Every major tournament has its own unique buildup. The Aussie Open is always so fresh. Roland Garros comes after a long, traditional circuit of iconic European tournaments. Wimbledon happens in a grassy flash. And, not surprisingly, the US Open is about New York hype and frenzy. But never before have we seen such a frenetic buildup to a tennis tournament. Maybe it’s because this is the 50th anniversary of the Open. There’s also a new stadium drawing rave reviews, new control-freak clocks, the usual controversies and no real absence of stars. In any case, this past week tennis has seen a crescendo of happenings. Free to the public “Fan Week” drew almost 100,000 people. Arthur Ashe Kids Day rocked.
There were exhibitions, grand openings, receptions, gourmet gatherings and many a virtual reality. And, thank God, at last there was tennis.
WHAT A WONDERFUL STADIUM – ‘THE NEW LOU’ DAZZLES: Some of America’s biggest tennis arenas have plenty of problems. Not the US Open’s brand-new Lou. It’s intimate. It’s tiered – say, like Carnegie Hall. Spectators are close to the action – thank goodness. You heard Aussie fans yell out, “C’mon Ducky,” as James Duckworth holds serve.
The new 14,000 seat stadium, which is the final piece in the Open’s five-year, $600 million makeover, is modern with an artsy, high tech look. Striking white beams, in its much-needed roof, dazzle. There’s a handsome orange wall framing the action. The roof is made out of 14,000 terracotta louvers that let in air and keep out rain. A massive scoreboard shows each point. So we get closeups of all of Andy Murray’s pained winces. Most of the seats offer shade, and there’s little wind. Not surprisingly, the stadium is fresh. Here there’s no hint of the Big Apple grime that’s a relentless part of New York’s grit-is-good brand.
Yes, it’s loud – too loud. Fans in Ebbets Field t-shirts chat with Federer fans in “RF” caps. The buzz can be brutal. But Simona Halep shrugged that off, saying the fans “were very okay…Every court is noisy here and this makes this tournament special. You don’t find this atmosphere anywhere else.”
Right from the start, “The New Lou” gave us news. For the first time in three years, Estonian Kaia Kanepi beat a top 20 player, as she downed Halep, the reigning French Open champ and No. 1 player in the world. Just as she had at Wimbledon, Halep suffered an early loss.
Just like Halep’s US Open run, a Louis Armstrong Stadium elevator I was on came to a screeching stop. And the line to get into the American Express lounge for fans seemed to stretch to the Bronx.
Still, after our first visit to “The Lou,” we say “Whew!” As we left Armstrong, we couldn’t help but think of Satchmo’s signature song – “What a Wonderful World.”
KNOCKOUT EXCHANGE: A reporter informed Andy Murray that his foe James Duckworth had endured five surgeries and then asked the Scot (who’s a boxing fan) whether tennis is getting as dangerous as boxing. Murray seemed peeved, and muttered “No.” The exchange brought to mind the immortal commentary by former heavyweight contender Tex Cobb, who said, “If you screw up in tennis, it’s 15-Love. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass, darling.”
SAY IT ISN’T SO: Denis Istomin won the Asian Games in Indonesia on Saturday and lost to Steve Johnson on Monday in New York…For the second Grand Slam in a row, three-time Slam champ Stan Wawrinka has to face Grigor Dimitrov in the first round.
FRENCH FOLLY: Yes, Anne White played Wimbledon in 1985 in a white bodysuit. Still, it would be completely understandable (however unfortunate) if Wimbledon got bent out of shape because Serena appeared in an all-white bodysuit at the All England Club. Fussing over clothes is part of their post-Victorian brand – God forbid a player might wear a red bra.
But for Bernard Giudicelli, the head of the French Tennis Federation, to tell Serena that she can’t wear her bold, fearless, this-is-my-body-and-I-love-it catsuit, is mind-bending.
After all, monsieurs et madames, this is France, where the mini-skirt was long celebrated, where Brigitte Bardot turned bikinis into all-but-required apparel for generations of daring young women, and where the body and sexuality are freely woven into an often cutting-edge culture. Giudicelli’s French Open edict is like the NRA telling folks to put away their guns, or NASCAR saying slow down.
Beyond this, more than any other non-French player, Serena loves France. She has an apartment in Paris, and at every chance she displays her impressive command of French. On top of that, she remains a huge draw in Paris, and, since Chris Evert’s heyday, no other American has come close to her three French Open titles. But never mind all this – Giudicelli said Serena’s catsuit will “no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”
All of this drew a firestorm of response. “Come on, this is the 21st century,” and “So men are still telling women what to wear,” were a couple of remarks.
In the Chicago Tribune, Christen A. Johnson observed, “The black female body has historically been cast in one of two lights: an obese mammy-caricature figure only suitable for child-bearing, or a hypersexual deviant who needs to be tamed. Giudicelli singling out Williams and her catsuit, specifically as a way to incite a dress code, would fall under the latter.”
On Twitter, Billie Jean King was succinct: “The policing of women’s bodies must end. The ‘respect’ that’s needed is for the exceptional talent @serenawilliams brings to the game. Criticizing what she wears to work is where the true disrespect lies.”
EMPTY AND CLOSED – A TALE OF TWO OLYMPIC POOLS: The retired Ana Ivanovic reached the very top. But though the former French Open champ was once No. 1, her career started at the bottom. During a frigid Belgrade winter, the Serb trained with her coach Dejan Vranes in an empty Olympic-sized pool as NATO bombs fell.
In his new, critically acclaimed book, “Arthur Ashe – A Life,” historian Ray Arsenault recalls how Ashe returned decades ago to his native Richmond, Virginia, becoming nostalgic about childhood experiences playing basketball, and swimming in an Olympic-size pool: “His reverie ended, however, when he noticed the pool was closed – and not just for the winter. He had been told that the parks department had closed all of the city’s pools in an effort to sidestep a court desegregation order, and actually seeing the empty pool saddened him beyond words…White Richmond clearly had a long way to go to overcome its segregationist legacy.”
FEDERER GOES AGAINST THE GRAIN: While many suggest that the traditional best-of-five Grand Slam format be changed to the best-of-three sets, Roger Federer said he is in favor of bringing back best-of-five finals at ATP Masters tournaments. “I know it’s for player protection, but I feel it’s an opportunity wasted,” he said.
GO FIGURE: Arthur Ashe, arguably the most philanthropic player of all time, was first inspired to play tennis at the age of six by a Richmond, Virginia player named Ron Charity.
SEED MONEY: Billie Jean King bought her first racket as a kid for $8.29. Arthur Ashe started with a $12 racket and then his aunt bought him one for $22.50.
HEADLINE OF THE DAY: ‘Why Arthur Ashe Is the Spiritual Father of Colin Kaepernick.’
SCARE OF THE TOURNEY: During his all-Canadian battle against Denis Shapovalov, rising teen Felix Auger-Aliassime bent over in agony as he suffered from an irregular heartbeat. He tried to play a couple more games and asked his coach what he should do before he finally retired.
SUPER SENIORS: Just how important are Serena and Venus to American tennis? Well, on Day One, the US Open featured the dynamic duo in back-to-back matches. Venus ended the day session and Serena was the headliner for opening night. Venus’ match against Svetlana Kuznetsova was a thirty-something wonder. Their average age is 35. Together they’ve won nine Grand Slams and earned over 75 million dollars. Commentator Cliff Drysdale reflected on Venus’ three-set win over the Russian, saying, “Neither of these two will let go…You never get tired of watching Venus play. She continues to electrify. She has great heart.”