The U.S. open is New York City writ small. It has the buzz and bustle of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour and the tacky commercialism of Times Square. The fans can be as indecorous as Howard Stern, and as savvy as the handicappers at Belmont Park. The screech of the number 7 train and the whoosh of planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport provide the soundtrack. There are as many upsets as there are potholes on the Brooklyn- Queens Expressway and, befitting the city that never sleeps, matches last past the witching hour. Players either get amped by the electricity of the event or founder in the ambient chaos.
And that's in a normal year. Tennis fans can scarcely contemplate the twists that await the 2003 Open, which begins on Monday. This has been a year notable for its absurdity, as a few snapshots from last week illustrate: Despite never having won a Grand Slam singles title, Kim Clijsters inherited the top ranking on the WTA Tour (largely because of Serena Williams's inactivity) and promptly lost to little-known Lina Krasnoroutskaya in the third round of the Canadian Open. That upset suddenly left 46-year-old Martina Navratilova as the star attraction as she won her fifth doubles title this year. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the top-ranked player and oldest participant in the event, Andre Agassi, 33, withdrew at the last minute and faced a $60,000 fine. Then Lleyton Hewitt, until recently the most consistent player over the past two years, lost for the third time in four matches, in the first round.
As the two congenitally antic tours converge on an inherently frazzled Open, divining a winner is well-nigh impossible. We can, however, provide a few plotlines to follow during a tournament that promises to bury the needle on the bizarre-o-meter.
1 No Defending Champs
For the first time since 1971 neither the men's nor the women's defending champion will be playing. Since his emotional title run last year, Pete Sampras hasn't played a competitive match and has given little indication that he ever will again. (Sources close to Sampras say he is considering making a formal retirement announcement during the Open.) In winning five of the last six majors, including last year's Open, Serena Williams was trumping the competition like no player since Steffi Graf. But barely three weeks after winning Wimbledon, she abruptly underwent knee surgery and, to the delight of the rest of the field, will be out of action for at least another month.
2 Whither Venus?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that in Serena's absence, Venus Williams would be the favorite to win the Open, as she did in 2000 and 2001. But tennis doesn't do convention. Since losing to Serena for a sixth straight time, at Wimbledon, Venus (hampered by a strained abdominal muscle) hasn't played a match. (Not that she is alone: Each of the top nine American women has withdrawn from at least one event this summer because of injury.) Even if she competes in Flushing Meadow—as SI went to press on Monday she was still entered—Venus will be seeded only No. 4. Since her little sister surpassed her, Williams the Elder has looked decidedly vulnerable, her swagger reduced to a slouch, her smiles few and far between. Those sounds you just heard were shrieks of horror coming from CBS executives as they ponder the ratings of a prime-time final between Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo.
3 Depth of Characters
You think still waters run deep? Check out the men's tour: 29 players have won tournaments this year. "Anyone can beat anyone," says Roger Federer, the �bertalented Wimbledon champ who had to save seven match points in the first round in Cincinnati before prevailing against No. 114 Scott Draper. (Federer lost his next match, to No. 14 David Nalbandian.) The good news: Overall the men's game has never been played at a higher level, and matches have never been more competitive. The bad news? The parity makes it hard for fans (and networks) to gain familiarity with players.
4 Battling Belgians
Yes, it sounds like a Dutch comic's punch line, but it's no joke. In June two Belgians, Clijsters and the diminutive Henin-Hardenne, met in the French Open final. That two players from a country of just 10 million could reach the sport's pinnacle was a source of such national pride that their king and queen flew to Paris to attend the match. Now the two players are on the verge of a civil war. In the final of the San Diego event earlier this month, Clijsters objected to Henin-Hardenne taking a timeout after losing the first set and, after the match, accused her countrywoman of faking an injury and "disrespecting" the sport. To which Henin-Hardenne groused, "She was disappointed she lost. That's the only reason she's saying this." It wasn't the first time this year that opponents have accused Henin-Hardenne of traversing the line between gamesmanship and unsportsmanlike conduct Her take? The 5'5", 126-pound Henin-Hardenne surmises that the bigger players "don't like to see me running all over the court and having power, too. Mentally, it's hard for them to compete against me."
5 Lleyton Tendencies
Hewitt, the 2001 U.S. Open champion and the most intense competitor since Jimmy Connors, has unaccountably lost his edge. Mediocre since March, he has fallen to inferior players, squandered match points and shown little of his trademark fire. Hewitt has a chip on his shoulder the size of Arthur Ashe Stadium and uses what New Yorkers call agita as his fuel. But after so many on-and off-court battles—his fatuous lawsuit against the ATP for defamation is still pending—he appears to be running on empty.
6 The Young and the Restless
In the wake of Jennifer Capriati's epic burnout a decade ago, the WTA instituted age-eligibility rules restricting the number of tournaments that players under 18 can enter. As the women's game thrived, the rules went largely unchallenged. Now, with the tour's glamorous cast breaking up Friends-like and management groups desperate to capitalize on the Next Big Thing, that could change. If, say, 16-year-olds Maria Sharapova and Carly Gullickson make waves at the Open, the rules may be given early retirement. Speaking of which....
7 Retiring Personalities
If Sampras calls it quits, he'll be in good company. Martina Hingis is unlikely to play again. Ditto Michael Chang, whose farewell tour will, mercifully, end in New York. Anna Kournikova's handlers claim that a back injury may prevent her from playing singles again. It would surprise no one if the Open serves as a last hurrah for Lindsay Davenport and Todd Martin. Then there is the peculiar case of Agassi. He's older than any of the aforementioned players yet unquestionably can still compete on the highest level. But with a wife and son at home and another child due in November, who knows how long tennis will be a priority.