There are certain players I’ve disliked ever since I became a serious tennis head. Lleyton Hewitt and Martina Hingis have always been on that list. James Blake has been added to it mostly because of the JBlock.
So imagine my reaction when I checked the schedule of play for my first day out at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Who was playing on Ashe where I had paid beaucoup bucks for seats in the lower loge? Lleyton Hewitt. Martina Hingis and James Blake. Such is life.
I had to go on Tuesday instead of Wednesday because it is my family tradition for my daughter and I to go together the first day. She has classes on Wednesday, all day Wednesday, so our only chance to see some early rounds was Tuesday. I have to say we made the best of it.
The day started off in sweltering Ashe Stadium. The temperature wasn’t high but the sun beating down on you made for an unpleasant time. My daughter doesn’t handle heat well. I don’t either but she’s worse than me, and I found myself paying more attention to how she was doing than the match. Which was just as well since Hewitt vs Delic was not going to be a barn burner. Amer Delic is a big man. Hewitt, not so much. But the experience was on Hewitt’s racquet and while Delic got in some pretty good shots the match was over in the first set. Somewhere in the middle of the second set the cloud cover came and brought some relief to the fans in the seats and the players on the court. When the sun came back out again it was time for Martina Hingis match.
I’ve seen Hingis play before but it was many years ago. I wanted to see if she had changed in her style of play since she’d come back. Her opponent, Mathilde Johansson is a decent player. But Martina is too slick and too experienced for a player like Johansson. We left with Martina up 5-0 in the first set and headed for where everyone else was headed-Louis Armstrong Stadium to see Novak Djokovic vs Robin Haase. Haase, whose name is said more like “Hah-Say” is a lucky loser who found himself pitted against the new darling of the tennis media.
Armstrong is a funny place. You don’t need to pay a kings ransom to get a good seat but there is reserved seating. My daughter and I sat down in the reserved seating section and she began to take pictures since we were within a few feet of Novak. Armstrong is also more intimate than Ashe. We were fine until this loud family sat down around us making much noise about whether they should be sitting there which of course brought the staff who then began to check everyone’s tickets. Needless to say a mass exodus occurred since none of us in the immediate area had reserved seating tickets and we got different seats after walking past a few young women screaming for Novak. I’m sure he heard them.
I think Haase, if prepared, could have given Novak a fight. Instead he seemed mentally confused and played a poor match. There was no doubt about what the outcome of that match would be. There was a nice breeze in Armstrong and there were also patches of shade to be had. We got to the shade, got the nice breeze and watched Novak play with his food for most of the second set. I was bored to the point of dozing off so we left. Don’t get me wrong. Novak has all the shots and played as well as he had to against Haase. I’d like to see him live playing a higher ranked, and better prepared, opponent.
We went up the steps and walked around the perimeter of Armstrong and ended up watching Hantuchova vs Vakulenko. We had no idea who Daniela was playing until later though. The scoreboard wasn’t on to ID the players so we just knew Hantochova was playing this pretty tall, athletic woman. We watched for awhile and then my daughter wanted to head to the practice courts. My knee was bothering me by then so I told her to go ahead and to call me if anyone interesting was on the courts. She called me. Rafa was practicing and Uncle Toni was there as well.
All pain in the knee was forgotten and I made my way over to the practice courts that are behind Ashe. These courts are arranged side by side pretty much like what you see at Newport. They’re labeled P1-P5 with P1 being the farthest away from the fence and P5 being the closest. Rafa was on P5. As I did my best New York line jumping ending up right at the front about 20 feet from Rafa and Uncle Toni I heard that Roger Federer was on P1 court. If you want to see who is practicing over there there is a court that borders the practice courts and you simply climb up on the bleachers and sit or stand to watch. There was a good sized crowd over there but nothing compared to the crowd where I was. It was funny that most of us in the front holding onto the fence were not the young chicas but women who have been wives and are mothers. One, whose cell phone and digital camera batteries both gave out she’d taken so many pictures of Rafa and Toni mused aloud if it was wrong for her to be crazy about Rafa since she had a son his age. Before her cell phone died she got a call from someone asking her to meet them someplace else at BJK. She replied that she was twenty feet from Nadal, that his sweat was hitting her as she spoke and she was not leaving. We all laughed.
The fence where I was standing has a netting so that what you could see is filtered through that. I guess that’s why when I looked up and saw myself standing face to face with Toni Nadal I froze. He was retrieving a ball that was literally right under my feet. I consoled myself with the fact that the Spanish speaking woman next to me acted as fan girlish as I did. When he left to go back to his work we both went “Hola”. As if he could hear our whispers. We laughed and shook our heads.
I also got a kick out of how many of the volunteers, all female, came out to make sure the water cooler near where Rafa was practicing was stocked. It must have been full because each young woman strutted over to it, opened it and then closed it. They never checked the cooler near John Isner, who was also out hitting. He was on court P3. He is very tall. There was also a female player, couldn’t tell who she was, who was hitting on P2 court. Rafa was on the side nearest the brick wall so she first took up position on the far side of the court facing towards Rafa. She proceeded to get into a fake argument with her hitting partner. She then made a show of moving so that she was standing next to Rafa while she hit. He looked up after she stood staring at him for a few seconds and then went back to work.
When you hear them talk about Rafa’s work ethic believe it. I was there for forty five minutes or so and he only took one break. He sat down on the court and talked with Toni and his trainer for about three or four minutes before getting up and starting again. There was no yelling, no screaming, no disrespect shown to Toni by Rafa. There are people who would kill to have the racquet speed-amazing when seen up close, and accuracy Rafa has. But according to Toni he sucked. They were doing the same drill over and over and over. The one with the son Rafa’s age said Toni was being mean to Rafa. Everyone knew how she wanted to console him and her remarks were noted but not commented on. If Toni had something he wanted to say to his charge he went over to him and talked to him instead of yelling from the sidelines.
I did manage to look away from time to time and see what Federer was doing. The fans over there must have been sorely disappointed since Fed only hit a few balls and then sat down watching Toni and Rafa. Fed was dressed in all black which kind of surprised me at first but I guess he was out there just to say he was out there. I didn’t see him do much but admittedly my attention was elsewhere.
A film crew was waiting for Rafa when he finished and from my vantage point I could see him talking to them. Some of this footage showed up on USA’s pre show last night. They cut out the screaming from fan boys and girls. These two Asian women tried to force their way through the crowd but met a stone wall of yellow ball waving kids and picture taking adults. I don’t know how they could have interviewed Rafa with all the screaming going on. Toni was watching and laughing at some of what was being yelled out. They wanted him too and I guess he found it amusing. One woman standing next to me was screaming her undying love for Rafa. Thinking she was single I was stunned to hear the fourteen year old boy behind her say “MOM!!! You’re married!!!” She looked at me and grinned wickedly. I’m sure she thought of something to tell her traumatized son on the way home.
The word must have gotten out that Rafa was practicing because as we left, after he finished signing autographs, there were more people rushing over to see him practice.
We then went on a tour of the outer courts. We saw Flavia Pennetta who is very pretty playing Shuai Peng who is a pretty big girl.
Across from them Volandri was finishing his match. He is a very good looking man and stopped to take a picture or two with his fans. Blonds aren’t my thing but if you saw him in the street you’d look he’s that good looking. This picture doesn't do him justice.
We walked further and saw Radek Stepanek. He is not that bad looking in person. He does not photograph well at all. In person his mouth isn’t that outstanding.
Across from him Nadia Petrova was playing. She is not that big in person at all. We got some good shots of her.
After that we sat down in front of one of the fountains and looked at the scoreboard on the side of Ashe. We were surprised to see the Blake match was still going on but had no desire to go back inside. What made us move was seeing that David Nalbandian's match was starting on the Grandstand court.
For pure tennis viewing the Grandstand and Armstrong are the best courts. Fans are not treated like second class citizens as far as the seating is concerned and you can see and hear the players very well. The Grandstand was jammed. The pain was back in my knee so my daughter had walked ahead of me and had a seat. I ended up managing to climb to a row that let me see the court.
Dahveed is not “fat”. He does have a squat build though and any weight he gains will be easily seen. He is not as fit as he could be but he’s not in the Ahsha Rolle category.
With homework looming we left knowing Nalby’s matches can last hours. We laughed when we got home and saw that he won the match in three sets. The fans were swarming over to Armstrong as we walked out– there were lines waiting to enter the stadium – but we headed home. We’re thinking about going out again on Friday.