian Amritraj brothers.)

Then Hewitt mysteriously imploded.

Or perhaps not so mysteriously. After the men’s tour’s governing body, the Association of Tennis Professionals, fined him $35,000 for failing to show up at a press conference during last year’s Masters Tournament in Cincinnati, Hewitt took it into his head to sue the A.T.P. this past June, shortly before heading to Wimbledon and blowing up in the first round. Also coincidentally-or not-Hewitt hasn’t won a tournament in the past six months, and has won only seven matches in five tournaments since firing his coach, for unexplained reasons, in May. He has also suffered from a mysterious respiratory virus. And last week, back in Cincinnati (historically the tune-up for the Open), he lost in the first round to Belgian Xavier Malisse. Hewitt’s ranking has dropped to No. 6.

Which brings us to another problem.

Hmm … losing in the first round, to a Belgian? You see, Dr. Freud, Hewitt’s girlfriend is World No. 1 (and No. 1 seed at the Open) Kim Clijsters. And-well, do we really need to mention her nationality once more?

It can’t be easy for Hewitt to go to Flushing as the 13th seed when his girl is the belle of the ball. On the other hand, I have to say that his relationship with Clijsters makes me like him a lot better. Last year, in the Players’ Lounge at the National Tennis Center, I saw the two of them sitting on a couch together and watching a big-screen TV just like an old married couple. And I’ve interviewed Clijsters, who is truly a nice girl, a sweet and unaffected young woman with a big athlete’s body and a homely-cute, very Low Countries face. Hewitt could have easily gone for eye-candy-as we’ve seen, it’s always close at hand in pro tennis-but elected not to. Maybe there’s something to that lawsuit.

But speaking of Clijsters brings me back to the women. It has been noted far too often-by me among others-that the women’s game is where the real excitement is in professional tennis these days. The translation for this is really that the Williams sisters are where the action is-and more and more, the translation for that is Serena, Serena, Serena. While the proverbial all-Williams final is a virtual lock in any tournament that finds both women healthy, Venus’ attention seems, enigmatically, to be wandering these days.

Or maybe it’s not so enigmatic, considering the ruthless physical and mental ordeal of her development as a player, and the fact that it was Richard Williams’ decision, rather than his daughters’, that they take up the sport in the first place. Maybe what’s more puzzling is how Serena Williams maintains her zest for the game and her sparkling personality in the face of the tour’s pressures and the open dislike and envy expressed by many of her fellow players. (Maybe she really does have a future in acting.)

But of course the problem with Serena this year is that, as Rod Argent and the Zombies sang, she’s not there. And even though Venus is, it’s not clear whether, with that straggling attention and without the comforting presence of her beloved little sister on the other side of the draw, she can once more summon the sheer stoicism that carried her and her injured abdominal muscle through Wimbledon.

Of course we’ll root for her, sentimentally. As we’ll pull for our old American big guns, third-seeded Lindsay Davenport and sixth-seeded Jennifer Capriati, writing off neither, even though ruthless logic tells us that both are ever so gently on the decline. Watching women’s tennis also gives us the opportunity to twinkle at the occasional capable beauty in its midst, the chief avatar these days (now that Anna K. seems to have given up on ever winning a tournament) being the lissome Slovakian, ninth-seeded Daniela Hantuchova. But players and commentators keep talking about how thin Hantuchova looks: She’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 123 pounds, yet that weight sounds optimistic-some have even muttered darkly about anorexia ….

No, at the end of the day, I have to tell you, those Belgian girls are going to be tough to beat. Little Justine Henin-Hardenne, with her implacable sliced groundstrokes and that Mammy Yokum squint, looks as if she’d just as soon shoot you down as shake your hand. She efficiently dismantled both Serena and Clijsters to win the French Open-though Serena then returned the favor at Wimbledon. That would’ve been a good revenge match at Flushing Meadows. It is, alas, not to be.

A couple of years ago I covered another Williams-challenged tournament, the season-ending Chase Championships at Madison Square Garden. Both sisters were absent, claiming injury, though there were those who grumbled that they were really just resting off a hard year.

It didn’t matter to me, though. All the rest of the top players were there-including Kim Clijsters, just beginning her ascent-and the tennis was superb. I had never really witnessed the modern women’s game so close-up before, and I was stunned at how hard they were hitting the ball-really not that much less hard than the men on the groundstrokes, the serve being the chief difference: The women top out at “only” 100 to 110 miles per hour, while the men can close in on 140. (Just try serving 100 miles per hour sometime, Mr. Macho Club Player.)

The final was a great match between Martina Hingis and Monica Seles: ice and fire, strategy and tenacity versus sheer, grunting power. It was miraculous to watch. And the Garden was half-empty.

Just a little thought for CBS Sports and the USTA when it comes to that million-dollar Saturday-night women’s final at Flushing Meadows.

Stay tuned. Please.

Whacko! U.S. Open Monsters Invade