Our day started on Court 5. One of the outer courts, it usually attracts some lesser-known players, but its value lies in how close you get to the action.
Over Labor Day Weekend, I traveled down to Queens for the U.S. Open — one of tennis’ four esteemed major tournaments. For me, the Open has always marked the end of the summer: It’s one last hurrah before the grind of classes, problem sets and general malaise of Yale takes over. Unlike Wimbledon, where lines and pomp are commonplace, the Open has a more relaxed feel. It’s only half a mile from the Mets’ Citi Field, and live music, salted pretzels and alcohol are free-flowing.
There is something intrinsically beautiful about a tennis match. It’s hard to explain to someone who has never played the sport, but it exists. Watching forehands and backhands whiz by, the perfect motion of a serve and the pure passion in a victory scream is transcendent. In the words of David Foster Wallace, “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.”
The grounds of the Open are expansive, often overwhelming for a first-timer. After meandering for almost a half hour, we found ourselves on Court 5. We had meant to watch the singles match on the Grandstand, but there was only standing room left. Court 5, we figured, would do.
While the show courts have the big names, the outer courts offer you the chance to be right next to the players for a cheaper price. You won’t catch Federer or Sharapova there, but you’ll still catch some damn good tennis.
The featured match was mixed doubles, in which the partners are different genders, with the number-one seeds facing off against a lower-ranked Eastern European team. Many of the top singles players don’t play doubles and even fewer play mixed, but the arrangement is still exciting to watch. The players need to be dynamic and quick-thinking and have a soft touch; the game moves fast, and a single wrong lateral movement can be costly.
We arrived at the end of the first set, and the underdogs only needed another set to upset the top seeds. I spent most of the match unsuccessfully attempting to take a good Snapchat video and thus missed most of the action. Oops. Still, the beauty of the Open is in the number of matches. In other words, if you spend most of your time on Snapchat for one match, there are always others you can watch.
From Court 5 we marched to Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second largest court in the complex, to watch a women’s singles match that featured last year’s finalist, Roberta Vinci. Best known for her upset of Serena Williams at the 2015 US Open, Vinci flaunts an old-school game. In contrast to the extreme power in today’s game, Vinci is known for her deft touch. While other players blast groundstrokes and frequently hit over 100-mph serves, she slices and dices around the court, forcing her opponent off balance.
Despite an early scare, Vinci took the first set in a tiebreak. Her opponent — an unseeded player who wasn’t expected to reach the fourth round — wilted soon afterwards, and Vinci ran away with the match. It was a classic scene: An underdog plays well in the first set but can’t quite keep up that level. Still, Vinci’s opponent left with a $235,000 check — the prize money for reaching the fourth round. So it was hardly a shabby showing on her part.
Our last match of the day, and perhaps the most exciting, was between Rafael Nadal and the Frenchman Lucas Pouille. Located in Arthur Ashe, the Open’s biggest stadium, our seats were fairly high up. Still, the excitement of seeing Nadal in person outweighed any threat of sunburn or fear of heights.
Surprisingly, Pouille won the first set. But as men’s singles matches are best of five, I figured Nadal would still come out on top. In the time that I ducked out for an overpriced hot dog, Nadal had leveled the match. We endured two more sets of his grunts and finally found ourselves in a deciding fifth set.
Nadal was never my favorite player; I’ve always been a staunch Federer fan. Still, I’ve always admired his intensity and fighting spirit, and the last two years haven’t been kind to him with injuries. While I felt sympathetic, the thrill of watching an upset unfold on center court was too tantalizing. As the final set tiebreak approached, I was firmly on team Pouille.
It’s 7-6 in the tiebreak. Pouille has match point. Nadal serves up the center of the court, but the ball lands out. He goes out wide on the second serve, and Pouille responds with a backhand down the line. Nadal hits crosscourt, and Pouille follows suit. Then Nadal changes direction, hitting a backhand down the line. Pouille lets Nadal dictate, trying to keep the ball away from his forehand; he’s waiting for that elusive Nadal unforced error. Finally, Pouille hits an inside-out forehand. He gets Nadal off balance and then steers a forehand to the open court.
Nadal can’t reach it. Pouille sinks to his knees. “Game, set, match — Pouille,” the umpire announces over the roar of the crowd. He can’t believe it, and neither can we.
And that is the beauty of the Open.