US Open Promises Fitting End to Rambunctious Season
When at Wimbledon, do as the Brits do, quietly. When at the French Open, be chic. But when at the US Open, you can have a wild and crazy time.Skip to next paragraph
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As play opens today at the New York tournament that punctuates the close of the tennis season by deciding once and for all who are the best in the world, players are most likely anticipating more - of everything. More heat and humidity, more fans, more noise, more media attention, and more money.
"Every single year there's somebody trying to prove something, and the Open is a big decider," says Mary Carillo, a former player now broadcasting tennis events for CBS TV. "It settled things last year when Pete [Sampras] beat Andre [Agassi] and when Monica [Seles]" announced she was back by taking Steffi Graf to three sets in the final, she adds.
Combine those players trying to make history with New York dynamics and you have two combustible weeks of tennis.
The New York City backdrop pits new-world metropolitan chutzpah against the old-world charm of the other grand slams - starched and polished Wimbledon, the elegant French Open, and the casual, laid-back Australian Open.
"It's one of a kind," says Argentine Guillermo Vilas, who beat Jimmy Connors in the 1977 Open. Vilas says the crowd has a special "communion" with the players unlike any other tournament."When I won, people went to the court and lifted me in their arms and carried me around the court. That's the only time that happened in my career," he says.
American players, for their part, seem to thrive on the raucous clamor of the 20,000 fans who attend the big matches. Witness the crowd-pleasing play (and antics) of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Or the quieter but not less appreciated championship play of Chris Evert and Tracy Austin.
Connors's aggressive play and caustic comments had the crowds at Forest Hills (former site of the Open) and Flushing Meadows booing him off the courts in the late '70s, but those same fans cheered him on to crowd-pleasing moments and matches in 1991. (He played a four-hour, 35-minute match that lasted until 1:30 a.m. on his 39th birthday, defeating Patrick McEnroe 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in the first round, and went on to play in the semis.)
Where else in the world, Vilas asks, would you have a crowd that turned against its own - Connors - when he was "behaving like a bad boy" in the 1977 Open. But after Connors changed his ways, the crowd "forgave him right away and made the [US Open] his favorite home," adds Vilas, who now plays the Nuveen Tour that stages 14 events around the world for players over 35.
The newer New York fans go wild for Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, who returned to tennis last year after a two-year absence because she was stabbed in the back at a match in Germany by a fan of Steffi Graf's. When either Agassi or Seles entered the Stadium or adjoining Grandstand courts last year, the noise level was beyond bearable. Dozens of photographers lined up at the net awaiting their arrival, compared with a handful for the other stars.
That crowd also has warmed over the years to the more reserved Pete Sampras, the No. 1 seed who now has three US Open titles and wants badly to make it four in order to salvage an otherwise dismal year on the tour.
But if the US Open follows the pattern of this year's other grand slam events - on the male side of the draw at least - anything can happen.
The three previous grand slams have seen six different, and often surprising finalists. Boris Becker, who is struggling to make a comeback, had a dramatic resurgence and upended Michael Chang at the Australian Open. Two unseeded players - Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Michael Stich - met in the French Open final, with Kafelnikov claiming the big check. And after many top seeds tumbled during early rounds at Wimbledon, Richard Krajicek, the first man from the Netherlands to win a grand slam title, bested America's MaliVai Washington on Centre Court. Washington, inspired by Arthur Ashe, was only the second black man to play in the Wimbledon final.
This year's US Open draw didn't follow the ATP tour rankings. After some players threatened to boycott, tournament officials for the first time redrew the draw, changing some of the matches but not the seeds. Agassi, for example, is ranked No. 8 in the world, but is seeded No. 6 for the Open. Michael Chang is ranked No. 3 behind Thomas Muster, but seeded No. 2. Yevgeny Kafelnikov, ranked No. 4, is seeded No. 7. It opens up the draw so all the star players - especially Agassi - have a better chance of making it to the semifinals. It also opens the possibility of an Agassi-Sampras final.