At this US Open, you need a deft serve ... and a sponge

Idle players and fans in Flushing Meadows turn to PlayStation, cards, and, yes, grousing to kill time.

Mother Nature took a supersoaker to the US Open this week. Nearly every tennis match was washed out Monday through Wednesday. By Thursday, tournament officials were racing to see if enough play could be squeezed between the raindrops to keep the tournament from running past Sunday. The last time that happened was 1987.

With nothing happening on the 25 courts, it was time for the assembled 1,500-strong media horde to speculate. In the broadcast booth, John McEnroe is getting apoplectic about the need for a roofed stadium, unleashing all the fury (minus the profanity) that he used to reserve for umpires. After all, he complains, hadn't the Australians built two covered stadiums for their national tournament?

Among reporters and fans, some grow restless. Didn't the Mets go ahead and play baseball at Shea Stadium right next door? Couldn't the courts be covered with tented tarps the way the chaps at ever-wet Wimbledon do it? And isn't there something more high-tech to dry the courts than an army of kneeling grounds crew playing wipeout with towels?

Inside Arthur Ashe stadium, players are hitting tennis balls to fans in the stands. One spectator is brought down to hit a couple of serves on the same court where Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi once dueled on international television. Outside, others could pose for a photo standing next to a cutout of their favorite player or hoisting the winner's trophy over their heads.

Inside the "Smash Zone" exhibit, they could have their serve timed by a radar gun or play "virtual tennis" by donning a headset and goggles.

At the players lounge, Martina Navratilova arrives, with her tiny Chihuahua, Chloe, taking mincing steps beside her. She hands her to a friend and heads off into a restricted area. A reporter pets little Chloe, just six months old, who gently licks his hand.

Patrick McEnroe, brother of John and himself a TV commentator, is being taped for a broadcast bit about playing table tennis. The gag is that his opponent constantly asks a "ball boy" for a towel and new ping-pong balls, then angrily smacks away those he doesn't like, à la brother John in his playing days. Soon big brother himself strolls by and hands Patrick a book. "A fan gave it to me and said it'll help our Davis Cup team win. You better read it." (Patrick is captain of the team.)

In the upstairs lounge, the No. 1-ranked women's player in the world, Belgium's Kim Clijsters, sits along a wall, playing cards with friends. She'd been called to the stadium, grabbed a quick 3-0 first-set lead against Amelie Mauresmo, and then headed for cover when the rain kicked in again. Croatian Ivan Ljubicic, who made a fuss in the press after losing to American Andy Roddick, seems happier playing chess.

Todd Martin, an elder statesman of the tour in his early 30s, is in the children's playroom, checking on his 7-month-old son, Jack. A junior player sits at a table doing her math homework.

The only tennis match under way anywhere on the 46-acre grounds apparently is on a PlayStation here.

A record 106 matches had been scheduled Wednesday, but only one completed. Is this the wettest US Open ever? Bud Collins, who's covered the sport for four decades, takes the long view of a tournament that began in 1881. Don't forget the 1938 hurricane that delayed play three days, he says. And 1960 and '69 were tough too. But 2003, he says, is definitely going to be "a contender."

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