Those Summer Nights: Lessons from the US Open After Dark

When we think of the US Open night session, the images that inevitably come to mind are those of Pete Sampras vomiting during his five-set win over Alex Corretja in 1996 or Andre Agassi’s multiple Houdini-like marathon wins during his miracle run at his last US Open in 2006. But, the win-loss records of the big stars like the under the lights reflect the more likely outcome of the night sessions on Ashe–easy wins by big stars, while the crowds sometimes spend more time watching the big screens for the more compelling matches from the still-unfinished business of the day session.

That said, the US Open night session rightfully deserves its unique regard among players and fans. The schedulers deliver the big stars night after night (mostly), and New York delivers a buzzing mix of celebrities, rowdy locals and dramatic tension that makes even the most mundane matches into an event. After the first week wraps up, however, the night session loses its lustre, as the stars are largely scheduled for the day session from Labor Day weekend to the end of the tournament, and the night session reaches its nadir by the middle of the next week, when one of the two featured matches is usually a hit-and-giggle featuring former champions.

The night sessions during week one of this year’s US Open have produced more routine wins than roller-coaster thrills, but here’s what I’ve learned during a slightly sleep-deprived week of balmy nights in Queens:

1. We Miss Rafa

I know Stan Wawrinka is the reigning Australian Open champion, has featured prominently in some of the best ATP matches over the past two years, and that his whipping backhand is a joy to watch as he muscles nimbler opponents around the court. That said, with Rafael Nadal in the tournament, there is no way that Stan Wawrinka and Thomaz Bellucci play the night session on Wednesday. I do appreciate Stan’s efforts at crowd control, though:

Maybe it’s a Swiss thing?

2. Is Winning Ugly Enough for Maria?

She may not have read Brad Gilbert’s book, but Maria had been winning her matches all year in spite of her level of play rather than because of it. Spraying serves left and right, Maria is not outplaying her opponents for large stretches of time but had largely managed to dial it in when it counts. Her first round match on Monday night could have been called the Masha Bowl, as she played childhood friend and fellow Maria, Russian Maria Kirilenko. Down 4-2 in the first set, she broke Kirilenko in the next game and never lost another one. Defiantly aiming for the lines, Sharapova used her groundstrokes to grind Kirilenko into submission. Facing an opponent with much more firepower on Friday night, Sharapova overcame an often miserable serving performance to outlast a game Sabine Lisicki.

But in her first daytime match on Sunday afternoon, Sharapova’s determination was not enough to overcome a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki played more aggressively than she had in the past, but also played enough defense to take advantage of errors from Sharapova.

It’s hard to find fault with a player who has won a Grand Slam this season, but it is worth noting that, other than the French Open, she has not made it past the fourth round in a Grand Slam since last year’s Australian Open. While these are certainly good results, it’s clear that Sharapova can and should be a factor in more Grand Slam tournaments. There’s no doubt that Sharapova’s high-risk playing style will always result in more errors than many of her contemporaries, but as the WTA tour continues so show increasing depth, Sharapova will have to find a way to win easier to make significant runs at majors.

3. Everyone Wants to Be Like Mike

At this stage in his career, Roger Federer is generally guaranteed to be the most popular person on the court, even when playing against a local. But, on Tuesday night, his childhood hero/sneaker collaborator Michael Jordan, drew rapturous applause from the crowd whenever he appeared on the TV screens. New Yorkers are a fairly jaded bunch when it comes to celebrities – Donald Trump gets booed regularly at Arthur Ashe Stadium, but the man who brought the Knicks heartbreak year after year was welcomed as a hero. Even more amusing is this: Roger Federer, a man whose box is so celebrity-filled that it’s starting to resemble the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was affected enough to hit a butt tweener to impress his new pal.

4. It’s Not Easy Being an “It Girl.”

When Genie Bouchard, the newly minted superstar of the WTA tour made her debut at a night session this Thursday, most of the ticket holders were standing outside the venue watching CiCi Bellis on the big screen or trying to cram into Court 17 to see the latest American teen phenom in person. Bellis, who immediately became an American media sensation after defeating 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova in the first round, suddenly found herself playing on a packed court and taking up the lion’s share of ESPN’s broadcast (bumping Andy Murray’s humdrum first round match). As with so many teen upstarts before her, it was hard not to be impressed with her poise on the court and charmed by her “um” and “you know” peppered conversation off of it. While Bellis eventually lost her second round match before a packed house and TV audiences on Thursday night, she showed grit in fighting back after losing the first set, and an eagerness to build on her success. Time, and the extent of her growth spurt, will tell whether we will see her on the big stages in the future, but, for better or worse, she’s likely to have a bigger audience than ever before watching her try.

Genie Bouchard knows a lot about being an “it girl.” Seeing her dour expression beneath her visor, one is reminded more of her now-troubled teen heartthrob Justin Bieber than the bubbly teenager who enjoyed the tennis world’s attention over the last couple of years. Deep runs at the first three Grand Slams, combined with a drubbing at the hands of a zoning Petra Kvitova and an embarrassing first round exit at her hometown tournament in Montreal have dampened the joy in Bouchard’s game, replacing it with the determination of a hardening pro who is not longer excited just to be there, but rather expects and is expected to win.

On Thursday night, Bouchard looked to be on her way to a relatively routine win over the skilled but not sufficient opposition of Sorana Cirstea. But, Cirstea played steady tennis to outlast Bouchard in the second set tiebreak, and then continued to catch up to Bouchard as Bouchard tried to pull away in the third set. When Bouchard finally won before a small but loud crowd after midnight, she allowed herself a fist-pumping celebration that far exceeded any celebration she had in reaching the semis or better of the first three Slams this year.

On Thursday night, it was strange to see the crowds already searching for a new ingénue when Bouchard had just arrived at the ball. Being part of the night session is another signifier that Genie has joined the establishment on the tour, and now she’s left the “just happy to be here” territory to the newbies. Whether she can take that next step and win this year in New York remains to be seen. Thursday night marked a first step – winning the matches she is supposed to win, but whether she can handle the pressure of more experienced, confident opponents is very much an open question.

5. Race to the Bottom

This one is purely for those who attend in person. Night sessions can be very, very long nights. Even if the night matches are frequently not competitive, musical guests and long day sessions can result in night sessions going well after midnight. But, if you stay long enough, are willing to run to lower levels with each changeover, and find a sympathetic usher, it is absolutely worth staying to the end of the session if only to sneak into the courtside seats for a few games. While it is definitely possible to see tennis up close all around the grounds, it is a truly unique and awe-inspiring sight to watch world-class tennis courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and one that cannot be accurately conveyed on television or from my usual perch in the Promenade section up top. For those who sit up high, it is fair to sat that Ashe is the worst of the main stadiums at Grand Slam tournaments – it’s much higher, and the players resemble ants more than anything else from up there. But, courtside, the inverse is true – the miniaturization is flipped and the court becomes more grand and the crowd more powerful. As the tournament ads say, there’s nothing like being there.