Pressure Cooker on Court
If anything, the last few days have demonstrated why the U.S. Open is utterly unique in the world of tennis, perhaps sports.
In rapid succession, the world's best female player - Serena Williams - and best male player - Roger Federer - wilted under the hot lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows.
Williams lost on Saturday night to an unranked Kim Clijsters, who had been out of the game for three years, and made herself look like a boor for berating a lineswoman while costing herself the match. At least, after two false starts, she finally apologized yesterday and with apparent sincerity. Matter closed, in my books.
Then there was Federer. Against a 20-year-old Argentine to whom he'd never lost, Federer looked in complete command after a set-and-a-half but then gradually watched his game unravel. His opponent, Juan Martin del Porto, got away with an obvious cheat by claiming not to have been ready when Federer fired an ace, and that seemed to begin the processing of unnerving the seemingly nerveless Swiss who had won the tournament five straight times.
As has happened before, the replay review system drove Federer crazy - he once asked a Wimbledon official to turn it off during a match because it was "killing" him - and benefited his opponent. How the greatest player to ever hold a racquet has become so awful at playing the replay challenge game is strange, indeed.
As the match wore on, del Potro adjusted his game, reading Federer's slice better and taking some oomph off his first serve for more consistency. Federer, meanwhile, double faulted over and over, unwittingly mimicking the serving problems many of the world's top female players have been having. As he fell apart, he started whining at the chair umpire, hardly a Serena-like volcanic explosion, but surely a sign the moment was getting to him.
To understand the atmosphere at the U.S. Open, you really have to go there. It's different than the other Grand Slams, all of which have their own personalities. For starters, it's the last major of the year, leaving players to wait until January to prove themselves in a sport that has really become primarily about four tournaments. At the U.S. Open, the combination of late night tennis, the largest main stadium in tennis, noisy and demonstrative fans - a match on Louis Armstrong court is like going to a hockey game - the New York atmosphere and even the way players are interviewed by ex-players on court immediately after matches seems to create a steaming cauldron which brings out the worst in some. Like boxers, players are out there alone without helmets and facemasks to disguise their demeanor and moods utterly exposed when things go sour.
At the same time, the Big Apple brought out the best in Clijsters and del Potro, a new-old star and the tallest man at 6-foot-6 to ever win a Grand Slam event in tennis.
Williams' outburst was a scar on the game, but she and her sister, Venus, remain one of the greatest stories in sports history. Federer, meanwhile, may be the best, but the challengers never stop lining up to take a swing at him. His emotions got the better of him under the unrelenting scrutiny of the New York audiences. That said, he won two more Grand Slams this season, including the French dirt title that had eluded him, and like Clijsters, became a parent for the first time.
The game of tennis received oodles of attention over the past three days, some of it good, some of it unpleasant. But it surely showed itself to be a game with personality.