Above: US Open ball-boys waiting for the first match of the day
Wednesday August 24th, 2016 - Last summer, I only made it out to the US Tennis Center for two days of the 2015 US Open Qualifying Tournament. This year, I was hoping to make it three days, but looking at the schedule for Tuesday it seemed that none of the players I am most interested in seeing were going to play til Wednesday, so I decided to skip the opener (despite perfect weather) and head out to Queens for day 2.
After a sluggish ride on the #7 train, I got to the Center with time to do a walkabout before my first match. Major changes have been made: the new Grandstand is ready for use, walkways have been widened, and the addition of more restrooms and drinking fountains will be a boon when the crowds pour in for the main tournament next week.
I couldn't have asked for a more enjoyable day of tennis than what today offered. Mercifully, there's been a lull in the recent heatwave, though temperatures will soon start creeping upwards again; hopefully last year's catastrophic Hell-like conditions at the Open won't be repeated. Honestly, I don't know how the players do it: especially on certain courts, the sun is utterly merciless and there is no place to hide from it.
My day started with checking out a new (to me) player: China's Yan Bai (above). He was facing the American Noah Rubin, who was a huge favorite with the very large crowd that had gathered for this qualifying match. Yan Bai seemed out-of-sorts, and after watching him lose three games in a row, I wandered over to have a look at his compatriot Ying-Ying Duan. I later learned that Yan Bai retired from his match, leaving Rubin to proceed into the second round.
Things were rosier for Ying-Ying Duan (above). After losing a tight first set to the Tunisian Ons Jabeur, the Chinese woman's athleticism and power prevailed: she dominated in the two remaining sets.
I then went out to the far courts to have a look at the new Grandstand; while there, I could hear the sound of some really big hitting coming from court 4, so I went to see who was playing, and found a really exciting match in progress.
The players were João Souza (Brazil), above...
...and Andrew Whittington (Australia), above.
Whittington has a cracking serve which Souza was pretty much able to reply to: they pounded away on point after point. The Aussie's tendency to over-hit allowed the Brazilian to take the upper hand; if Whittington can develop the accuracy to match his power, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
Souza reveled in his return-of-serve ability; his own serve (above) has an almost operatic quality: a slow build-up leading to a walloping bang! The final score of 6-4, 6-4 doesn't quite reflect the threat Whittington posed, but Souza carried the day. It was a hard-fought match, and the forceful, charismatic Brazilian enjoyed vociferous support from his fans.
Above: João Souza takes a celebratory selfie with fans after the match.
The rest of my day was vastly pleasing, as three of my favorite players notched up straight-set victories over combative opponents.
Japan's Yuichi Sugita (above) was the #1 seed among the qualifiers this year, and in his spirited match against the Frenchman Alexandre Sidorenko, the handsome Japanese displayed the wonderfully neat and crafty aspects of his game that make him a formidable opponent.
Sugita is a stylish player who likes to maintain cool control over his matches. That he can also dig deep and show a ferocious willpower was displayed in the sixth game of the first set where Sugita came from being 0-40 down on his serve to win the game in a series of impressively-constructed points. I truly enjoyed watching him play.
Above: Steve Darcis
I made it over to Court 17 ("The Oven") just in time for the start of the Steve Darcis match. Steve is a Belgian player who I have admired since first seeing him play at the 2007 US Open Qualifiers. In the ensuing years, his career has been something of a roller-coaster: once ranked as high as #44 worldwide, he seems to have been hampered by injuries which have kept him from attaining the position in the tennis world one might expect from him, given his skills. When he's on, he is ON...he plays textbook, winning tennis, and he's a joy to watch.
And that is exactly what we saw today: Steve Darcis methodically dismantled the game of American Tommy Paul, a bigger and stronger player. Undeterred by the blistering mid-day heat, the Belgian found his rhythm immediately and played some gorgeous points: his shot placement is just so much fun, and he can vary the pace by sumptuously floating the ball over the net, achieving enviable depth and control.
The crowd was very pro-Paul; Steve barely got a hand-clap when his name was announced. A bit later, a group of enthusiastic Darcis supporters arrived at the court, supporting him with shouts of "Allez! Allez, Steve!" Darcis marched to victory as if it was pre-destined. I was able to catch up with him on his walk back to the clubhouse; literally drowning in sweat, he thanked me for my congratulations.
After the exhilaration of the Darcis win, I wanted the best possible finish to my wonderful day of tennis, and it was Japan's Go Soeda (above) who gave me just what I was looking for. The day had turned sublime: a breeze had kicked up, shadows fell atmospherically across the courts, most of the children had been taken home, and a crowd of serious tennis-lovers ringed Court 6 for Go's match against the Roumanian Marius Copil.
Go Soeda would probably be considered a veteran player at this point, yet his still-boyish looks, taut physique, and bursts of energetic bravado remain intact; I've seen him play so many times, but never better than today. Copil was a strong opponent - and who knew there were so many Roumanian fans in Gotham? - who took Go to a tie-breaker in the first set. The second set was pretty much dominated by the Japanese, and I sat in the high bleachers savoring the beautiful evening and the brilliance of Go's playing.
Above: Go Soeda
Overall, this was one of my happiest US Open experiences since I started going in 1998. The drawbacks were relatively minor, though annoying: cellphones, babbling bystanders who indulge in lengthy court-side conversations with friends while ignoring the match at hand, and - this year more than ever - huge number of babies being carried about by earnest moms. I wonder if it's a good idea to bring tiny children out on such torrid days, a-glare with inescapable sunshine.
I also wondered if the linesmen should be required to take an eye exam each year: there were so many bad calls along the way.
My plan to return for the Thursday session was abandoned after I realized how sunburnt I had gotten on Wednesday. Hopefully some of my Wednesday heroes will continue to move onward.