US Open Diary: A hat for Ashe

We'll be bringing you all the sights, sounds and colours from the 132nd US Open being held at Flushing Meadows in New York.

New York City
Abhishek Mehrotra

By Abhishek Mehrotra

Saturday (Sep 8, 2012)

Two things happened at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday. First, there was the announcement that due to upcoming inclement weather, the women's final was postponed to Sunday.

Later, in the second set of the Murray-Berdych semi-final, with the former serving, a massive gust of wind pushed Murray's chair, his racket bag and other paraphernalia right onto court. The players laughed, the chair umpire and the audience joined in.

But the lack of a roof over the stadium - one that would have prevented both of the above from happening, is no joking matter. The US Open remains the only Grand Slam without a roof over its main court (Wimbledon and the Australian Open already do) or without a definitive timeline (Roland Garros plans to build one over Court Philippe Chatrier by 2017) as to when that will happen.

Delayed finals have almost become a part of the tradition here, and with every passing year, cries to cover Ashe have become increasingly vociferous. But it's not easy. Arthur Ashe is built on a landfill - what used to be a former garbage dump. That means if a roof were added to the current structure, it would gradually sink into the underlying slime.

The USTA has said there will definitely be a roof over the stadium. It does not know when. In theory, the plan is to replace some of the top portions of the stadium with lightweight material, so that when a roof is added, it wouldn't add to the overall weight of the structure.

"This is not a question of will or desire. We want one. This is a question of feasibility both economical and technical feasibility," USTA president Jon Vergoesen had told reporters at the start of the tournament.

"We want a roof. We're going to have one one day. I just can't tell you when."

In the meantime, what would help of course, is having inflatable tarpaulin covers on the courts a la Wimbledon. At the moment, the courts like naked to the rain and when it lets up, out come the dryers and the towels and the mops. This was something Novak Djokovic brought up a few days ago.

"I still believe that it is the most logical solution, if you still don't get a roof here, to get covers on the court. It saves at least 30 minutes of time if they inflate like they do at Wimbledon and they just get the water down.

"The courts are practically dry after the rain stops. It saves 30 minutes and gives more time to players and to play and to tournament."

A seemingly simple fix, one would think.

Thursday (Sep 6, 2012)

Because most of the seats in Arthur Ashe stadium are so far away from the action, the orgainsers do their best to get the crowd involved in other ways, while giving their sponsors some more exposure. So you have the IBM quiz during changeovers, the Emirates Seat Upgrade, the US Open Fan Patrol etc etc etc.

On Thursday, there was even an exhibition match pairing John McEnroe and Adam Sandler against Jim Courier and Kevin James to get the crowd warmed up before the real tennis match between Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic.

But the crowd finds ways to entertain itself. After the first set had finished, and with LMFAO's Party Anthem blaring through the stadium, and LMFAO's Redfoo in the audience, one gentleman in the audience took it upon himself to start the crowd shuffling.

As the song continued, off came the shirt, then a green t-shirt, then a black t-shirt until finally a t-shirt that read "I love New York" emerged. The crowd roared its approval, and the man, now dancing with manic energy, whipped them into a frenzy. Momentarily, everyone forgot there was a tennis match about to restart - 20,000 people cheering on the man who, for those few minutes, was undoubtedly the King of Queens.

Wonder what del Potro, who had just lost the first set 6-2, made of it all.

Wednesday (Sep 5, 2012)

At a major tournament like the US Open, the media rarely sings from the same hymn sheet. 

There are journalists and TV crews from all across the globe here, all in pursuit of their own agendas. Some prefer to focus on players from their own countries, others rush about in pursuit of major exclusives and other still focus solely on the action on court to the exclusion of everything else.

At any given time, the media centre is buzzing with activity - journalists rushing about to and fro, trying to meet deadlines, trying to make and keep appointments, shouting into their phones or tapping away furiously at their keyboards. Which is why when a silence descends inside the centre, you know something special is happening.

That is exactly what happened when Andy Roddick was on the verge of losing to Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round. Everyone seemed to stop what they were doing to catch the last few glimpses of the American on court. Even those servicing the media dining area couldn't take their eyes away from the action. 

When it was all over, there was a rush, first to file the stories and then a stampede to the interview room where Roddick would make his final appearance. Those who couldn't make it in time tuned in to the TV monitors on their desks.

Inside the room, Bud Collins, considered to be one of the greatest tennis journalists and broadcasters, told Roddick: "There is a tradition of the press that there is no applause in the press box, no applause at a press conference, there is no applause at anything like that, but you deserve it." The press duly applauded.

After Roddick had fielded in excess of 30 questions, just as he was about to leave the room, the press applauded again - this time a standing ovation.

Sports stars and the press often have tetchy relationships - especially when that star is someone like Roddick who doesn't suffer fools. But right at the very end, the glass wall that separates the two, seems to disappear - and there is an understanding that everyone involved was just doing their job.

"It's at the point now where I look back on rough moments fondly, you know, in these rooms. I hope you all do, too. There has certainly been some good ones; there have been some fun I ones. There has been some horrible ones both ways, but it wasn't boring," said Roddick when asked about his relationship with the press.

Based on what I've read before and since, it certainly wasn't.

Monday (Sep 3, 2012)

We talk about momentum in sport, of players being in the zone; unstoppable. "Mood" is probably equally important.

On Monday night, Leander Paes and Elena Vesnina are involved in a quarter-final tussle against the seventh seeded pairing of Lucie Hradecka and Frantisek Cermak. Paes-Vesnina are down a set, but it's on serve at 4-4 in the second when a few drops start falling.

The umpire stops play, but asks the players to stay in their seats, the weather is expected to clear soon. Leander is in buoyant mood, trading some light remarks with the umpire. They talk about the weather - how it's supposed to be stormy on Tuesday - before the Indian's notices something. "Is that an engagement ring?" he asks, pointing to the umpire's finger.

"It's actually two separate rings, engagement and wedding.Like shampoo, buy one, get one free," she jokes and both break out into laughs. All good.

The weather clears up in five minutes and with Hradecka serving, Paes-Vesnina are quickly up 15-30. Big point up next. The third seeds take control. Vesnina's deep backhand pins Hradecka right to the back of the court. Leander is lurking at the net, primed to smack away what's bound to be a weak return. 

But a linesman calls Vesnian's stroke out. The chair umpire immediately issues a correction, and Leander screams in frustration. "That was inside the line mate!" There's no laughter now.

The point is replayed, and of course, Paes-Vesnina lose it. Leander is still seething. "That was a ridiculous call to make at 15-30," he shouts across the net, before framing his return off the next serve. Hradecka holds, and Vesnina-Paes' concentration is completely broken. Soon after, so is Vesnina's serve. The third seeds crash out. A cursory handshake at the net, another one with the umpire and Leander steams towards the exit.

Sunday (Sep 2, 2012)

I'm out in the players' garden - a relatively quiet area right at the back of Arthur Ashe stadium - waiting to interview someone. The garden is a place littered with comfy couches, chairs and a small bar. Players fulfil some of their media obligations here, while friends and relatives lounge around.

The place is humming quietly as usual, until Roger Federer walks in. Camera crews materialise out of thin air, the energy in the area goes up a couple of notches. Federer heads to a group of five people who've been waiting patiently all this while under a garden umbrella. Three adults, two kids. Federer sits with them, joking, chatting and gesturing animatedly.

I assume they're friends, until the kids go up to him with one of those ubiquitous giant tennis balls. He signs, and then stands patiently as each of the five has their photo taken with him. It's one of the kids' turn, he goes up to the world number one, hesitates and then timidly reaches up to place his hand on Federer's shoulder. Click. Day made.

The Swiss then heads over to the camera crews. "Nice to see you again," he tells the ESPN guy who's going to interview him. The host quickly briefs him on the questions, Fed nods along. Action. It's over within three minutes. Another crew steps up - an Australian TV station. The presenter, who can't be more than 30, is visibly nervous. He gets his questions out quickly - another two minutes, and it's done.

Now it's the turn of an even younger reporter, from a website. The hand in which he's holding the dictaphone is shaking visibly. But there's a manic grin on his face - the kind you get when you've just landed the interview of a lifetime. As Federer answers questions, the grin sticks to the reporter's face, gets even wider maybe. He's clearly not listening to the answers.

Another journalist has been hovering around this entire time. Now he tries to get in a couple of questions. The ATP official in attendance says "No more questions". The journalist persists, and the official gets increasingly irate. "We're done!" he almost shouts. The journalist withdraws, grumbling.

Federer is heading to the exit now, and into the car park. It's a distance of about 10 feet. Thrice he's stopped by people asking for photos. Thrice he smilingly obliges.

This entire process has taken about half an hour. One informal chat, three interviews, about 10 photos. Finally, he leaves the compound and a waiting car whisks him away. Just another day.

Saturday (Sep 1, 2012)

On occasion, the action in the stands can be as entertaining as that on the courts. As I've mentioned before, you get all kinds of fans coming to Flushing Meadows - hardcore and fair-weather, quiet and rambunctious, easily pleased and hard to impress. All are here to have a whale of a time, and usually they do.

On Friday, I sat outside one of the side courts where Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek were playing their first round doubles match. After the duo won a point - Paes walked up to Stepanek, murmured something, as doubles players are wont to do and then patted his partner on the backside. Twice on one side, twice on the other. The crowd tittered - the players were oblivious.

The next point, Paes came up with a great serve. This time Stepanek returned the, erm, favour - twice on one side, twice on the other. The crowd broke out into outright laughter. Maybe this time the two did notice. There were no repeats.

On the previous day, I sat in the stands at Court 17 as Milos Raonic played Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round of the men's singles. The young Canadian has a surprisingly large, and vocal set of fans, and they're in full voice as Raonic rains down bombs on his opponents.

One Canadian gentleman right in front me, perhaps more exuberant than usual after a few pints, is letting out full-throated roars every time Raonic wins a point. Raonic faults on his first serve "NO MERCY, MILOS" come the instructions.

Mathieu moves inside the court to face Raonic's second serve. The youngster fires in a faster one right at Mathieu's body - the crouched Frenchman tries to get out of the way. Can't. The ball hits the frame and then bounces off his face. Cue a demented guffaw from our man. "You don't move in on Milos' serve!"

Later, Raonic, under some pressure on his serve, comes out with an ace. "BRING THE HEAT, MILOS!" 

Raonic goes on to win the match, at which point I assume our spirited fan goes back into the Hollywood movie he seemed to have stepped out of.

Friday (Aug 31, 2012)

You know you've made it as a player when the US Tennis Association deigns to hold your press conference in Interview Room One.

There are six media interview and press conference rooms in the depths of Arthur Ashe stadium. Rooms two and three are well, exactly that - standard sized rooms capable of holding no more than 10 journalists at any given time.

Rooms 4-6 are basically mini-booths, added as an after-thought last year, in one corner of the massive media center here. This is where your lesser known Eastern Europeans, South Americans and Indians come for their press conferences - only they are not conferences, more like pub table get-togethers minus the alcohol.

And Room One - well, there's way all the action's at. I overheard one journalist say it's the biggest sports press conference room in the world. Citation needed, of course. 

Nonetheless, it's an impressive set-up, capable of seating more than a 100 journalists at one time. Portraits of American greats Chris Evert, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors line one wall. There's a long bank of cameras located right at the back and the acoustics are spectacular.

Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray - all the biggest names fulfill their media obligations here. And after beating a Grand Slam champion for the secon successive round, Brit Laura Robson held fort in number one. After a couple of years of "Will she?" "Won't she?" - the Brit finally seems to have arrived on the stage. At least the USTA certainly thinks so.

Room One also played host to two of the biggest stories from this year's Open - the departures of Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick. 

The room was jam-packed for both - with reporters crammed all the way to the stairs leading down to the exit. Camermen tried desperately to squeeze and sometimes sneak in without the knowledge of the officials in attendance. Kind of difficult to do when you have a 5-foot lens to manouever into position. Both press conferences ended with applause as two champions bowed out.

Big arrivals, bigger departures - it all happens in Room One.

Thursday (Aug 30, 2012)

I decided to extend my sojourns to the outer reaches of the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre and chanced upon the US Open bookstore on Thursday.

The bookstore is housed in a small room tucked away near one of the exits from the complex, and barely deserves to be called one, "boasts" as it does of 60, perhaps 70 books.

But the thing that strikes me the most is the number of books on tennis training. I count 32 of them while the cashier gives me a "Oh my God, he's crazy" stare.

There are books on improving your groundstrokes, mental conditioning, tips on how to play the game if you're into your 50s and one on wheelchair tennis training. Americans take their tennis very seriously.

Despite the paucity of non "how to" books, I end up buying one - Stephen Tignor's McEnroe, Borg and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry. Hope it turns out to be a page-turner.

At the other end of the store is a photo gallery - dedicated to the man after whom the biggest tennis stadium in the world is named - Arthur Ashe. It's a series of blown-up photos from the 1960s, of Ashe riding a motorbike, Ashe in a car, Ashe waiting for his laundry (funnily enough, I could just make out the operating instructions on the machine - and they seemed to be in English as well as what looked like Chinese characters. Was China already a manufacturing powerhouse by then?).

I'm not sure if the photos were actually shot by a photographer or if they were gifted to the USTA by Ashe's family. I'll check with the cashier tomorrow, assuming she doesn't run away from me screaming in terror. If it does turn out that they were taken by a photographer, I'll turn green with envy on the spot. That level of access to any top tennis player now is absolutely unimaginable.

We may be living in the golden age of men's tennis now, but the golden age of tennis journalism passed us by a long time ago.

Wednesday (Aug 29, 2012)

One of the toughest things, for me, about covering the US Open so far, has been deciding which matches to focus on. when there are about 10-11 singles matches going on at any given time. 

I could focus on the big names of course, but they tend to steamroll opposition in the opening few rounds, and reading too much into their form so early on is foolish. At the same time, upsets do happen - and those journalists who were covering other matches, interviewing, eating or were otherwise occupied  when Lukas Rosol upset Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon earlier this year probably got an earful from their editors.

Nonetheless, I charted a plan of action that avoided all the big names - focusing instead on Tommy Haas who was playing Ernests Gulbis on Court 17, Xavier Malisse who was playing John Isner on Arthur Ashe and Lleyton Hewitt who was playing Tobias Kamke on Court 13. The common thread? Haas, Malisse and Hewitt are all into their 30s - are unlikely to seriously contend for a Grand Slam, but continue to toil on manfully. 

All three matches were on at the same time - which meant some serious shuttling between courts. Court 17 was packed with a vociferous crowd egging on Haas, the 34-year-old who first played at the Open in 1996. Having battled serious injury for most of his career, the German had enjoyed a spectacular renaissance this year and was seeded 21 for the tournament. 

It's close, but Haas gets the crucial breaks in each of the first two sets to put himself in command. "This one's finished," I think to myself and head to Ashe for a peek at Malisse - the 32-year-old playing top American seed John Isner. The Belgian is already two sets to love down. At one point in the third set, he challenges an Isner shot that was called in. It's well out. 

Malisse remonstrates with the chair umpire, the crowd boos and Malisse flicks his racket towards them in a dismissive gesture. Next point. Isner serve an ace. Malisse challenges again. It's out again. By about a foot. This time the crowd applaud. The Belgian gets it together to win the third set, and I leave - Hewitt's match is about to finish.

The 2001 champ, is all the way out in Court 13 - and the bleachers, the American name for the tiered seats that line the outer courts, are packed. Even as I approach them, I hear the familiar roar of "Come on!" Hewitt in full flow. The Australian has fought back from a set down, and is now on the brink of victory. The crowd is exultant. They love the fighting Aussie. Within minutes, it's over.

In the meantime, Haas has dropped the next two sets against Gulbis. It's all even and there isn't space for an ant inside Court 17. I hang around the court, hoping to squeeze in. No go. In the meantime, Malisse has lost the fourt set and match against Isner. I hurry over to the press conference.

 It's in a small room deep inside Arthur Ashe stadium and the Belgian fumes over the umpiring, first in French, then in English. Conference over - I head back over to Court 17. Haas has lost in five sets. Time to eat.

After the late lunch, I glance up at one of the giant scoreboards. Kim Clijsters is down a set and is involved in a second-set tie-break against young Brit Laura Robson. It's back to Ashe for me, but by the time I get back in and up to the third level - it's all over. Clijsters has lost, and with it, has played her final competitve singles match. I missed it.

Just another day at the office.

Tuesday (August 28, 2012)

So the day that was supposed to be stormy and thundery turned out to be sweaty and sticky. No matter - at least the crowd that thronged the compound got their money's worth.

The most impressive aspect of the US Open so far has been the amount of access the crowds have to the players. That doesn't mean fans can sit down for a quiet cup of coffee with them, of course, but the proximity itself is something that is difficult to imagine at other tournaments. 

On the five practice courts located right at the entrance to the complex, I have sighted Serena Williams, John Isner, Fernando Verdasco amongst a host of other lesser lights in the first two days. And on the other side of the latticed net are the fans - hundreds of them crammed into a narrow lane, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourites.

The stars obviously prefer the farthest practice, but once finished, they have to walk back past the gathered crowds, and out come the giant tennis balls, and the caps and the t-shirts and squeaky kids' voices. Some are obliging, some not.

One kid got the chance of a lifetime, when, while watching the open practice inside one of the showcourts, he was actually invited down for a few hits by Novak Djokovic. The reason? He'd shouted from the stands "Will you marry me?"

There is little wonder Nole, in addition to being one of the best players in the world, is also one of the most loved. It's only because most fans had already chosen either Nadal or Federer by the time he came along that the Serb is not even more adulated.

Back to the tournament though, and a sense of informality, very different from the other Slams, flows through the entire complex. There's the music, the whack of ball on racket from inside Arthur Ashe is transmitted outside the stadium through speakers mounted on trees and poles and you can hear the roars of the crowd applauding a great point or a victor they were rooting for.

Inside the showcourts, people are encouraged to dance on the aisles to the blaring music if they want to be put up on the giant screen. Hailing from a part of the world where people tend to be reticent, it's a surprise how many are willing to just get up and start letting their hard down right in front of tens of thousands of people. And at the end of every match, the victors signs three balls and hits them into the crowd, in what has become one of the most popular traditions of the tournament. 

The US Open wants the visitors to not just witness the event, but to actually be part of it. Based on what I've seen so far, they've certainly succeeded in doing that. Spectacularly so - for such is the popularity of the Open, as it's called here, that you get people who've never followed tennis coming in just to be a part of the carnival atmosphere.

On Monday night, I sat next to a young couple during the Federer-Young match - the guy clearly a massive Federer fan, the girl clearly not a fan of the game. "So tell me what Federer has done so far?" she asked. The guy looked at her in disbelief for a couple of seconds before launching into a long speech detailing all of the Swiss' exploits.

On Tuesday during Djokovic-Lorenzi, another couple walked into the row just behind me, and the first question the woman asked was," Which one is Djokovic?"

Monday (August 27, 2012)

If you've ever wondered what journalists do during rain delays at major tournaments, the answer is: they eat. The first few days of a Grand Slam are manic, and you're running around all over the place - attending matches, sitting in on press conferences, trying to set up interviews, all the while hoping the match you opted not to go for doesn't turn out to be the tournament's biggest upset. 

For those who're not familiar with the huge grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre, navigating the way from one venue to another can be quite a task.

With all this going on, where is the time to eat? So - when a rain break comes, hundreds of writers, broadcasters, presenters, cameramen descend onto the media dining centre, shovelling in as much nutrition as they can before the rain stops. Those who are crowded out of the dining area check the weather - incessantly. On my way to, uhm, eat, I saw that almost every single individual had the New York weather forecast open.

Some time later, there's an exchange of roles. Those who were eating now check the weather, while those who were doing so earlier, hurry over to get some food.

On Monday, I had just reached the Arthur Ashe media seating area for the Andy Murray-Alex Bogomolov Jr. match when it began to drizzle and within seconds, to pour. I was drenched in the time it took me to pack my bag and head for some shelter about 10 feet away. A US Tennis Association official coming from the other side was soaked as well, and after we grinned at each other's state of disrepair he said rather sagely, "It's all because of Isaac". 

I was completely confused for a few seconds, wondering who Isaac was and what he had to do with the rain when I realised he was referring to the tropical storm heading towards the US coast.

More thundershowers are forecast for Tuesday - which might mean another late finish. But at least there'll be time to eat.

Sunday (August 26, 2012)

It has only been a few hours since I arrived here, and New York has already thrown up its fair share of surprises. In fact, they began even before I landed.

Maybe I'm biased for obvious reasons, but what struck me the most as we began our rather leisurely descent into John F. Kennedy airport was the number of number of sports stadia that dotted the city. American football pitches, baseball grounds, basketball, tennis courts - you name it. More surprising was the presence of a couple of soccer (hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do...) pitches, since the global game isn't exactly front page material here. 

But the most stunning sight was the sight of a ravishingly green cricket field replete with white-clad players and an avuncular umpire, although the latter might just have been my imagination - I was still about 20,000 feet in the air and barely functioning as a competent human being after nearly 24 hours without sleep. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that a full-fledged match of cricket was being played in a country that has proved famously resistant to the charms of the English game.

The other startling thing about the city, at least from up in the air, was how orderly everything looked. If you use Hollywood as a guide, and I did, New York is supposed to be in a constant state of chaos - with either giant reptiles, washed-out Cold War-era Russian spies or global warming out to destroy it. 

You'd expect to see nothing but absolute, utter bedlam. All I observed was buildings and streets as far as the eye could see, all neatly arranged in grids or concentric semi-circles with the massive splash of welcoming green that is Central Park adding to the sense of serenity. That didn't last long, of course.

Trying to take a cab from Madison Square Garden back to my hotel later, I stood around a cluster of people, naturally assuming (I've been living in Singapore for a long time now) that they would soon unravel themselves into a polite queue. No such luck. I was a mere bystander as they whizzed past me as if shot out of a cannon. 

It was only after "losing" about five cabs out of sheer shock that I gathered myself together - using the hefty backpack on my back as an oscillating weapon to clear the crowd and spring into one myself. New York? Calm? Hah!

As far as the US Open goes, someone here told me the subways had been plastered with Rafael Nadal's images before the Spaniard pulled out of the tournament due to a knee problem. And I ended the day by watching last year's final between Nadal and Djokovic. He may have lost, but there is no doubt Nadal's all-action, machismo filled style electrifies the crowd like few other players. He will be hugely missed here.

But there are a lot of other things to look forward to - Kim Clijsters' final Slam appearance, Roger Federer's quest for number 18 - the maestro starts against Donald Young on Monday - Andy Murray's quest for number one and Novak Djokovic's attempt to recapture the magic from last season. 

Tomorrow cannot come soon enough.

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