From Day to Night: Grinding and Glamour at the US Open

On the second Thursday of the US Open, the singles tournament begins to give way to the larger community – the day session features one singles match, the less-popular men’s quarterfinal, and a handful of main draw doubles matches. Instead, the larger constituency of tennis – the people who play without the adoring crowds or rich endorsements, take over the courts, finding the act of playing at Flushing Meadows rewarding in and of itself. To placate the star-hungry ticket holders, the tournament organizers put together legends matches, featuring all-time greats, and former pros who may be on site doing commentary.

The day session crowds are noticeably smaller than those who came to see the earlier rounds in week one, and the ones that will appear, in their RF caps, for the night session to follow. Every stadium is sparsely populated, allowing fans to sit closer than they might usually. The men’s semifinal between Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych, was relatively uneventful. Berdych, perhaps bothered by the wind or the heat, or the listless crowd, was unable to find his range on his shots, falling behind quickly to Cilic, and coming unglued over a double-bounce call in the third set. Even though his rant against the umpire continued with vigor, Berdych fell meekly to Cilic in straight sets.

On Louis Armstrong Stadium, both men’s and women’s doubles semifinals were scheduled. At this point in the tournament, it is possible to sit in the courtside seats at Louis Armstrong Stadium where Barbra Streisand once cheered for “zen master” Andre Agassi. It’s a fleeting opportunity, as Louis Armstrong Stadium will be rebuilt by 2018 as an undoubtedly larger and less intimate venue. For now, a visit to Armstrong is a must – if only to see big-stadium tennis on a human scale, where the roar of the crowd can co-exist with the intimacy of seeing players at nearly-eye level in most of the venue.

On Thursday, however, the roar of the crowd on Armstrong was more like an appreciative smattering. Even though it is a Grand Slam semifinal, the men’s doubles semifinal featuring doubles vetarans Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo versus the Spanish duo of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, was attended by a sparse, but appreciative crowd. Thus, the Spanish team’s joy in winning to reach their second Grand Slam final outshone the muted applause from the stadium.

A slightly larger crowd stayed to watch another pair of veteran doubles players, Cara Black and Sania Mirza, take on the unseeded team of Flavia Pennetta and Martina Hingis. While Hingis’ singles glory is well documented and enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and Pennetta is in the midst of a resurgence that included winning Indian Wells this year, Mirza and Black are both committed doubles specialists, for whom the doubles tournament is the main event. More than a decade removed from her first retirement from the game, Hingis was a human highlight reel in the first set, grinning and winning the points with a combination of consistency, guile, and poise that characterized her singles career. Falling behind in the second set, Hingis kept Pennetta positive, and the pair managed to close out Black and Mirza in straight sets to reach the final.

Meanwhile, Hingis’ namesake, Martina Navratilova, was playing in an exhibition doubles match with Jana Novotna against French Open champion Iva Majoli and Chanda Rubin, in the less glamourous surroundings of a sparsely populated Court 7. While the players were more willing to play around for the crowd, Navratilova and Novotna advanced easily.

Outside of these matches, the grounds are filled with juniors and wheelchair competitors at this point in the tournament. While some names are familiar now – Francis Tiafoe and Tornado Alicia Black, for example, and some may become familiar to us later, many of these players will never attain that level of success or notoriety. While playing the US Open is a thrill for them, it’s a different thrill than the one that Roger Federer and Gael Monfils would enjoy during their five set romp in the night session.

Most of the players who took to the courts on Thursday will not become household names, but they continue to put everything into reaching the US Open out of their love of the game. Maybe it’s the joy of being good at something, the fun of thwacking winners, or the thrill of competing, but Thursday’s day session shows how many people are willing to devote their lives to a game that may only be the prelude or accompaniment to their lives, rather than the main act. Even the returning legends show that their love of the game is about more than trophies and endorsements, playing in scorching heat on half-filled courts, but enjoying the competition all the same, and glad to be in the mix. Seeing tennis at its most elemental and most beloved should inspire any fan of the game.

If that didn’t work, however, just staying for the sold-out night session would suffice. Even though Wednesday night’s quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had been anticipated since the draw was announced, the unexpected pairing of shotmaker Gael Monfils and Roger Federer turned out to be the match of the tournament.

Monfils entered the match as he had played the rest of the tournament – restrained, consistent, and actually focused on winning. Combined with a decidedly shank-prone Federer, this resulted in a quick two sets to love lead for Monfils. Federer, despite the errors and audible frustration, displayed the grit that has become the hallmark of his later career, winning the third set, and saving two match points before winning the fourth. The fifth set seemed like a foregone conclusion, as Monfils was too deflated to put up much of a fight. While the match did not produce the highlight reel  wooo shots that each player is capable of, the drama of the comeback was more excitement than anyone expected from the evening.

While Berdych, Monfils, and Cilic may not win Grand Slam titles, their contributions to the game are significant – in reaching their potentials, they have provided countless fans and players with a display of extraordinary skill and athleticism. Like many of the others who fought the good fight on Thursday in Queens, they keep the tennis ecosystem alive with their efforts, and should be remembered fondly as the spotlight narrows its focus to the champions this weekend.