My first taste of the U.S. Open this year

Caught my first live taste of the U.S. Open this year last night.

They've made a few changes this year. First, they've painted the courts blue to make it easier to see the ball. I'm a big fan as it really works. Secondly, if balls are hit into the stands, fans can keep them. Considering each ball costs a dollar or two, I think that also makes sense. Lastly, after each match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the winner autographs four balls and hits them into the stands.

I still have no idea how you score courtside or even halfway decent seats to Arthur Ashe Stadium if you just purchase through publicly available outlets. I maxed out a 300mm zoom lens, multiplied it by 2X, and tried to handhold from my nosebleed seats. If I were any higher up my head might brush up against the Goodyear blimp.

The "Where's Andy's Mojo?" American Express billboards and banners and posters are everywhere. I imagine they'll be up for the rest of the tournament, a painful reminder of what a huge upset his first round loss was.

In the first match, Serena Williams toyed with Catalino Castaño and moved on 6-2, 6-2. It was a fairly lackluster match, and Serena was spraying the ball. Fortunately for her, clay court specialist Castaño didn't have any weapons to hurt her with, so Serena could attack at will. She still moves great and can cream the ball. The crowd wasn't all that engaged but gave a warm embrace to Serena when she announced in the post-match interview that she'd donate $100 to victims of Hurricane Katrina for every ace she hit through the end of the year.

Before the next match, the rains came and forced a delay.

The final match of the night featured Rafael Nadal playing American teenager Scoville Jenkins in gusty conditions. Nadal is the Mallorcan tennis prodigy, now ranked second in the world, whose known almost as much for his capri pants and chiseled physique as he is for his game. Nadal comes bounding onto the court, even just for warmups, wearing a sleeveless body-hugging t-shirt. Older men all around me explained to their wives and daughters, "That's Nadal, the hot young guy on tour." The women checked him out on the jumbo screen and clucked their approval.

It was my first time watching Nadal in person. I can see why he's so unbeatable on clay. He's lightning quick around the court, and he hits his groundstrokes with a massive amount of topspin. It's a heavy ball. On clay he's difficult to attack because the clay slows down any offensive shots, allowing Nadal to get to nearly every ball, while Nadal's heavy groundstroke bounce up around his opponent's shoulders. To attack his groundstrokes you have to have faith that Nadal's topspin will bring his groundies down short, moving in to attack them on the rise. It's easier said than done, though easier to do on a hardcourt.

At least once in every match he's involved in, Nadal pulls off his trademark crowd-pleasing, signature reversal. His opponent will hit some deep, seemingly unretrievable shot to the corner, but Nadal will streak across and get it back, then quickly scramble all the way to the other corner to snatch the opponent's next near winner. This will go on for a few shots until Nadal gets into position to buggy-whip a winner past his amazed and disgusted opponent, causing the crowd to leap to its feet with a roar. When he pulls of such points, Nadal sprints, leaps, and pumps his left fist Tiger Woods style. Federer is still my favorite player to watch, especially in person (he's one of the rare players who is more impressive in person than on television), but Nadal brings a youthful flair that offers a nice contrast to the stoic demeanor of the average USTA pro.

If Nadal can flatten out his groundies, and if he can move in and take some of his returns earlier (he stands a good seven or eight feet behind the baseline to return serve), he can be even more dangerous on the hard courts. He was conservative relative to Jenkins, who had a big first serve and forehand and went for it on both strokes to try and neutralize Nadal's speed. Jenkins gave Nadal a tougher than normal second round match but ultimately made too many unforced errors. Nadal was not playing all that way, not hitting many winners, not forcing the action. Jenkins was the one dictating play, but too many of his attacks ended up in the net or long. Nadal will need to play better to move far in the tournament.

Watching Williams and Nadal today highlighted how much lightweight graphite rackets changed the sport. I started off with my dad's wooden racket, then his aluminum Wilson T1000. Those rackets were so heavy that you had to make a full shoulder turn on your groundies, addressing balls with a neutral or even closed stance.

Graphite rackets are so light and stiff that they allow players to hit wristy forehands with a Western grip and an open stance. It's easier and quicker to get into an open stance than a closed stance, and the follow through with an open stance can bring the player into a ready position for the next shot almost immediately. Meanwhile, the racket does a lot of the work, as stiff as graphite is. Nadal regularly hits forehands off his back foot, yet he crushes the ball. If players today tried to hit that type of forehand with a wooden or aluminum racket they'd be felled by a debilitating case of tennis elbow before their eighth birthday.