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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 glasses look ridiculous, no question about it. But get past that, and watching tennis in 3-D is undeniably cool. Aces whistle by so realistically that you'll duck. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for everything from the cartwheeling spin on some shots to the vast territory that players cover in a single point.

About $1 million has been invested in 3-D production at this year's U.S. Open, the last of the year's four Grand Slam tournaments, which takes place Aug. 29--Sept. 11. Using 10 special cameras positioned around the perimeter of the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, CBS will offer a 3-D option during its coverage of both weekends' matches. If you aren't among the 700,000 or so fans attending over the fortnight, consider this the next best thing.

There is, though, a certain irony here. Professional tennis has never been less in need of visual enhancement. The quality of the game is nosebleed high. Players hit balls with unprecedented accuracy and pace. They defend as never before, not only scrambling to catch up with shots no one would have reached a few years ago but also firing back with just as much force. Spark up YouTube and watch matches from the '80s: Comparing the tennis of John McEnroe and Chris Evert with the play of today's top pros is like comparing James Naismith's peach-basket game with the modern NBA.

Not only that, but the men's game is blessed with not a rivalry but a trivalry—a nuanced three-way power grab among top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia, No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain and No. 3 Roger Federer of Switzerland. Djokovic has lost exactly two matches this year (two, in fact, since Thanksgiving weekend of 2010), turning in what is to date the finest men's season since 1969. Meanwhile Federer and Nadal may end their careers as the two most accomplished players of all time. Want to talk dominance? In golf the last 15 majors were won by 15 men. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have claimed 25 of the last 26 Grand Slam singles titles.

Better still, each of the three is unique, playing his stringed instrument in his own key. Federer, now 30, is the dignified old lion, trying to use his artistry to stave off his younger challengers. Nadal, 25, the defending U.S. Open champ, is short on aesthetics but long on industry and courage. The 24-year-old Djokovic is utterly without weakness and has lately learned how to compete. In the current three-for-all there is, as Federer puts it, "something for everyone."

The relationship among the top trio, in fact, is akin to rock-paper-scissors. Consider the results of the year's last two majors. In June at the French Open, Federer played brilliantly to beat Djokovic in the semifinals, ending the Serb's 43-match winning streak. Nadal then continued his mastery of Federer in the final. Three weeks later Djokovic beat Nadal, as he has each of the five times they've played this year, to win the Wimbledon final.

The staircase down to the next level is a long one, but there will be other abundantly talented players in New York, suggesting that the Golden Age of men's tennis will continue when Federer no longer can. Fourth-ranked Andy Murray of Great Britain—a decorated champion if only he had been born in another era—discomfits opponents with accuracy and guile in both his return and ground games and is fresh off a win in the Cincinnati final. Juan Martín del Potro, a lanky Argentine ranked No. 18, hits his forehand like a man snapping a whip; he beat Nadal and Federer in succession (he is the only man ever to do so) to win the 2009 U.S. Open and is now recovered from a wrist injury. Other dangerous players range from France's athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to Spain's indefatigable David Ferrer.

The women's game is, by contrast, anarchic. The Open field is just that—an open field—as perhaps 15 women have a chance of winning. But here, too, the level of tennis can be exceptionally high. When Petra Kvitova, a 21-year-old Czech lefty, won Wimbledon in July, the BBC reported that her ground strokes crossed the net at 88 mph, faster than the shots of Federer and Nadal. And Kvitova leavens her power with touch; her slice backhand is precise and sharp enough to cut glass.

"She has a real chance to win many titles for many years," says Martina Navratilova. "This is no one-hit wonder."

All this excellence will find the perfect venue at Flushing Meadow. The U.S. Open is the most democratic of the Slams, played on a hard surface that accommodates all styles. The servers can serve, the retrievers can retrieve, the aggressors can aggress. There is also a sense that after the tennis tour has threaded its way from Melbourne to London to Los Angeles and myriad cities in between, the season culminates in New York City. This is where you finish strong.

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