As a high school sophomore in the fall of 1984, I had the good fortune to watch long stretches of perhaps the most exciting day in tennis history, which later became known as “Super Saturday. Back then, the US Open men’s semifinals were played on the second Saturday of the tournament, with the women’s final sandwiched between them. On this particular day, all three matches were classics, resulting in thirteen sets of terrific tennis spanning nearly twelve hours. First Ivan Lendl saved match point with a gutsy topspin lob and then rallied to beat Pat Cash in five sets. Next, Martina Navratilova fought back to beat her great rival, Chrissie Evert, after losing the first set. Finally, John McEnroe, who in 1984 was playing the best tennis of his life, used some otherworldly volleying to beat HIS great rival, Jimmy Connors, in five scintillating sets. It may have been the best single day ever for tennis fans. Until two weeks ago, that is, when my friend Chris McCallum and I staged our own version of “Super Saturday” at the Open. While few, if any, of the matches that we saw on the middle Saturday of the 2014 tournament could have been classified as “super”, rest assured that the overall experience was every bit as memorable.
Chris and I had grounds passes for the outer courts on both the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend. We would have gone down to New York on Friday afternoon if we hadn’t had a more immediate priority: Friday night was draft night for the fantasy football league we both play in. Last year I had drafted on my phone from a courtside seat at the Open as I watched Marcos Baghdatis administer a serious beatdown to Kevin Anderson. That may or may not have been to blame for my drafting a backfield of Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, but I wasn’t taking any chances this time. This year’s draft was held in the basement of one guy’s condo (Pete Brooke joined in from Australia on Skype), and judging from the instant analysis provided by the web site, I might have been better off drafting from my phone at courtside again. After we finished, I went back to Chris’s house in Derry and slept in one of the spare rooms. We were up by 5:30 the next morning- sadly, that’s just like a normal work day for me- and on the road before six in Chris’s new truck (play started at 11 and NYC is between four and five hours from NH, depending on traffic). We began our journey talking about two favorite topics, dating adventures and USTA tennis, but the trip took so long that we had actually exhausted both somewhere in eastern CT. So I asked Chris (an Australian), how he met and married his American wife, from whom he’s now separated. That turned out to be a fascinating story encompassing two years of post-college traveling, a courtship that played out across several continents, and a number of hilarious anecdotes that should probably not be repeated in any public forum. The timing of the story was perfect: just as Chris and his soon-to-be wife were about to finally settle down in New England, we exited the Grand Central Parkway with the National Tennis Center nearly in sight. Nearly! But as my younger brother has been saying for thirty-plus years, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. You would think that a place that had once been large enough to host a World’s Fair would be easy to find on a GPS. That’s apparently not the case, because ours “guided” us the wrong way down numerous one-way streets, which we were generally cruising at speeds far above the posted limits. The area didn’t look particularly safe and anyway, we were two heterosexual males, so stopping for directions wasn’t really an option. Finally we just started doing the exact opposite of what the GPS advised, and about five minutes later we were pulling into the parking lot at Flushing Meadow.
Normally I would have tried to arrive early enough to get a good vantage point on the Grandstand court, which offers the best combination of quality matches and up-close seating for grounds pass holders. But it wasn’t worth waking up at 3 am just to get a better place in line for that. Although Chris and I entered the grounds along with a huge mass of other fans at precisely 11 am, we were at least able to minimize our wait by taking the express line, which is limited to those entering without any bags or backpacks. We ended up spending all day on the outer courts and never did make it to the Grandstand. One new thing that really impressed me this year was that just about every court now has full stadium seating. Some of the stadiums were bigger than others, but they all now have significant seating capacity behind the baselines (absolutely the best place to watch from, IMHO), which hadn’t been the case in the past.
After spending a little while watching practice sessions and getting oriented to the layout of the tennis complex and the day’s schedule, we went to watch a match on Court 17, one of the lesser show courts (it has TV cameras and hence Hawk-eye line calling capability, unlike some of the more distant outer courts). We ended up in the second row behind the baseline, elevated quite a bit above the players but with a great view of the action. Kei Nishikori, a young Japanese player with great quickness around the court and exceptional consistency on his groundstrokes, had very little trouble with Leonardo Mayer, a bigger-hitting but far more erratic Mexican. Mayer struggled to find the range with his shots and even his family and coaches, in their courtside box, didn’t seem to put much energy into rallying him. “WTF!” Chris complained at one point, genuinely aggravated. “How does that poor bloke feel when he looks at his box and his friends all have their heads down?” I said that Mayer would never have made it as a pro in the first place if he was that mentally fragile, but Chris is a really team-oriented guy and he said that type of behavior from his support group would have bothered him. Mayer and his entourage may have behaved as if they had booked their plane tickets home before the match began, but to be fair, Nishikori deserved as much credit for the result as his opponent did blame. He was playing well enough that he later beat top seed Novak Djokovic and reached the final, becoming a household name in the process. Somehow I don’t think he’ll have too many more matches on Court 17. Chris came within a hair’s breadth of catching one of the autographed balls hit into the stands by the victorious Nishikori after his on-court post-match interview (every winning player at the Open hits balls into the stands as a fan-friendly gesture, although on the most distant courts there are no interviews first). Despite slamming into the side of the head of the lady in front of him, though, he lost out to another fan whose hand got on top of his and took the ball away. If only we had switched seats, my extra-long arms might have made the difference there!
We didn’t come nearly as close to catching any other autographed balls, but happily we did stay on court 17 for the next match between Carolina Pliskova and Casey Dellacqua. Pliskova was a tall and powerful young Eastern European player with long, smooth, flowing strokes. Dellacqua, on the other hand, appeared to be playing a much more difficult game. She was short and clearly very athletic, but not especially skinny by the extreme standards of women’s professional tennis. Had she grown up in this country (she is Australian) she might have become a point guard or a top softball player. Tennis did not seem to have come naturally, though: she had a weak serve, her strokes were unspectacular, and she wasn’t even especially quick around the court. But she had great anticipation, hustled for every single ball and could hit winners when given the opportunity. Most important of all, she seemed completely unfazed by the pressure of a close match at a Grand Slam tournament. Pliskova did not share this trait, and so Dellacqua was able to squeak through by the narrowest of margins, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. The many chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie (pronounced like “Ozzie”)/Oy Oy Oy” from Chris and his countrymen and –women had paid off, but for me it went beyond that. Dellacqua’s win was a triumph of determination and grit over pure ball-striking talent, and at any level of the game that’s a possibility we all have within us.
After that nearly 2 ½ hour match, Chris and I were done watching women’s tennis, but we weren’t done watching Aussies, as we went over to a nearby court to see two of them, Chris Guccione and Sam Groth, take on the world’s number 2 doubles team, Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares. If you combined their dimensions, the Australian duo would have been approximately 13 ½ feet tall and 500 lbs. Peya and Soares were much more normal-sized, with the balding Soares even bearing a striking resemblance to our friend, fantasy football commissioner and 5.0-rated tennis player Mike Besserer (this was somehow true even though Mike might be one of the least Brazilian-looking people I know…). They were both great volleyers and blunted the power of the Aussies’ serves just enough to win a first-set tiebreaker and then make one break stand up in the second. As a USTA league doubles player, I noticed two things I could apply to my own game: the pros keep closing to the net from one volley to the next, something I almost never do, and they return serve in the two-back formation a much higher percentage of the time than I would have thought (they are NOT positioned right next to each other, though: the returner’s partner is farther forward, almost on the baseline).
We then went back to court 17 for another doubles match, this one featuring Jack Sock, a talented young American, and his Canadian partner Vacek Pospisil, against two Eastern Europeans with the last names of Mergea and Draganic. As neither Chris nor I had ever heard of either of these men, we speculated about their origins during the warm-up. While Mergea seemed pretty obviously a Romanian name, I couldn’t place Draganic. “I think he might be Serbian”, was all I could eventually muster. Chris had no clue either and couldn’t have cared less, but that wasn’t the case for the guy in front of us, who stared at me and abruptly said “He’s Croatian” in an offended tone. Leave it to me to mix up two ethnic groups who are mortal enemies and had spent most of the 1990s trying to annihilate one another. Wherever they may have been from, though, the European team was no match for the power of Sock and Pospisil in a match that ended 6-4, 6-2 but was never really that close. The North Americans served big, hit every return as hard as they could, and made just enough of them to get the service breaks they needed. Draganic had terrific strokes but suffered costly lapses in each set, while Mergea was by far the smallest player on the court and couldn’t match the power of the others. But while this match may have had very little suspense, I learned more from it than from any other on Super Saturday. One thing had to do with my foot positioning and swing on the serve, which I’ve still been struggling with. I saw that I need to jump forward into the court with my left foot and end with the foot almost completely extended, NOT horizontal. Then I need to swing much more quickly through the ball once my racquet comes off my shoulder because that’s the part where the pros really accelerate. Equally important was what I learned about the positioning of the net player with his partner serving. Most of the guys at my level stand in the exact middle of the service box, but the pros stand with their outside foot in that middle area, which gives them an extra step toward the center of the court. Even in my matches, the team that controls the middle usually wins, so I’m going to try standing there and see how it works.
By the time the match ended, Chris and I were hungry, so we went to the Open’s gigantic food court for something to eat. Every conceivable type of cuisine was available except, somehow, my longtime favorite, the super “delicieuse” roll-up ham and cheese crepes. Hoping that there was a crepe stand somewhere on premises that I had overlooked, I quickly texted Kamal Gosine, a fellow crepe-lover who had been to the Open earlier in the week. It was to no avail, though, as Kamal took a quick break from his job selling used cars to reply: “No crepes this year…but try the mojitos!” I tried a hamburger instead, one that almost lived up to its $15 price tag, and then went back for some more tennis.
By this time of day the play on the outer courts was mostly mixed doubles, which is not my favorite format, but we did get to experience two more terrific matches. The first could not have been more even. Melanie Oudin, the darling of the tournament a few years ago when she made a run to the quarterfinals, doesn’t have much success in singles anymore, but with a great return of serve and lots of fighting spirit she’s surprisingly strong in mixed doubles. Here she and her partner, Rajeev Ram, a tall, hard-serving Indian-American, faced off against doubles specialist Ross Hutchins of Great Britain and his partner with the last name of Chan, from Taiwan. Although this was still great tennis, the level of play was noticeably lower than in the previous matches we’d seen, leading Chris to comment “I feel like we could actually be playing in this match.” That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true, even if we were on the court with just Oudin and Chan. A 4.5 man is supposedly the equivalent of a 5.5 woman, but these are 7.0 women, so there’s still a point and a half difference. Chris and I playing against them would be like a 3.0 man playing against Andy Day; we’d hit a handful of decent shots but still get our asses kicked. Since we were in the stands instead of on the court, though, the spectators saw an excellent match. The teams split 6-2 sets and then went to the supertiebreaker (professional mixed doubles matches now use that format instead of a full third set). Although the men dictated most of the points, the play of the women ended up being the deciding factor. Chan made a critical poach and then Oudin inexplicably hit several balls right at Hutchins- he promptly put them away- allowing Chan and Hutchins to rally from match point down for a 13-11 tiebreaker victory.
By this time darkness had fallen, but there still a few matches finishing up and Chris and I found one which pitted two players we had enjoyed watching earlier in the day, Casey Dellacqua and Bruno Soares, against each other in mixed doubles. Dellacqua’s partner, Jonathan Murray, was a tall lefty with good doubles instincts, while Soares teamed up with Sonia Mirza, a slightly-built but hard-hitting Indian player with excellent groundstrokes. Soares and Mirza had won the first set easily before we arrived, and they soon went comfortably ahead in the second as well. Soares wasn’t overpowering but he had great returns and volleys and got to the net quickly and effectively, so as he was about to serve for the match I mentioned to Chris that I thought his game was a lot like mine. The Brazilian must have taken that literally because he promptly started missing balls left and right, and what had been 5-3, 40-0 lead quickly disappeared. Murray got more aggressive, Dellacqua chased down her usual allotment of balls, and the teams found themselves in a tightly-contested second-set tiebreaker. At that point Dellacqua’s serve once again became a liability, allowing Soares and Mirza to win by something like 11-9.
It was about 8:30 by then and the matches were basically over except in the stadium, which has a separate evening session. We could have watched that on one of the giant screens, but the match wasn’t particularly appealing and we had tickets for Sunday, too, so we decided to just find our hotel and get some sleep. Even the GPS we were using didn’t have much trouble locating this place on the outskirts of nearby LaGuardia Airport. Finding it, though, proved to be the least of our worries. The hotel was right next to a rental-car lot, and to keep the cars from being stolen in a sketchy neighborhood, the rental company had erected a large chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. All we needed was a guard tower with giant searchlights trained on us and we might have been in Cold War-era East Berlin. While we didn’t get a great vibe from the place, we figured it didn’t really matter because we were going right to sleep and would be leaving early in the morning. So I went to check in while Chris looked for a parking spot. Working behind the desk was a powerfully built middle-aged man with brush-cut hair and a pencil-thin mustache named Hilario, but there was nothing at all funny about his situation. The phone was ringing off the hook (hotel rooms in NYC, even two-star ones, are tough to come by over Labor Day weekend) and Hilario, who didn’t look to be the most patient of men, had to give each caller the bad news that the hotel was completely full. So when our assigned room turned out to have just a single king-sized bed I wasn’t about to go back and request a different one. The bed had pillows the size of some of my seventh-grade students, and Chris quickly took one of them and laid it lengthwise atop the center of the coverlet so we both would be able to sleep worry-free. First, though, I needed a shower, which normally is simple enough. Not this time. An instruction box on the wall said “pull ring out for shower”. There was a bubble-type apparatus attached to the shower head, so I started pulling that. Pulling, even increasingly hard pulling, didn’t give me the result I wanted, as water just continued to flow from the tap instead of from the shower head. When what I’m doing isn’t working but there’s no obvious alternative, I tend to just try something different and hope for the best. What I tried in this case was unleashing a string of unkind words at a volume that drew Chris’s attention in the next room. He came to investigate and finally pulled some small attachment on the bottom of the tap and, voila, the shower started working. Being in NYC, I’m surprised we didn’t get charged extra for it. Anyway, before Chris could give me too much shit about that, he was asleep in the bed with the seventh-grader-sized pillow down the middle. I got on my half and a few moments later my version of “Super Saturday” was over too.
Sunday proved to be far less super than Saturday had been. We did catch an excellent four-setter between Gilles Simon and David Ferrer from high up in Armstrong Stadium (the #2 court). Seeing was hard enough from that vantage point under normal circumstances, but it was also a scorching hot day and the lady in front of Chris had brought an umbrella and positioned it high above her as if she was camped out at the beach. To be fair, she wasn’t the only spectator doing this, but it wasn’t especially considerate either and Chris made several derogatory comments to me to that effect, at a volume loud enough that the woman was sure to hear. Finally she just got up and took her umbrella elsewhere. Simon is usually known as a counterpuncher, but against another player with that same style he got a little more aggressive, hitting the ball deep in the court and dictating play with his groundstrokes, and it paid off in a mild upset win. Shortly after that match finished, a heavy rainstorm came, and we eventually decided to leave rather than wait out what according to our weather apps was likely to be a long delay with no certainty of play resuming. By the time we got to the parking lot, there were several inches of rain puddled on the ground, but as our “luck” would have it, the later part of the rain inexplicably missed the city, and after about a two-hour delay the matches did continue, and most finished. We would have likely had far better seats than before if we had stayed, but by that point we were somewhere on I-84, with the wind and rain accompanying us all the way home. Around Worcester the conditions became especially challenging and Chris almost pulled over for a time, but we settled on driving “extra slowly”, which by our standards is something close to the speed limit. Later we found out that a hurricane had passed through that area at about the same time we did! Fortunately for us, the storm eventually took a path different from our own and the driving became more manageable. By about 1 am I was home at last, with many new stories to tell, however badly, plus a few good tennis tips that I’ll do my best to remember. And even though this trip will surely be a tough act to follow, I’m already looking forward to US Open 2015!