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The players' lounge was empty. I walked upstairs into the locker room. It was 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 30, the first Wednesday of last year's U.S. Open, and the only other player in the locker room was Pete Sampras. We watched the television monitor; on the stadium court John McEnroe was having problems in his second-round match with Paul Haarhuis. Sampras and I both had to remain at the USTA National Tennis Center, though for different reasons. Sampras had to play defending champion Mats Wilander in the next singles match in the stadium, and I, three years out of Princeton and struggling on the pro circuit, couldn't leave until the last first-round doubles match of the day began.
My partner, James Schor, and I were the first alternate team for the U.S. Open doubles. Sixty-four teams were in the draw; our combined doubles ranking had left us the 65th team. As first alternates, we would be placed in the draw if one of the 64 teams was unable to play. Given recent history, we stood a good chance: The previous year several teams had dropped out, thereby making room for alternates—often called "lucky losers" because someone else's misfortune is their gain.
We had focused our attention on Wednesday—when most of the doubles matches in the first round would be played. Of the 128 players entered in the doubles, surely one would turn an ankle, sprain a wrist or pull a muscle in a singles match. Or, because the Open is the least favorite Grand Slam tournament for most players, someone might choose to escape the New York City smog and noise after his singles loss and skip the doubles. We were confident.
7 a.m. The day broke clear and sunny. I awoke early at the Manhattan apartment of a friend I was staying with and took the subway to one of the official tournament hotels, where I caught the 9:30 shuttle bus to the tennis center at Flushing Meadow. There I found James sleeping facedown on one of the couches in the players' lounge, another commuter worn out by the hectic New York rush hour.
The first shift of doubles matches didn't go on court until noon, so James and I found a place to practice. Then we waited at the "command center" while each of the noon doubles matches was called. No luck yet. But we were not down. We still had plenty of matches to go.
With at least an hour and a half of freedom and anxiety before the next bunch of doubles matches would get under way, we went to practice. While hitting out on Court 32, we saw something that sent our hopes soaring. Jimmy Arias, who was trying to practice before his first-round singles match, couldn't even grip his racket. Something was wrong with his thumb, and after a few attempts at rallying, he left the court to consult a trainer.
Now this was something to keep an eye on—Arias was teamed with Jay Berger in a first-round doubles match scheduled for the next day. We did not, however, have to rely solely on Arias's swollen thumb. Sure, his prospects looked doubtful, but we had an ace in the hole in Slobodan Zivojinovic.
The hulking 6'4" Zivojinovic had won the doubles title at the 1986 U.S. Open with Andr�s G�mez. But after losing his first-round match in the singles at the '88 U.S. Open. Zivojinovic, according to player scuttlebutt, had chosen a Florida beach over his doubles match, to the delight of an alternate team. We were laying odds that this year's circumstances would result in a repeat performance.
When Horacio de la Pena, of Argentina, had asked Zivojinovic to play doubles with him, Zivojinovic agreed, but with a condition—he would play only if he won his opening singles match against Jaime Yzaga, a talented Peruvian player. The deadline for signing up for doubles was 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28, the first day of tournament play. At 5:55 p.m., Zivojinovic was still on court with Yzaga and the outcome was very much in doubt. Thus, de la Pena had a problem. What if he entered them in the doubles, and then Zivojinovic lost his singles match and refused to play? Big fine for de la Pena. (A player can withdraw without penalty in the case of an injury or personal emergency, but pulling out for no apparent reason is against the rules.) Then again, Zivojinovic might beat Yzaga. No one with a ranking as high as Zivojinovic was available at the last minute, and de la Pena needed the higher-ranked partner to qualify himself.
De la Pena signed them in. Zivojinovic lost the last two sets 6-4, 6-2, and he was furious when he realized he was entered in the doubles. James and I, on the other hand, were shedding no tears, since this was the chain of events we hoped would leave us poised to take a spot in the draw.