Billie Jean King didn’t know I was drunk. By all accounts, I was an affable fan with shades of a speech impediment.
I wasn’t black-out, per se. But it was that time of the night. You know, the whites whiten. The blacks blacken. The eyes shift from video mode to photo.
Short, choppy snapshots documenting my conversation with sports’ most famous lesbian: Her GEICO commercials. My stoner college roommate. The top-shelf open bar selection. The U.S. Open. Just call it The Open, Billie Jean King corrected me. The players do.
The Open lacks the strawberries-and-cream mystique of Wimbledon. The earth-tone majesty of Roland Garros. But what The Open does offer is size on an All-American scale.
It’s the breathlessly ballyhooed, big ticketed Grand Slam finale. A fortnight of New York City glitz and glamour, American Express ads, and blinding flashbulbs in the grandest tennis arena of ’em all.
The final week of the final Open of the season promises to be an All-American affair, except for the Men’s Singles semifinals. 9-11-01 will be stenciled onto the court on the final day. Red, white, and blue banners flutter in the remnants of first Irene and now Lee.
But the dominant color is green. The U.S. Open is the highest grossing sporting event on Earth. The tournament will rake in $250 million in two weeks under the glare of the media capital of the world. Even stodgy CBS experiments with 3D TV. The better to witness Andy Roddick’s searing serves, Roger Federer’s impresario footwork, and James Blake’s wife.
Everything is unfolding as expected one week into The Open. Which is to say the Men’s draw plays out by the numbers, and the Women’s draw does not. The gentlemen cruise towards a Big Four semifinals and the inevitable Novac Djokovic- Rafael Nadal Sunday showdown. The Women’s draw, meanwhile, is spliced up and bracket-busted beyond repair. Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, tragically engaged Maria Sharapova, and Sjogren’s Syndrome-stricken Venus Williams bowed out. All the while, little sister Serena Williams (#28) steamrolls the competition.
What have we learned thus far? The court plays slow this year, gripes Roger Federer. Organizers slopped on too much paint for the liking of the grand artiste. Novac Djokovic recuperates in a $75,000 pressurized egg. Sjogren’s Syndrome is an incurable auto-immune disease where white blood cells attack the body. And a drug-addled janitor has been stealing laptops from The Open for years.
Here are four other observations from Week 1 of The Open:
4. Tennis Players Need Better Injury Excuses
Tomas Berdych had had enough.
The ninth-ranked Czech star was fed-up with the Bronx jeers after retiring down two sets to Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic. Fed up with all the skepticism. And now, fed up with that snarky journalist’s injury question.
“Why you always want to know it precisely? … I don’t even know…” Berdych hemmed and hawed. “Actually, it’s a pain in my right shoulder.”
A week from now we will remember The Open as Serena’s Redemption and Djokovic’s Coronation. But a week in, it is The Open That Everyone Got Hurt. A record fourteen players retired from The Open through Saturday, citing sore shoulders, food poisoning, and cramps. Critics point to the usual suspects: an interminable eleven month schedule, jet-lag, and/or trailing two sets to none to Novac Djokovic.
Even the dour Andy Murray tried to tweet what is believed to be his first joke in seven years:
“is the 18th pull out in the US OPen telling the tennis authorities anything?? No?? Thought not…”
3. Andy Roddick’s Wife Is More Relevant Than Andy Roddick
He picked his wife out of a Sports Illustrated. The swimsuit issue. He loved his beer chilled and his aces at 155 MPH. It was good to be king.
Eight years ago, Andy Roddick thundered his way to the U.S. Open title. The rough-and-tumble Nebraskan was the heir apparent to the Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. He was poised to continue the American dynasty and lord over the game with shock and awe.
Alas, the reign was all too brief. Andy Roddick simply came of age at the wrong time. And he couldn’t do subtle. His Sturm and Drang muffled by the finesse of Roger Federer.
In the last year and a half, Andy Roddick has spent more time in phoned-in Adam Sandler movies than Grand Slam quarterfinals. Mardy Fish assumed the mantle as the top ranked U.S. Man and upstart Donald Young waits in the wings.
Instead, Andy Roddick will be remembered as The American Lleyton Hewitt—a beer-chugging, linesman-cursing, son-of-a-gun who could serve a tennis ball faster than anyone on Planet Earth. Still, it’s good to be The American Lleyton Hewitt.
2. The Big Four Halved
Roger Federer is old.
The ageless artisan finally met his comeuppances at the hands of Father Time and the befuddling forehand of Rafael Nadal. The thirty-year-old now resigns himself to twilight years of Open semi-finals before riding off into the sunset as the greatest tennis player of all time.
Prediction: Roger Federer gracefully bows out to Novac Djokovic in the semifinals in four sets.
Andy Murray never belonged. The stoic, humorless Brit cracks under the grandest of stages. Thrice he reached a Grand Slam final and thrice he has not won a set.
Then there are the women issues. Andy’s model girlfriend nearly dumped him because he spent more time with his PlayStation 3 than her. Andy’s own mum lost interest, drooling over unctuous Spaniards on Twitter.
A banged-up Nadal and Djokovic offer Andy Murray his best opportunity to finally win a Grand Slam. He won’t.
Prediction: Murray outlasts Gilles Simon only to crumble to the Spaniard Rafael Nadal in straight sets. Murray’s mum is later unavailable for comment.
Rafael Nadal is worn ragged.
His fingers are singed from a hot-plate at an Ohio hotel buffet. His right foot blistered over. His balky knee always a long slide-step away from betraying him. And now there he is writhing in front of reporters with legs cramps Saturday.
The truth is the season could not end any other way. Roger Federer glides. Rafael Nadal grits. The swash-buckling Spaniard careens across courts with a reckless abandon. He treats each point as a street-fight. Mashing and slashing his way to ten Grand Slam titles. Grinding his knees to the bone. This is why we love Rafael Nadal.
If you want pinpoint brushstroke, watch Roger Federer. If you want passive-aggressive, might I recommend Andy Murray. But if you want aggressive-aggressive—If you want a rough-and-tumble gunslinger to love for all his virtues and faults, Rafael Nadal is your man. To air-it-out is human, to forgive is divine. We worship Rafael Nadal not just for his humility and grace but because he treats each and every point as a street-fight.
It will all be over a week from now. Rafael Nadal will fish off the emerald coasts of Majorca. His fingers will heal. The cramps will fade. But that other ache will still nag. Not a sore or a strain but a 6 foot 2 inch, cross-dressing Serbian.
Rafael Nadal is not used to this. He was forever the swash-buckling youngster gunning for Federer. Yet he has now been caught and eclipsed by a prankster two years his junior. He knows Nadal’s routes. He knows Nadal’s flimsy backhand slice. And he especially knows he is in Nadal’s head.
Prediction: The Spaniard is 0-5 this year against the Serbian. And 0-6, come four grinding sets this Sunday.
Somewhere in between casting lines, Nadal will cringe. He will cringe that vicious Serbian serve. He will cringe when Novac Djokovic hoists The Open trophy—his trophy. And he will once again cringe at that wretched hot plate in Ohio.
Novac Djokovic had had a couple. Team Serbia clinched the Davis Cup, the boys were boozing, and Novac Djokovic felt like tweeting about it. The drinks poured stronger. The tweets, shorter. Incoherent.
Djokovic sobered up, cut wine and pizza from his diet, and has lost only twice since. His 2011 will rank with John McEnroe’s 1984 as one of the greatest tennis seasons of all time. Djokovic’s bejeweled haul will glisten with The Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and #1 player in the world hardware.
Now he wants the celebrity. Djokovic eclipsed Nadal and Federer in tennis rankings but not Q-rating. The Serbian pines for the lights of Hollywood after those of center court. And he is trying in his own eccentric (read: European) way. So there he is teaching Leno a Serbian jig. There he is again donning a blonde wig as Maria Sharapova. And there he will be on Letterman next week, awash in championship afterglow, reading the Top 10.
And maybe, just maybe, treating himself to a couple in the green room.
1. I Will Not Be Invited Back To That Tennis Benefit
I’m not sure why Billie Jean King left. Maybe I rambled on too long. Perhaps she really did have another engagement. But most likely it was the question.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask.”
“Shoot,” Billie Jean King said.
She may have been expecting another question about the Battle of the Sexes. Or the future of the women’s game. This was not one of those questions.
“Gay marriage. I’m all for it,” I started carefully. Building up my conversation capital. “But when two women get married… do they both get bachelorette parties? How does that work?”
Billie Jean King scratched her head. Then she chuckled. “That’s a good question. I’d assume so. But I’ll have to ask around.”
And with that her publicist whisked her away. As though the episode never happened.