Monday, August 24, 2009

US Open Day 1: The First Curtain Call

Curtain call
Player: Giovanni Lapentti
Nation: Ecuador
Age: 26
Current Ranking: #182
Tour Page:
Today's Match: loss to Simon Greul (Germany) in 5 sets, 7-6 in the 5th

Lapentti has been around for a while but this was his first US Open, having gained his spot as a qualifier, a distinction explained further below. He is the younger brother of Nicolas Lapentti, a former Top 10 player who is also in the draw.

The main draw of the tournament began today but for 128 players, the US Open began last Tuesday in the qualifying tournament. For those not fortunate enough to gain automatic admission to the main draw on the strength of their ranking or to receive a wild card or other exemption, the only way to get in is to play the qualies. 16 spots are up for grabs in each singles draw and a player must win three matches to get one of them. Other spots do occasionally become available due to injury but that's a discussion for another time.

There is little glory in the qualifying rounds. They're only playing for a chance to get to the big stage. Bear in mind, this is still high quality tennis with professional players. Fan admission to the qualifying tournament is free at the US Open as it is at many tournaments around the world. It's a great chance to see the sport in person without breaking the budget.

So, any player who makes it through has already accomplished a great deal. For many, the chance to play at a Slam tournament may come but once in a career. For many more, that chance may never come. For Giovanni Lapentti, reaching the US Open for the first time is worthy of praise in itself.

Dinara or Serena?

First, my picks for the tournament...

Men's Champion: Roger Federer (Switzerland)
Women's Champion: Dinara Safina (Russia)

Let me begin by saying that I know it's completely lame to just pick the 1 seeds. With Fed, it's simply a belief that he is the king until someone knocks him off. Over the past 21 Grand Slam tournaments, Federer has either walked away champion or lost to the player who ultimately did. Yes, that number is 21, as in over five years. The road to greatness goes through him. Period.

With Safina, even with the top ranking, it's definitely a gamble. If you've followed the sport at all over the past several months, you've heard the issue. Safina, despite tremendous talent, has never won a Grand Slam tournament. Meanwhile, Serena Williams has won three of the past four. Is there really a question as to who is the better player? Of course, not. It's Serena Williams all the way. But through the convoluted math of the ranking system, Safina is ranked #1 in the world while S. Williams resides at #2. As a result, there has been a call for reforming the ranking system in such a way that would give more weight to results in the Slams.

I see it as a rather silly argument to tell the truth. The rankings reflect consistent results over the past 52 weeks of tournament play. Safina has done her part, performing well week in, week out while Williams tends to peak at the Slams. Williams's approach is, of course, perfectly sensible. At the end of two weeks at Wimbledon, no one really cares who was seeded #1 at the beginning. Only the champion's name is engraved. If you want the highest seed, play for the rankings. If you want a legacy, play to win Slams. Both players have earned what they have.

Picking Safina, for me, is as much a wish as a prediction. I'd love to see this discussion go away. Just about the worst mantle a player can wear in any sport is The Best Player Who Never Accomplished Whatever. I hope Safina is let off the hook in New York.

The Last Time Roger Didn't Win

I'm not saying it can't happen. I'm just saying it's been a while since anyone not named Roger Federer won the men's title at the U.S. Open. It was September 7, 2003. My wife and I watched Andy Roddick beat Juan Carlos Ferrero from the maternity ward. Next week, our daughter turns 6.

Six years is a long time in the life of a family and it's a long time in a tennis career as well:
  • At that point, Federer had only won one Slam on his way to a record-breaking 15.
  • Rafael Nadal was ranked #45 in the world and had not yet even made it to the final of an ATP tournament. He has since collected 36 titles, including 6 Slams and an Olympic gold medal.
  • Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were both 16 years old and not even on the radar. Neither was ranked in the Top 600.
  • Andre Agassi was World #1, with Ferrero set to take over the top ranking the next day. Agassi has since retired and Ferrero is 25th in the world, not having had a taste of the Top 10 since 2004.
  • Justine Henin, also since retired, was the women's champion.
For a broader historical perspecitve:
  • George W. Bush's approval ratings were on the decline but he was still on his way to reelection in 2004.
  • Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator - talk about not even on the radar.
  • Saddam Hussein had not yet been captured.
  • In California, Republicans were campaigning for the recall of Governor Gray Davis, a process which would lead to the ascent of Arnold Schwarzenegger the following month.
  • The Concorde was still making commercial flights.
  • On the same day, Warren Zevon died.
  • John Ritter and Johnny Cash were still alive.
  • facebook did not exist.
For a broader sports perspective:
  • The Boston Red Sox still hadn't won a World Series in 85 years.
  • Michael Phelps had not yet won even one of his 14 Olympic golds.
  • Usain Bolt was 17 years old and was the reigning World Youth Champion at 200 meters.
  • David Beckham had just begun his stint at Real Madrid.
  • Brett Favre still had five more seasons to go with Green Bay.
  • LeBron James had just been drafted #1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers and was preparing to begin his NBA career.
  • Alexander Ovechkin was still playing for Dynamo Moscow.

Why You Should Watch the US Open

The Climax of the Tennis Season
I love all of tennis's Grand Slam tournaments (which also include The Australian Open, The French Open, and Wimbledon) but there are many reasons to enjoy the New York edition in particular. This is the finish line for the Grand Slam season. All of the story lines which have been building since January will come to resolution here. Seasons will be salvaged, pretenders will be exposed and new heroes will be born. All this in a tidy two-week package.

Eye Candy
There's plenty of it in both locker rooms. Are tennis players the most attractive athletes in the world? Judge for yourself. No helmets so you can actually see faces. And for the most part, the clothes are flattering. Of course, it's New York so the fashion show, primarily sponsored by Nike, gets plenty of press.

The Democratic Nature of Hard Court Tennis
Clay court tennis - that played at The French - favors a certain kind of player. The ball bounces higher. Therefore, a player's power is largely negated. The clay court specialist is fleet afoot and predicates his/her game on movement and tactics. The grass lawns of Wimbledon, on the other hand, are the playground of the powerful. One can make it to the second week on the strength of a big serve alone. Hard courts are, at least in theory, the middle ground. Thus the U.S. Tennis Center is an ideal place to settle who really are the best in the sport.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal
I would happily wax poetic about either for verses on end. Suffice to say they are, in my opinion, the two greatest athletes in the world and the story of their rivalry is better than Shakespeare. If you've never watched a Federer-Nadal match, you've denied yourself the pleasure of the sports epic of our time. If you love the great sword fight in "The Princess Bride," Roger v. Rafa is the extended dance remix. Except, of course, in the tennis version, the Spaniard usually wins. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee they'll face each other in New York. But if they do, switch over from the NFL. You'll be glad you did.

Night Tennis
The U.S. and Australian Opens hold this advantage over their European cousins. Not only does tennis look really cool under the lights but it's also wonderful for the schedule for the simple fact that you can fit more tennis into a single day.

The Women's Game
The main rivalry these days is between Serena Williams and Dinara Safina but unlike Roger/Rafa, the rivalry is mainly played out in the press. Safina is ranked No. 1. Williams has won three out of the past four Slams whereas Safina has never won one. You see the problem. It is my hope that the Open will do something to sort all of this out. A Dinara/Serena final is exactly what the sport needs.

Gender Equity...Well, Kinda
Tennis players are the highest paid female athletes in the world. Tennis is one of few sports where men and women are equally popular and equally acclaimed. Prize money at the US Open is equal, too. Does that mean there is no sexism in the game? Certainly not. The TV commentary for women's matches often makes me want to throw things. But I still contend that tennis does better than most.

The Men's Game
It's a fantastic moment in the sport. Never mind the rankings, Roger and Rafa are still top dogs until proven otherwise. But the gang lining up behind them gets scarier all the time: Murray, Djokovic, del Potro and Tsonga for starters. They're all good and they're all young. Even Andy Roddick showed at Wimbledon that he's not ready to concede anything. It's been almost six years since anyone but Federer won this thing but it'll happen someday. Pick a pony. This one's gonna be fun.

Celebrity Spotting
The stars come out for the Open and the camera crews are constantly panning to spot them for our oggling pleasure. Undoubtedly, some come to be seen but others have a more pure devotion. Robert de Niro usually makes an appearance. Can't get much cooler than that.

International Flavor
I grew up on standard North American team sport fare: football, basketball, baseball and hockey. But in my adulthood, I've been drawn to soccer and tennis due in large part to their international platforms. The North American sports have done better along those lines recently but still come nowhere close to what you see on the tennis tour. Over the course of the year, the tours hit six continents and the player rankings reflect that. Gone are the days when Americans and Australians dominated. That fact has hurt TV ratings here in the States but for the sport overall, it's been wonderful.

I hope you'll join me.