I attended three sessions of the U.S. Open this year. Twice I was there on days when Sharapova was scheduled to play. Once I visited during the evening, and she was scheduled in the day session, and the other time I attended during the day session and she appeared in the evening session. I realize that if she seems me in the stands she might just quit tennis and elope with me, but this conspiracy to prevent me from seeing her in person is getting out of hand.
Not that the pro women's tennis tour isn't stocked with other tall, leggy, attractive blondes. I'm resigned to the fact that it's impossible for the general public to obtain decent seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium, so I spent much of my time at the U.S. Open this year strolling the outer grounds instead (a grounds pass is a good value that first week because so many to players are pushed to the outer courts). There aren't as many seats outside Ashe, but the views are far superior (some of my US Open pics here on Flickr).
Everywhere I turned, I encountered gigantic model-sized women's players from Russia and Eastern Europe. Among all professional female athletes, tennis players probably have the most normal and attractive (though extremely fit) physiques. Tennis doesn't produce any disproportionately sized muscles or odd body shapes. More than just looking good, though, these girls can play.
Based on my scouting, the one to own in your keeper fantasy tennis league is Nicole Vaidisova (warning; loud, repetitive techno music on her temporary homepage) of the Czech Republic, only 16 years old but already 5'11" and a client of IMG. I watched from courside as she and Mark Knowles pulled out a third set tiebreaker to win their first mixed doubles match. She's been hyped as the next "it" girl on tour, one to follow in the footsteps of Sharapova with her combination of game, height, and looks.
Afterwards, she hung out courtside, and I chatted with her briefly. Several people interrupted to ask if she'd pose for photos with their kids. She was generous with her time, not at all unapproachable like many baseball players, to pick on one sport. For a 16 year old, she has big all-around game, including a big first serve. Project her growth, both of her game and her height, and the forecast is sunny. Did I mention she's not ugly?
I also caught matches starring some of the Russian contingent of top women's players. Elena Dementieva always wears a saffron/pumpkin dress and matching visor, her long hair tied in a pony tail or braid. She has huge quads that help her generate massive pace off of her groundstrokes, but she's most well-known for her shaky second serve. She throws her toss way out to the right and hits a feeble but heavy spinning slice serve that often flutters into the net.
I've always had a soft spot for Dementieva because of it, even though it's something she could and should correct as a professional. It's like watching a defiant bird with a clipped wing. Simply having to contemplate hitting it, knowing everyone in the stadium, including her opponent, is anticipating it, is a heavy mental burden, but to her credit she has learned to live with it. For a serve that travels so slowly, it's unexpectedly effective. I watched both Capriati last year and Davenport this year struggle to attack it, both of them falling to Dementieva in the semifinals. And once the serve is in play, Dementieva just crushes the ball.
I also caught bits of matches with Daniela Hantuchova and Anastasia Myskina. Hantuchova is a giant. What are they feeding the kids these days? Lebron James, Maria Sharapova, Dwight Howard...if someone offered to let me relive my youth with an extra 6 to 12 inches of height in exchange for not having one of my fingers or toes, I'd have to spend a weekend thinking about it. Hantuchova doesn't hit as hard as you'd expect of a 6 footer, and at the age of 22 she may be over the hill. Just kidding. Sort of.
Myskina is exasperating to watch when she's struggling. She's always berating herself, shouting at her coach, screaming at her racket, gesturing in disgust. She's like the hot-tempered, somewhat inconsistent poker player at the weekly game whose a lot of fun to be around when they're winning, but who always blows up when the inevitable collapse occurs, leaving everyone around them to stew in an uncomfortable silence.
I saw Gustavo Kuerten ("Guga") play, though only briefly, on court 11, as Tommy Robredo dispatched him in four sets, leaving Guga's contingent of Brazilian fanatics all dressed up in face paint with nowhere to go.
I also saw Roger Federer play again. Last year I saw him annihilate Tim Henman and Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals and finals to win the Open. It was the best tennis I'd ever seen from anyone, ever. He made Hewitt look like a club pro in the finals, breaking the little Aussie battler three times to win 6-0 in both the first and third sets.
In the match I watched this year, Federer beat Nicholas Kiefer in four sets, but it was a sloppy four sets. Federer even tossed his racket in frustration once, a rare display of emotion for the usually level-headed Swiss superstar. He still moved on. Some players just put others out of their comfort zone, and perhaps Kiefer is one of those nuisances for Federer.
Federer has dominated Hewitt recently, but Hewitt is playing near the peak of his game. If Federer plays like he did versus Kiefer, Hewitt could beat him, but if Federer plays like he did just two days later versus David Nalbandian, then no one left in the draw can touch him. I watched Hewitt dominate Dominik Hrbaty in straight sets. Hewitt's not my favorite guy - the racial incident with Blake and that line judge still lingers in my mind, all those "C'mon's!" when he's beating up on a lesser opponent are ridiculous, and he just reminds me of a silver spoon country club brat - but there's no denying that he's a fabulous hard court player. He resembles a video game tennis player in his impenetrable consistency, and seeing him advance was the lesser of two evils considering Hrbaty's pink shirt. That's quite possibly the ugliest sporting outfit in the history of tennis.
I caught Andre Agassi on center court against 6'10" Ivo Karlovic, a Croatian with perhaps the hugest serve in men's tennis. He doesn't get it up over 140 mph like Roddick, but it's a more consistent and deceptive serve, if you can call a 137 mph serve deceptive. He was bombing it into the corners and aced Agassi 30 times. To cut off the huge bounce of the Karlovic serve, Agassi had to move up to try and catch the serve on the rise, which is like moving to the front of the batter's box against Randy Johnson. Agassi's return is so good that he actually got a few. One Karlovic serve came in at 137 mph to Agassi's forehand in the deuce court and came back a millisecond later at about the same speed right down the line for a winner. Karlovic had soft hands at the net and should have serve and volleyed every point. Neither guy could break the other, so it went to three straight tie breaks, all going to the American.
Agassi, if he can overcome Ginepri, and if he has the legs, has enough power from the baseline to attack Federer, who is still prone to some errors off his backhand wing. Plus, Agassi has Gil Reyes, one badass looking personal trainer, in his corner. Just having a guy like that in the stands, in his dark, pinstriped suit and black shirt, has got to be worth a few points. I'd just like to see two players at their peaks in the men's final instead of a blowout.
The fans at Flushing Meadows appreciate an underdog which means they usually root for Federer's opponent. But more than that, his personality hurts him with New York fans. He's not demonstrative, he wins with an effortless ease, and he rarely shows much emotion. He's like Sampras in that way. It's too bad; he seems by all accounts to be a good guy, a generous one with charity, and his game is just classically beautiful. New Yorkers like their demonstrative, almost histrionic players (witness their support for an almost boorish Jimmy Connors in that legendary match against Aaron Krickstein), but they should rally for a classy guy in Federer.
Another up and comer who I caught on the Grandstand was #1 seeded junior boys player Donald Young. He's a 16 year old southpaw, just 5'9", 145 lbs. He looks slight, like a young kid just hitting around on the playground, but then he unloads a 131 mph serve up the middle and you realize he's got some game. He's feisty, a perfectionist. Everytime he missed a shot he held his hands up towards the sky in supplication and disgust. Someday, after he finishes growing and maturing, he'll be back at Flushing Meadows in the men's draw.
One thing I like about tennis players as opposed to golfers is that tennis players can deal with noise while they're serving, playing. During the match between Agassi and Blake, fans gasped and shushed and screamed during points, but the players never lost a beat. The average overpaid pro golfer (hell, even a recreational player) has a conniption if a mosquito passes gas, and this is with their target sitting motionless on the ground instead of moving at 100 mph with movement. No players on the outer courts complained as I snapped pics with my SLR during their matches.
One tip for making an Arthur Ashe match more enjoyable, especially if you're in the nosebleeds, is to use your American Express card to rent one of the free radios they offer. The radios allow you to listen in to the USA Network television commentary (usually of the Arthur Ashe match), and the color commentator these days is often John McEnroe, one of my favorite announcers in any sport. It also adds a lush aural environment, amplifying the audience murmur to an "ocean-in-seashell" level of white noise, allowing you to hear the thwack of the ball, cheers of the crowd, and grunts of the players more clearly than the annoying banker two rows behind you, blabbering on his cell phone. I rented one this year and will never watch another center court match without it.
McEnroe is a great tennis analyst. He and the always incisive Mary Carillo help to carry whatever tennis novice CBS employs as the play-by-play guy, usually Dick Enberg. Replace the bland commentary of Enberg with the dulcet English tones of Cliff Drysdale instead and you'd have the strongest announcing trio in any sport. I spotted Johnny Mac hitting around after announcing two matches during the day session and snapped a photo or two of him through the fence. He's the same old Mac, with that corkscrew service motion and hot temper. After missing one serve, he cursed, "Shit!" The first week of the tournament, he has a great work schedule. He stops in at Ashe to announce when he wants to, and if he's bored he seems to have free reign to go off and hit.
The outer grounds are fairly nice, with shops where you can buy anything from the Sharapova tennis outfit to Roger Federer's racket to a $40 giant tennis ball by Wilson, the most popular item for collecting player autographs. The food is passable but crazy expensive. Prepare to pay $10 to $15 for a burger or sandwich and $4 for a drink.
AOL sponsors an indoor entertainment center where you can test the speed of your serve and participate in a variety of other tennis challenges. I stepped into the net cold to test the speed of my serve and nearly tore my arm out of its socket just to hit 92 on the gun. If you're going to go for Roddick-type serves, make sure to warm up first.