How good are the tennis players competing in the U.S. Open, which starts today? Consider these names: Frank Dancevic, the Canadian number one, who beat Andy Roddick three weeks ago; Aisam-ul-haq Qureshi, the Pakistani number one, who played Marat Safin at Wimbledon this year; Israeli number one Dudi Sela; and Japanese number one Takao Suzuki, who last October came within four points last fall of defeating Roger Federer. What do these players have in common? They weren’t good enough to be guaranteed spots in the draw. All of them played in last week’s qualifying tournament, in which 128 men and 128 women compete to fill the final 16 places in the men’s and women’s draws.
I watched Qureshi play two qualifying matches last week, the second against Scoville Jenkins, an African-American player who has given Rafael Nadal a difficult match in the past. The level of play was nearly indistinguishable from that of the best players – after all, even Federer and Nadal, who dominate their peers like no other duo in history, only win 55% of their points played. Qureshi is an exciting player who forces the action by coming to net after every serve, but after winning a dramatic first set in a tiebreaker, he injured his wrist in the second and retired, ending his hopes to qualify for the main draw. Jenkins’ reward for qualifying? To face Federer in the first round. On outer courts this week, you’ll see the stylish Dancevic as well as many more familiar names. In Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums, where tennis’ upper crust perform their magic, court-side tickets are very difficult to obtain, so it can be hard to see human drama that is so palpable when sitting a few feet from a player.
Tennis is a sport afflicted by its white-shoe image. Investment advisers, insurance companies, and gold watchmakers lavishly sponsor the sport, but it’s a case of very unequal revenue sharing. Players outside the top fifty make much less than comparably ranked athletes in other sports, and the Jenkins’ and Sela’s of the tour scrape to pay for flights, hotels and coaches, despite the relative closeness of their abilities to the best. Marketers have tried to inflate professional tennis into a kind of upper-middlebrow fashion show, yet beneath this lies a rigorous sport that demands the discipline, dexterity, and intense focus of a concert violinist.
If you do get great seats at Arthur Ashe stadium, though, these skills will be displayed quite fully. Last Thursday afternoon, Roger Federer, practiced there. With an audience of about five security guards and your excited correspondent, media badge nervously clutched, in the empty 22,000-seat arena, Federer goofed around between points against Germany’s Nicolas Kiefer, then proceeded to hit his stunning and flawless strokes. Seen at close range, I can perhaps best describe his play as explosively graceful, or violently precise. He wasn’t very focussed, though, missing some shots and laughing, “Nein!” (Federer tends to exposulate in different langauges, using “Allez!” for the French, and “Come on!” in Queens.) At one point, Kiefer aced him, and Federer, without looking, smashed the ball off the tarp behind him, neatly banking it into the hands of a waiting hitting partner. It was the kind of thing you might see a magician do, yet for Federer it was just an absent-minded expression of annoyance. Such is life as the greatest practitioner ever of tennis.
Rafa Nadal, meanwhile, was literally waiting in the wings for his own practice session with the former world number one Juan Carlos Fererro. But Federer didn’t clear out of his chair, continuing to laugh and joke with Kiefer. Finally, Nadal, whose eagerness to hit tennis balls is infinite and joyous, walked out onto the court. At this Federer stood began to pack up his bag, with his back turned to his greatest rival – perhaps a subtle psychological tactic? Not to be ignored, however, Rafa playfully tapped Roger on the calf with his racquet as he passed, to which Federer brightly responded, “Hey Raf!,” and left Nadal to perform his own tricks.
The U.S. Open starts today. The schedule is here. A grounds pass is $45.00, and gains you admission to every court other than Ashe. Take the 7 train to Willets Point-Shea Stadium and follow the devotees.