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US Open Diary Part 4

by Jake Kring-Schreifels
A A

Serena Repeats As The Lights Go Out In Flushing

Previous Entries: Part 1- Part 2- Part 3

I’m running, no sprinting, out of the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium, one last time past the cafeteria, through the media garden door, into the plaza, round the fountain, and up the Court of Champions. I’ve got five minutes to catch the shuttle bus and the main entrance gate ahead of me is closed. I’ve got forty pages to read about Old Testament codes of purity related to things like bestiality and eating pork because I have class tomorrow. The gate is locked and I’m cursing and I’m going to miss this bus and I’m going to get in past midnight and I’m going to be tired all day and...

I’ve spent the majority of two weeks watching tennis. I’ve covered about 70 hours of this tournament, spent roughly 18 hours commuting, and have slept irregularly for all 336 hours of it.

There are things I will remember: Hearing shoe squeaks and player grunts, slipping through hordes of fans crammed between walkways, taking multiple blurry photos to get a perfect action shot, scrolling through Facebook during a changeover, drinking about thirty bottles of Evian water, pushing “play” to a John Hamm narrated automobile commercial track as a USOpen.org radio engineer, wishing I had a pair of binoculars, turning my neck left and right at Grandstand, listening to a head line judge mutter “15-Love,” nearly bumping into Rachel Nichols and Al Trautwig, waiting and waiting for press conferences, picking up stat sheets I will never use, looking at press conference transcripts to see my questions in writing, marveling at the stenographers who type reporter’s never ending questions, recharging my phone, walking onto the grounds to a violin quintet, watching Ralph Lauren ballboys and ballgirls show off their soft hands, standing feet away from James Blake, asking Serena Williams a question, making eye contact with her while getting a five sentence response, and perching on tennis’s largest stadium overlooking grids of blue courts beneath the Manhattan skyline.  

My last day covering the US Open is witnessing the Women’s final on Sunday. If you didn’t know already, Serena Williams won in three sets over Victoria Azarenka. It was “Déjà vu all over again,” and it was glorious.  

I’m in the second deck this time in a section reserved for media tickets that I acquire in line before the match.  It’s the same place I was last year to watch the same exact matchup. It’s late afternoon and one half of Ashe is bathed in sunshine. The court is stained with skid marks, the faded memories of aces and sneaker slides, equivalent to Wimbledon’s brown baseline blotches. The surface is laced with Nadal’s sweat, faded from rain showers, and worn of ball streaks. Both women wear rose-colored dresses. When I squint my eyes from above I see a Claude Monet painting: blues, greens, pinks. Artsy, I know.

Anyway, it’s a blustery day and the wind is making the American flag flap noisily. After warm-ups the players take their seats and rest before they begin the match. Usually the pop music continues to blare while fans wait for the proceedings, but this time it’s quiet for a good five minutes. Some twenty thousand fans stacked together are quiet, too, as if taking in the moment, anticipating something magical. This will change of course, when the drunks in the nosebleeds decide to scream first names mid serve and force the line judge to reprimand the crowd. But for this moment, it’s quiet. The rowdy little cousin temporarily controls itself.

Serena wins the opening set on serve but she’s upset with herself, swatting the air with her racquet and clenching an invisible stress ball. The great ones seem to never be happy on the court or playing field. The New England Patriots just beat the Buffalo Bills and Tom Brady, after leading a game winning drive is sitting with new wide receiver Danny Amendola and yelling (constructively) about a route or something. Perfection is the intangible that’s never attainable but there are some who never stop chasing it. There is no time to dwell. The great ones know this. 

She’s upset with herself for a reason though. She’s missing her first serves, getting disrupted by wind gusts that flutter her flimsy skirt. Vika fights back hard, countering Serena’s forehands with backhand winners, at one point lofting a perfect floater off a slam over Serena’s head. Down 4-5, Serena rips a two-handed backhand off a popup to earn the advantage and lets out a roaring scream. It’s the kind of scream that signifies just how hard Vika is pushing her, that knows she can’t rely on unforced errors to eradicate her position. Then the break comes at 5-5 as Serena comes back, down 40-30, with seven straight points to win the first set. For the first time there was a chill in the air. Fall was here and this was still anyone’s match.

Tennis has ambiguous cheers. Some are meant to be encouraging, others screamed out of panic. Here’s a sampling from Sunday evening, the highest amount I heard there all tournament.

“Serreeeennnaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!” (The standard first name cheer for the American favorite, each syllable getting ample time to be heard. This one is definitely one of praise and hope)

“Veeekkkaaa!!!! (The standard first name cheer for the underrepresented underdog, stretched out a little longer for dramatic effect. Again, praise and hope signified here)

“SERENA!!! (Short and staccato, but also one of desperation. Many of these circulate in the second set as Serena becomes mortal for the first time this tournament. These have the inflection of “Don’t let me down!”)

SUH-REEENNAAAA! (This is more of a whine with some pent up anger, someone too drunk to keep their vocal consistency in check. This has a darker tone to it like, “How dare you lose the second set, after all I’ve done to be here!”)

Vee-KAAAA! (Don’t worry, you have fans Victoria, and we’re going to let you know about it! We also like Pokémon and you’re name rhymes with the first part of Pikachu)

SRENA! (Clearly the most dangerous kind, the one that slips in right as the ball leaves the fingertips to be served. This stops play, boils over respectable fans, and sparks lots of SHHHHHsss!!!!)

I put on one of those earpiece radios halfway through the match that heightens and echoes the “THWACK” of ball on racquet and McEnroe explains that Serena is 65-1 after she wins the first set in her career at the US Open. During the changeovers the video board tells me I am sitting in the same stadium as President Bill Clinton and Randy Jackson. Serena serves for the championship at 5-4 and gets broken. She’s serves for the championship at 6-5 and gets broken. Vika wins the tiebreak 8-6 and the crowd is befuddled. What has just happened? That is the question fans keep asking themselves as they storm the bathrooms. Their bladders were on autopilot for two sets, but Vika has changed the landing time and thrown everyone into manual.

I like going to the mall sometimes even when I don’t buy something because there are plenty of opportunities to people watch. I think it’s a lost conscious art, something that happens spontaneously now instead of being actively pursued. If you ever get a chance to sit in Arthur Ashe stadium, or any large tennis venue, try people watching sometimes. It’s quite amazing. Unlike football, baseball, or even basketball (because the arena is so dark), you can lose yourself in the tennis crowd. I start gazing at Sarah Jessica Parker crosscourt who is playing with her baby. I glare at people in the last row giggling with drinks in hand and I see people pass through the exit gates on their way to get food. I’m zoning out, thinking about the next morning, what I’m going to write, what time it is, wondering what those people are still giggling about. Is this wrong? The third set of the final is beneath me featuring two women who have spent their whole lives competing to get to this point and for some fleeting moments, they don’t have my undivided attention. What does it mean to be here? What does it mean to be in the stadium to witness history that will be written down into record books? I’m present! I have to keep reminding myself. Maybe, just maybe, that is the experience I’m supposed to be having: people watching and getting lost in my head and then refocusing. Hell, that’s life.  

The fact remains that the two most important people to watch are on the court-Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka- and the match is rapidly slipping towards the reigning champion. Serena hits her hardest serve late, 126 mph and then changes up to 75mph on a second serve. This time the breaks don’t come for Vika, who pulls the final ball long and watches Serena propel herself five times into the air. It’s happened again, a three set match between these two women that seems to get better with age. They hug at the net and you can tell each really respects the other, each knows they’ve been driven harder than they have the whole tournament, which is really the entire point of a seven round marathon. Save the best for last, and they did.

Azarenka is gracious and humble during her press conference, a woman from Belarus who has nearly mastered the English language. The 24-year-old has two Australian Open titles to her name and seems to fall in line with someone like Andy Roddick, a player good enough to win more, but stuck in an era where greatness belongs to someone else. She still smiles and even cracks a joke about supporting Nadal because he took his shirt off for her. Redfoo, her boyfriend from the band LMFAO, accompanied her to every match last year, but he’s currently off in Australia filming a talent show. That might be her most scandalous attribute. She’s kind, she jokes, she keeps her head up. She is so dedicated that when someone asks how she’ll spend the next few days, she claims she’d love to be on the practice courts now! Serena wants to enjoy her win, but her last remark of the night also revolves around getting better, playing with Venus in doubles more when the tour shifts to Asia. The trophy is set up right in front of her, but she must look past it to speak to reporters. The metaphor is perfect.

So I’m running, no sprinting, out of the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium, one last time past the cafeteria, through the media garden door, into the plaza, round the fountain, and up the Court of Champions. I’ve got five minutes to catch the shuttle bus and the main entrance gate ahead of me is closed. I’ve got forty pages to read about Old Testament codes of purity related to things like bestiality and eating pork because I have class tomorrow. The gate is locked and I’m cursing and I’m going to miss this bus and I’m going to get in past midnight and I’m going to be tired all day and it’s a ghost town except for a few people power washing the walkways one more time in preparation for the men’s final Monday night.

Then a security officer approaches us jingling his keys and he allows the few other press corps freedom. I make the bus just in time and let out a sigh. Then the several of us aboard sit there for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, waiting for more press who are still busy on deadline. The floodlights guide our exit, the nightlight for a tennis tournament ready to turn off its lights and put the rowdy child to bed. For once, I have time to dwell. I’m a senior, and it’s the last time I may be covering this for a while. I’ve still got forty pages waiting for me. My head hurts and my eyes are tired. The bus lurches forward. Time to read.