In Grand Slam arms race, U.S. Open has fallen hopelessly behind pace
In 2014, the U.S. Open will be the lone Grand Slam without a retractable roof
Roger Federer's body language during his quarterfinal loss was discouraging
Petra Kvitova's victory could signal the rise of a new power in women's tennis
The U.S. Open opened Arthur Ashe Stadium to great fanfare in 1997, a state-of-the-art facility that seemed to represent everything great about big-time tennis in New York.
In truth, it was never that great. It was too big, almost comically so, giving upper-level fans the idea they were watching a pair of ants. It didn't carry the hint of intimacy, the hallmark of any great arena. And right now, it's little more than an embarrassment.
If you don't agree, you haven't been paying attention to developments around the world. The Australian Open has had a roof over Rod Laver Arena for more than 20 years, plus an additional show-court ceiling. Wimbledon's Centre Court enjoyed the blessing of its retractable roof (now three years old) throughout the first week of this year's tournament and has discussed plans to cover Court One. The French Open is planning a roof at Roland Garros in time for the 2014 event.
The U.S. Open? On a losing streak, stuck without the new technology, and seeing no way out.
In a bitter blow to last year's event, the men's final was postponed until Monday for the third straight year, compounded by a preposterous television setup that saw CBS rudely sign off the air (at the onset of a rain delay) and turn things over to ESPN2. The whole operation was strictly minor league, leaving one to think, this is the U.S. Open? That's the best we can do?
Several years ago, then-USTA president Arlen Kantarian would call the occasional press conference to reveal behind-the-scenes discussion of progress. It sounded reassuring, but there seems to be no feasible way to cover Ashe Stadium. It would be like trying to cover Nebraska.
There has been talk of putting a roof over Louis Armstrong Stadium, which once served as the tournament's centerpiece, but there are two problems: (a) It wouldn't be appropriate to shift final-weekend action away from the main stadium, to say nothing of potential ticket hassles, and (2) Armstrong was built on marshland and is due to be condemned, in essence, within the next six to eight years.
"I have to think there have been quiet talks about this," said a source close to the USTA. "There have to be. Because they have to do something."
Right now, the most powerful people in American tennis can do little more than pray for sunshine. Sensible answers are not forthcoming.
On other fronts, in the wake of Wimbledon:
Roger Federer is a placid fellow by nature, seldom given to excessive emotion on the court. He was a fiery, inspirational presence during his dramatic victory over Novak Djokovic at the French Open (ending Djokovic's 41-match winning streak for the year), but we didn't see that side of Federer at Wimbledon, where he lost rather discouragingly to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after winning the first two sets.
I'm sure Federer's loyal fans won't want to hear this, but check out these comments regarding his demeanor over the final three sets:
Boris Becker, on BBC television: "I don't see his emotions, his heart. He's going through the motions."
Author/columnist Peter Bodo, tennis.com: "I found myself wondering if Federer really wanted the match with the same degree of yearning. I don't know how else to explain his curious air of detachment. Most champions walk with their heads held high, and at least attempt to convey a sense of control, even when all the walls are tumbling around about them. By contrast, Federer seemed to retreat into a shell. He appeared to run for balls less because he wanted to than because had to."
Pam Shriver, ESPN: "You were looking for some intensity, some fire, the stuff you saw from Djokovic and Nadal. Look, he's won here six times, he's an amazing champion. But you still have to have that deep-down hunger. It seemed like Roger was thinking, 'OK, I'm gonna win this. No way Tsonga's coming back from two sets down.' Where was the passion?"
Nick Bollettieri: "You know what I saw? Man, he looked scared. I have never seen that reaction from Roger before. He looked frightened. And he got tighter and tighter as Tsonga got more and more bullish."
Sam Querrey is recovering from elbow surgery and John Isner is stuck in too-tall limbo (one of the leading figures in U.S. development told me that's a handicap Isner won't be able to overcome). The focus of American attention now turns to 19-year-old Ryan Harrison, who showed a lot of fire at Wimbledon and spoke with honesty and conviction about his future.
"My forehand is as good as anyone's if I'm hitting it well," he said after his hard-fought loss to David Ferrer. "I can hit it to both spots, I can hide it, I can dictate with it. My backhand needs work. It's getting a lot better. But sometimes I resort to chipping it because I'm not really comfortable firing at the line.
"I think I can win this tournament," Harrison said. "Grass suits my game. If I'm serving well, I'm not going to get broken."
In watching Ferrer, though, Harrison realized there's more to it than simple form. "That guy brings the same focus and attention to every single point, whereas I've checked out a couple of times," he said.
The temperamental Harrison has been fined numerous times for on-court outbursts (usually the trashing of his racket), and as Andy Roddick put it during Wimbledon, "He goes a little mental sometimes. He cares so much about winning and losing, which I don't think we've had enough of, frankly, in the States as far as the up-and-coming players. It's just a matter of him harnessing that energy a little bit."
Harrison admitted that "if I didn't have to worry about the mental side of things, I'd be a lot more successful. That's the facts of it. Just control your emotions. Sometimes when things start falling the wrong way -- and this goes back to when I was young -- the thing that has helped me has also been the thing that can hurt me."
How dominant was Petra Kvitova in the final? "Maria Sharapova got whacked," wrote her one-time coach, Nick Bollettieri, in the Independent. "I have never, ever seen that before, and this is a girl I've been watching since she was nine years old. Kvitova absolutely knocks the stuffing out of the ball. By the end of the match, Maria was five to eight feet behind the baseline. I've never seen her pushed like that before, and there was nothing she could do about it. We have seen a new power emerge in the women's game."
Longtime Wimbledon observers had to shudder at the sight of Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek playing together in the gentlemen's invitation doubles. Many felt Wimbledon reached a modern-day low point near the turn of the century when the grass was so fast, it left the game entirely in the hands of big servers. Krajicek won the tournament in 1996, Ivanisevic in 2001, sneaking in titles during the era of Pete Sampras' domination.
As you've undoubtedly noticed among injured players, conventional tape jobs are out, strips are in. Serena Williams had two of them on her upper back during the tournament, just one of many players who employ medically-treated tape that reduces the inflammation of an injury. It calls to mind a comment from the great Sue Mott, of the Telegraph, before the final weekend in 2007: "It is obviously a new trend in injury prevention, but it is unflattering to say the least. The players look like electrical apprentices who overshot with the duct tape. Hopefully, the women's finalists will arrive more like players, not parcels."
As the U.S. women's prospects fade into oblivion (Melanie Oudin? That's all you need to know), the international game just gets stronger. Remember Caroline Garcia's stunning performance at the French Open? The 17-year-old French girl nearly upset Maria Sharapova, drawing rhapsodic comments from some very seasoned observers. Well, Garcia barely reached the semifinals of the girls singles at Wimbledon, after a couple of desperate three-set wins, and she lost to 16-year-old Russian lefty Irina Khromacheva, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1. Australia's Ashleigh Barty, just 15, won the title.
A glimpse of the future: In the course of any Wimbledon match involving Nadal, Federer or Djokovic, the average first serve was around the 120-125 m.p.h. range. A female player, Sabine Lisicki, unleashed one at 124 m.p.h., and that's not so unusual for her.
Martina Navratilova stopped by the interview room one day, and she had some interesting remarks about the future. "I've been saying all along that the next wave of talent will be better all-around players," she said. "They'll come to the net more, they'll come forward. Not just going east-west, but looking to go north."
Navratilova said if she were in charge of a program, "I would teach a kid a two-handed backhand and a one-handed slice -- and a one-handed volley, of course. Just to have that variety of shot when you really need it. But the two-hander definitely rules right now. I really think if Federer had a two-handed backhand (to go along with the one-hand option), he would have won more French Opens. An average two-hander is better than an amazing one-hander because of the power and the topspin. You just can't get on top of the ball with one hand. Also, you're crossing your body. With a two-hander, you have the open stance and can get on top of it. It's just the way the game is played now."
Celebrities on the scene through the fortnight: Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Jackie Stewart, Gary Player, Ernie Els, Condoleeza Rice, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince Phillip and Kate Middleton), Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, Roger Bannister, Rory McIlroy, Diana Ross, and actors Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway and Maggie Smith.
It seemed like a nice story, on the surface, when England's Liam Broady made an impressive run in the boys' singles before losing the final. British tennis has been scorned and downtrodden for far too long. Then you discover that Broady's family is at serious odds with the Lawn Tennis Association.
Back in 2007, the LTA suspended Liam's tennis-playing sister, Naomi, after she posted pictures and boasts of being drunk on a social networking site. The kids' father now refuses to accept funding from the governing body, and he won't allow profiles of his kids in the LTA player guide. As a result, this was the Independent's headline after Liam finally lost: "Broady Rues Failure to Embarrass LTA in Final."
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