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THEY'RE COMING RIGHT AT YOU
L. JON WERTHEIM
August 29, 2011
The biggest, richest sporting event in the U.S. kicks off in New York City on Monday, and this year it has a whole new dimension
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August 29, 2011

They're Coming Right At You

The biggest, richest sporting event in the U.S. kicks off in New York City on Monday, and this year it has a whole new dimension

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The players either love it or hate it; the constant thrum is infectious energy to some, repellent chaos to others. The sheer size of it all—the crowds, the endless concessions and the gargantuan Ashe Stadium, the biggest tennis arena in the world by a considerable margin—is either suitable grandeur or wretched excess.

While the tournament is often referred to simply as the Open, organizers don't scrimp on the U.S. part. Red, white and blue is the dominant color scheme. Evening sessions start with the national anthem and elaborate military processionals. The expressions of patriotism will be particularly strong this year, as the men's final falls on 9/11, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the most devastating of which took place just a few miles from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. On the final Sunday, "9-11-01" will be painted in white on the court surface.

The U.S. Open is also U.S. capitalism thrown into sharp relief. The rampant commercialism (even the umbrellas shielding players from the sun bear logos) expresses either astute enterprise or uncontrolled greed. Put simply, the Open reeks of money. Walking through the parking lot, you can be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled on the world's largest Range Rover dealership. The suits in the suites are Wall Street and hedge fund royalty. With all those moneyed fans filing in over two weeks—and prices in Arthur Ashe ranging from $50 for an above-the-timberline seat to $700 for a spot courtside—the Open has become the highest-grossing annual attended sporting event in the world. Gross revenue for the two weeks will approach $250 million. And given that the players' prize money barely accounts for 10% of that (even with the men's and women's singles champions taking home a whopping $1.8 million apiece), the U.S. Open is among the world's most profitable sports properties.

There is, alas, one American component glaringly missing: top-ranked players. And this brings up the central tension of this year's Open. While we're in a gilded age for tennis overall, it's a dark era for U.S. tennis. At one point earlier this year, for the first time, the weekly rankings contained no American in the top 10 of either the ATP or the WTA.

Serena Williams is still the prohibitive favorite on the women's side, having won tournaments in Palo Alto, Calif., and Toronto in the last month, but she and her sister Venus have come to resemble your mother's good china, making appearances only on special occasions. As a result Venus is ranked 36th and Serena 29th. On the men's side Andy Roddick, who this year ended more than a decade (gulp) as the top-ranked U.S. man, is 29 and often injured, but he will try against the odds to win the second major title that has eluded him for so long. At the moment the highest-rated American is No. 7 Mardy Fish, also 29, who on this summer's circuit won in Atlanta and reached the finals in L.A. and Montreal. After these players the cupboard's awfully bare, especially among the women. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the second-ranked Yank at No. 33, has more hyphens in her name than career WTA singles titles. And Melanie Oudin, the belle of the Open ball two years ago, has fallen out of the top 100. Not for nothing did HBO devote a Real Sports segment last week to the decline of the American game.

So is this historical low the result of the USTA's failure to nurture talent (the nonprofit USTA invests U.S. Open income in developing the game, but critics complain that it also spends lavishly on administrative salaries), or is it the inevitable result of an ever more global sport? Or is the real question whether nationality in tennis is even relevant? A good many players carry multiple passports. Easily half are now based in a country other than their motherland. Maria Sharapova has spent 17 of her 24 years in either Florida or California. Fourth-ranked Victoria Azarenka has spent her entire career based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and speaks English without an accent. Sharapova and Azarenka play under the flags of Russia and Belarus, respectively, making these patriot games seem rather arbitrary.

U.S. sports fans, nevertheless, can be a provincial bunch. We like cheering for our own. And while we're generally fine with Dirk Nowitzki or Ichiro or half of the NHL coming from abroad to play for our league teams, in individual sports we prefer to see a U, S and A following an athlete's name. Boxing will continue to struggle in the U.S. until more champions are American. Interest in the Tour de France drops when Americans are not winning. Likewise, as the Williams sisters go, so go domestic tennis TV ratings and general interest in the U.S. Open. If Djokovic were from Chicago or Pittsburgh, we'd be enthralled with his astonishing 2011 record of 55--2 going into Flushing Meadow. As it stands, he could walk down Broadway next week and, one suspects, go unnoticed for blocks.

There will be plenty of nostalgia at this Open, most of it harking back to the days of U.S. dominance. In Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, commentary will be provided by McEnroe, Evert, Navratilova and former U.S. Open champ Tracy Austin. Rest assured that we'll get our fill of Jimmy Connors on this, the 20th anniversary of his Open run at age 39. Images of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will appear throughout the grounds. It all suggests an insecurity about the present, a sense that tennis once occupied more glamorous real estate in the sportscape.

But it's not so. U.S. tennis isn't what it once was. Tennis, overall, is better than ever. So consider this a plea to fans to disregard the players' nationalities and simply enjoy the matches. Pick a star among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Revel in the embarrassment of riches on the men's side. Watch Kvitova. (Pretend, if you must, that she's from Boca Raton or Pasadena.) Appreciate the fitness of the players, their mental toughness, the simultaneous displays of power and control. It will be like adding a fourth dimension.

Follow @jon_wertheim for his up-to-the-minute thoughts on tennis and a host of other topics.

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