Of Coco, Billie, Barack and Broadway – Twists and Turns at the Open

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

NEW YORK: YOUR MOTHER DOES WHAT? So you start to think the world’s greatest city has changed. The people are so thoughtful, even kind. A cabbie is actually pleasant, Central Park is really fascinating – Wow! Broadway rocks.

Then on Third Avenue you hear a guy yelling at the top of his lungs, “What a rathole!” and on Second Avenue a car comes to a screeching halt and a woman jumps out and yells at a nearby driver, “Your mother’s a whore!”

A SIMPLE REQUEST: New York City Mayor Eric Adams told the crowd, “For those of you who are from out of town, I ask you just one thing – spend a lot of money.”

SPEAKING OF POLITICS: Years ago Donald Trump continually appeared at the US Open. Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price said, “It looked like he owned the U.S. Open.” But the President hasn’t appeared at the Open in years. Tonight, Michelle and Barack Obama came together to the Open for the first time.

COCO’S CLOSE CALL: Coco Gauff came out in a neon yellow skirt and top. It was the brightest we’ve ever seen. More importantly she has long been the brightest young prospect tennis has seen since 17-year-old Serena Williams, won the US Open in 1999. 

No wonder the USTA chose her to shine on opening night.

But for well over an hour he didn’t.

A savvy German veteran, Laura Siegemund, who’d beaten Gauff in their only previous meeting and won the mixed doubles and women’s doubles US Open titles, saw a chance for glory. Yes, four years ago Gauff gained fame when she scored a shock upset for the ages by downing the 39-year-old icon Venus Williams. But now the tables were turned.

Tonight an unafraid qualifier ranked No. 121 disrupted and dominated. Hitting slice forehands and charging the net, Siegemund’s anticipation was catlike. Her volleys were uncanny. Laura was ruthless. She won the first set 6-3. All of American tennis was petrified. “Our darling just can’t vanish!” thought many a fan. 

She didn’t. In the marathon first game of the second set, on her eighth break point, Gauff at last broke.But there was work to do. Siegemund is a fine German player. But Laura is no Steffi Graf, who won five times here. 

Tonight there were fierce feuds about time delays and fierce comebacks, but in the end the Floridian teen outlasted her tiring 35-year old foe 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 and Gauff (and American fans and officials everywhere) heaved a huge sigh of relief. 

LOVING BILLIE: Muhammad Ali towers over boxing. Each year baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson. This past season the NBA honored Bill Russell.

But no other living athlete – not Jordan, Brady, Gretzky nor Jack Nicklaus – is as perpetually honored as Billie Jean King is. And for good reason. 

The most original member of the Original 9, the WTA founder and Bobby Riggs-busting feminist set the table for modern women’s sports. Keeping up with her accolades is a cottage industry. Junior tennis just finished its definitive USTA Billie Jean King Girls’ Nationals. The US Open is played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the biggest team event in women’s tennis is the Billie Jean King Cup. 

King has not collected an Oscar or the Nobel or Pulitzer prize. But she’s garnered America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, and France’s Legion of Honor. At times, Wimbledon’s Royal Box seems like Billie Jean’s summer residence. Obviously, one of the reasons she’s so front and center is that no other segment of sports honors itself quite like women’s tennis. 

In 2021 the Original 9 became the first group to get into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. There were festivities from Melbourne to London. This year, in both London and New York,  there were big celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the WTA.  

And tonight at the US Open, there was an all-out celebration of Billie Jean and the 50th anniversary of equal pay for women at the tourney. Not surprisingly, the crowd loved the reflective ceremony.

EVERT NAILS IT AGAIN:  Chris Evert has had a slew of wise insights on the game over her many years. When Serena Williams seemed adrift and was suffering a mid career crisis, she famously wrote a letter to the icon and told her to get serious, to get real, and to focus. Serena did. 

Just this weekend, Evert faced the troubling complex issue of whether tennis should support Saudi Arabia’s troubling campaign, which aggressively uses sports to whitewash their problematic reputation. Evert noted, “The WTA is about equality. We have been leaders and role models in women’s sports. We have made decisions the last 50 years with integrity and dignity. We have empowered women.” Her conclusion: “Take less money and do the right thing.”

QUESTIONS:

  • It’s been 20 years since an American man, Andy Roddick, won a Slam. Can an American guy prevail in New York?
  • The US has five seeded men in the Open, the most since 2004. But can one win? For better or, more likely, for worse, tennis is largely about who wins the big Slam titles. An American man hasn’t reached a Slam final since Andy Roddick in 2009. No. 9 Taylor Fritz almost made the 2022 Wimbledon semis, but last year he crashed out of the US Open in the first round. Frances Tiafoe was within a set of last year’s final, but lost to Carlos Alcaraz in five sets. Frances, the product of Maryland’s JTCC, today dismissed Californian Learner Tien. No.14 Tommy Paul, who reached the Aussie Open semi and has beaten Alcaraz two times, is a legitimate long shot. No. 28 Chris Eubanks, the Wimbledon breakthrough star who reached the quarters, is next in the pecking order. Paul and Eubanks both won today. 
  • Can Carlos Alcaraz defend his US Open title? No man has done it since Federer in 2008. The Spanish whiz, who’s only 20, has won two of the last four majors. How many majors will he end up winning? Eleven, like Rod Laver? Fourteen like Pete Sampras? Twenty like Federer? Twenty-three like Djokovic? Possibly even more? 
  • After Serena notched her 23rd major, she tried 15 times to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams. She never did. Can Djokovic, who’s won 23 Slams, claim his third major of the year and the 24th Slam of his career? After a two-year absence from the US Nole has a look in his eye. One sensed a steely determination.

THE “MOST GOOD” COMMENTARY OF THE DAY: The US Open’s on-court announcer wrapped up her interview with the triumphant Frances Tiafoe by saying, “Look good, feel good, play good!” 

FEEL-GOOD WIN OF THE DAY: After being sidelined with a bum knee for nearly two years, American Jennifer Brady, who had made the US Open semi and the Aussie Open final downed Aussie Kimberly Birrell. The UCLA product said there had been times when she was sidelined when she felt useless. She commented that people take playing the circuit for granted. After all, she noted, “We get to travel the world hitting a little yellow fuzzy ball.” 

RUNE RUINED, SAKKARI SHATTERED: No. 4 seed Holger Rune lost to the unseeded Spaniard Carballes Baena while No. 8 seed Maria Sakkari lost to another unseeded Spaniard, Rebeka Masarova. Maria, who once was No. 3, told the Greek media SDNA, “Maybe I need to take a break. I’m suffering on the court…My mind isn’t clear and it’s difficult.” This was the third straight time the Spartan battler has lost in the first round of a Slam. 

CALIFORNIA FREE-FALL: Twelve Californians played today. And while Taylor Fritz and Jen Brady won – and Mackie McDonald pulled off a huge upset over No. 15 Felix Auger Aliassime in four sets – Marcos Giron, Emilio Nava, Learner Tien, Brandon Nakashima, Ethan Quinn, Kayla Day, Steve Johnson, Zach Svajda and Katie Volynets all lost.

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