It was about 3 p.m. on August 22, the second day of the qualifying rounds for the U.S. Open. An irksome, unexpected downpour had given way to heady, orange sunshine. The light blue acrylic court on Louis Armstrong Stadium glowed brilliantly. About thirty to forty kids, aged somewhere between seven and fourteen years old, thronged the outside of the entrance tunnel on the middle of the east-stand. They were armed with markers and other autograph-worthy paraphernalia: tennis balls, caps, t-shirts, posters, and even a solitary ten of clubs playing card.
Roger Federer, conjecture had it, was to come out to practice at any moment—the authorities at the U.S. Open do not release a practice schedule, but rumors abound. A pair of big, burly security guards dressed in sanguine yellow t-shirts with hands-free devices hanging loosely on their ears had replaced a scrawnier duo, fueling the speculation that someone famous would walk in any time. An enthusiastic woman mounted at the front of the stands leaned forward to ask one of the guards when Federer would walk in. “I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t tell you anything,” came the reply. “The schedule keeps changing, and with the rain, we believe it’s been put off even more. So we don’t want to promise you anything.”
Another woman seated just in front of me, three rows from the front of the stands, remained optimistic. The earlier pair of guards had apparently told her that Federer was indeed scheduled to practice on Armstrong in the afternoon. “I saw him practice here last year and the year before, so it’s certainly possible he is going to come out” she told me, unbothered by the dampening sentiments now coming out from the guards. The woman was waiting with her daughter, who looked no older than thirteen, for hours on end to watch Federer play. As the minutes ticked away, she suggested to her daughter that they go and take a look at Grandstand—which adjoins Armstrong and is no more than a minute’s walk away—where Tommy Haas, the handsome, fragile German was playing a practice set against the gangly Croat Marin Cilic. “Who wants to watch Haas? I don’t want to miss Federer,” the girl replied.
And then a bellow from behind us: “Federer, Federer, Federer,” a young boy, near the top of the stands, said. The autograph hunters leaned closer to the tunnel, bending their necks into the air, trying to get an early glance at the great champion. People seated at the west end of the stadium stood up, almost in unison; even the security guards seemed suddenly more intent, tightening their stance, and looking around to ensure that the path was clear. That the boy had no view of the tunnel or the player coming out of it seemed to matter little to anyone in the stadium. The ploy worked so beautifully that the impish fellow repeated it a few more times in the following half-hour. The crowd fell for it on each occasion.
With a few minutes to go to four o’clock, a striking man with a crew cut walked in wearing a crisp, white kit, a Head racket bag slung across his broad shoulders, accompanied by a hunched, older figure who carried training cones and a few tennis balls. It took the crowd a few seconds to realize that the first man was Mikhail Youzhny, a two-time semifinalist at the tournament and a fine player with a fluid, beautiful backhand worthy of its own fandom. But as soon as they watched Youzhny walk in, they turned their heads once again to the tunnel, somehow convinced that he was Federer’s practice partner for the day. Some even suggested that the Russian is one of Roger’s preferred practice partners; an evidence-less statement that only added to the crowd’s already giddy anticipation.
There are essentially four kinds of people who visit Flushing Meadows during the qualifying rounds: seniors aged upwards of 65, who have probably been coming to the U.S. Open for many years, and for whom visiting the venue in the week preceding the opening rounds is a near-religious necessity; moms and dads (usually either one of them) with their kids, mostly aged in the seven-to-fourteen range; really crazy tennis nuts, for whom this is an opportunity to see high-quality play from ridiculously close quarters, so much so that you can smell the stench emanating from a player’s underarm as he or she rises to serve; and finally the star gazers, the autograph hunters, whose only mission seems to be to get a scribble on a piece of paper from one of the top-rankers.
Apart from practicing on Arthur Ashe, (the center-court, which is closed to the public) Armstrong and Grandstand, players also train on four outer-practice courts located at the northwestern edge of the center. High flung grills separate the fans from these courts, and barring the first court, where lesser-known players usually practice, it’s exceedingly difficult to get a grasp of anything that’s happening on the other ones, save being able to glimpse at a few known faces. Serena Williams, for instance, practiced on the outermost court, wearing what looked like purple training pants with a flashy floral design, for more than a couple of hours on Wednesday. But all we could see was the fact that she was practicing and that she once threw a racket in frustration (which a friend of mine reported to me). Yet, people horde the bleachers outside these courts, waiting patiently for hours on end. This, for most, is a pursuit towards an autograph. Some of them even come with neat folders in which photographs of different players—Murray, Serena, Federer, Djokovic, Sharapova, Azarenka, et al.—are stacked in meticulous order, enabling them to reach out to the relevant gear in an effective and speedy manner.
Milos Raonic, the giant 6’5’’ Canadian, is one of the rising stars in tennis. Ranked sixteenth in the world, some experts reckon he is a dark horse for this year’s U.S. Open. But even as he was out practicing on Grandstand in the heat of mid-day, fellow Canadian, Frank Dancevic, who not long ago was the country’s highest-ranked player was playing Russia’s Teymuraz Gabashvili (a tour veteran himself) in the first round of qualifying on Court No.7. It’s easy to think of these players as struggling minnows, but both Dancevic and Gabashvili have won more than a million dollars in prize money in their careers. Failing to qualify for the main draw will hurt them from a financial perspective, but more than that it would make them fall in stature.
It was 1-1 in the first set when I waited outside the court with a pair of old women for the change of ends, when we would be permitted entry. The frailer of the two, dressed in a grey straw hat and fashionable blue glasses and carrying a green bag with “Wimbledon” emblazoned on it, told the other: “I’d root against the Canadian but his opponent is Russian.” They sat inside for no more than three games.
Dancevic, fuzzy-haired and easily combustible, is an interesting player to watch. His game is sometimes beautiful—his single-handed backhand is a real treat, and his serves are often acute and clever—but he is essentially a counter-puncher, generally doing nothing more than lobbing the ball to the other side and waiting for his opponent to blunder. For most of the first set (which he won 6-3) he was successful, frustrating Gabashvili into making a string of unforced errors. But as the Russian found the rhythm on his groundstrokes, Dancevic’s game faded, so much so that in between spewing harsh Croatian abuses, mostly toward himself, he launched a ball well over the practice courts where Serena was simultaneously training. He received a warning from the chair umpire for his efforts.
Once Raonic and Andreas Seppi, the twenty-seventh ranked player in the world, whom almost no one on Grandstand seemed to recognize, were done with their practice, Andy Murray walked in to play a couple of practice sets against Stanislas Wawrnika, a former quarterfinalist at the Open.The crowd, thin up to the point, began to grow as the pair warmed up.
Murray, unlike, say, Djokovic doesn’t muck around in practice. In the first set he waltzed past Wawrinka, not holding back on his serve or his groundstrokes, which he struck with ferocity. He hit his forehands—once his biggest weakness and now a strength—flat and hard, finding the lines with unbelievable accuracy. Ivan Lendl, wearing a blue Sparta Prague jersey, dark shades and a baseball cap, stood by his side, whispering instructions between points.
Even when in training, Murray’s famous ticks are in evidence—the constant tugging of his wristbands, almost as though they hamper him more than comfort him, and the grimace on his face even after playing a good stroke. Every little movement of his on the court is accentuated, his sneakers squeak at varying degrees of squeakiness, but the sound is pervasive. He also looked in great shape, chasing down seemingly lost causes, making Wawrinka play the extra shot. But the second set was closer; they were on Murray’s serve at 3-4 when the rain began to pelt down.
At 4 p.m., a huge middle-aged man, dressed in an Adidas kit, walked in to Louis Armstrong Stadium. He proceeded to drop his equipment on the opposite end of Youzhny’s—not a good sign if it was Federer that you were expecting. Yet, the fans stayed on, still queued in an unruly circle around the outside of the tunnel. This was not his coach Paul Annacone, but maybe he was someone from his camp who had a separate Adidas sponsorship. Nothing could come in the way of a good rumor.
Only, a few minutes behind him, another Adidas-clad tennis player walked in, racket in hand. The stargazers stared at him intently for a few seconds as he made his way toward the baseline, after exchanging pleasantries at the net with Youzhny and his coach. Having tried in vain to identify the new player, the autograph hunters slowly began to depart, vanishing, perhaps onto the outer practice courts to seek someone famous. The crowd on the west stands made their way out, as well. Only a few noisy kids remained, joking and running around in circles, playing pranks on each other. If this bothered Youzhny or Phillip Kohlschreiber—the German who only recently had his best Grand Slam showing, a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon—they gave no signs. They proceeded to warm up, first exchanging a few gentle rallies, and then striking dazzling single-handed backhands cross-court at each other.