The first to introduce tiebreaks, the first to pay equal prize money to men and women — A Seshan on what sets the US Open, the season’s last Grand Slam, apart and who are the contenders.
The Grand Slam season in tennis reaches the last stage with the commencement of the US Open in New York on August 29. The transition from the grass courts of Wimbledon to the DecoTurf of Flushing Meadows is not as difficult as the one from the slow clay courts of Roland Garros to the former. While the players get only a few days between the French Open and Wimbledon, making it difficult to adapt, there is more time before the US Open. What is more, there are a number of matches held before the US Open that provide the opportunity to practice on similar surfaces. DecoTurf is a hard court comprising layers of acrylic, rubber, silica and other materials laid on top of asphalt or concrete. Inter alia, it is currently in use at the ATP World Tour Masters 1,000 in Canada and Cincinnati, the US Open Series and SonyEricsson WTA. It is midway between the slow clay courts of Roland Garros and the fast grass courts of Wimbledon. It is a favourite of serve-and-volley players. Hard courts do not allow the time needed for the huge topspin swings that do well on clay; hence few French Open champions win at Flushing Meadows. On the other hand, a number of players have won Wimbledon and the US Open back-to-back in the Open era. Besides Rod Laver (1969), they are: Jimmy Connors (1974,1982), John McEnroe (1981,1984), Boris Becker (1989), Pete Sampras (1993-95), Roger Federer (2004 to 2007) and Rafael Nadal (2010). Over the years, the US Open changed the surface from grass to clay and then to hard court. Connors is the only one to have won the US Open on three different surfaces: grass in 1974 (against Ken Rosewall), clay in 1976 (against Bjorn Borg) and hard court in 1978 (against Borg again). Chris Evert won on two surfaces.
The US Open has many firsts to its credit. It was the first among the Grand Slams to introduce the tiebreak system in 1970. It is also the only Grand Slam with final-set tiebreaks. In the others, the fifth set for men and the third set for women continue until someone wins by a difference of two games. It was the first in 1973 to agree to pay equal prize money to men and women champions — $1.8 million with an additional bonus of $1 million for the winners of the US Open Series this year. Super Saturday is one of the specials. To meet the needs of television, two men’s semi-finals and the women’s final take place on the second Saturday of the fortnight. It has the longest daily matches among the Grand Slam events starting at 11 am and going on well beyond midnight. Given the time difference, Indian TV viewers can see the matches during the night and early morning. This writer has spent quite a few sleepless nights watching TV! As the number of matches gets reduced in the course of the fortnight the viewer gets some time to sleep. Evening sessions start at 7 pm and matches are played under floodlights, due to the demands of the sponsors and television networks to facilitate prime-time viewing by the public. Borg could never win the title because he was not comfortable with floodlights, although he reached the finals four times. In 2009, the championship had another first to its credit. The US Tennis Association, which conducts the tournament, announced the launch of the US Open Bracket Challenge, which allows fans to fill out the men’s and women’s singles brackets in the draws on the website and compete for prizes. In 2006, the US Open became the first Grand Slam to implement the line-call challenge system incorporating the instant replay of calls.
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In 2007, spectators were treated to the amusing sight of ballboys squatting and mopping water with pieces of cloth after a spell of rain — Third World technology in the most developed country! Apparently, mechanical dryers could not be used as they would have damaged the courts. The US Open can learn a lesson or two from Wimbledon in this respect.
Every Grand Slam event produces some special moments recapitulated as the “Play of the Day” on TV. One such moment in the US Open involved Roscoe Tanner, called “Rocket Roscoe” because his left-handed serve was scorching due to a low ball toss and blinding racket speed. At one US Open, he delivered a ball so hard that it snapped a net cable! Long before racket technology entered the space age, Tanner had served at a record 153 mph. The current record is 156 mph, set by Ivo Karlovic in a Davis Cup match.
Predicting the winner of a Grand Slam event is becoming increasingly difficult. Apart from Novak Djokovic there are many other talented players — the two Ms, Andy Murray and Mardy Fish and the three Ts, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Janko Tipsarevic and Tomas Berdych. The ATP Masters championship at Cincinnati is to the US Open what the Rome Masters and the Queens Club are to the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively, in indicating the possible champion. At Cincinnati this year, Murray was crowned after Djokovic retired due to a shoulder injury. Both Federer and Nadal had been knocked out in the quarter finals. With a win-loss record of 57-2 this year, Djokovic would have normally been expected to win the US Open. But his injury raises a question mark as to whether he can go through the gruelling fortnight at Flushing Meadows. Murray may well realise his dream of winning a Grand Slam. In the women’s title, Kim Clijsters, the defending champion, has withdrawn on health grounds. A resurgent Sharapova was the champion at Cincinnati but she has to contend with Caroline Wozniacki, World No 1, Vera Zvonareva, Li Na and Petra Kvitova. Serena Williams gives the impression of someone who gets tired easily after playing one set. But she is leading the US Open series along with Fish.
Ramesh Krishnan reached the quarter finals in 1981 and 1987. Vijay Amritraj lost to Rosewall in the quarter finals of 1973 after having beaten the great Laver two rounds earlier. He repeated the performance in 1974 when he went out in the last eight again to Rosewall after a win over a young Borg in the second round. It took another seven years for him to get into the quarter finals again. Then he lost to Connors 2-6,5-7,6-4,6-3,6-2.
Leander Paes could not proceed beyond the third round in 1997. He and Mahesh Bhupathi brought glory to the country by winning the men’s doubles in 1999. Paes won the mixed doubles events partnering Lisa Raymond in 1999 and Martina Navratilova in 2003. Paes and Bhupathi received the doubles crown in 2006 beating the formidable pair of Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi 6-7,6-4,6-3. Paes and Cara Black won the Mixed Doubles in 2008. This year, we can pin our hopes on Paes and Bhupathi, who have just won the title at Cincinnati. Sania Mirza reached the fourth round in singles in 2005 and the third round in 2007. We may expect her and Somdev Devvaraman to progress at least up to the third round.