Tennis: The U.S. Open and Why You Should Watch It


Q. If you do not love tennis, or have any interest at all in tennis, and are perhaps angry at tennis or tennis balls, or tennis shoes…may I ask you to reconsider?

I love watching tennis in part because I grew up playing tennis (losing to my older brother most of the time, which helped me turn into a good high-school tennis player for the first two years of high school, until I lost interest with high-school sports altogether, but kept playing tennis, in part because the courts were literally next to my house.

Tennis is unique because it is an individual sport (we’ll leave doubles out of this).  Like golfers, bowlers, individual event-track-and-field competitors, and long-distance runners, tennis players win or lose based on their ability to overcome their opponents.

If a baseball pitcher had no fielders behind him and was measured solely on the amount of line-drives and home-runs surrendered, as well as the walks and strike-outs accumulated, a pitcher’s performance would be akin to a tennis player’s service game performances (games in which he/she serves the ball).  Why do you care about that?  Maybe you enjoy fantasy baseball.  Maybe you know about saber-metrics. Maybe the concept of FIP (fielding independent pitching) is not new to you.  Maybe you can better understand how to appreciate tennis through your love of baseball.  Or maybe it doesn’t help you.  Moving on.

For recreational tennis players, live tennis is especially fun.   If you can get close enough, you can tell just how difficult the game is and yet how easy the professionals make it look.   How impeccable a great defensive player’s footwork is, and how much geometry and hand-eye coordination are a part of the game.  The ball whizzes around the court at amazing speeds (the best serves top 140 mph, the best forehands eclipse 100 mph).

What are some of the reasons non-tennis players have trouble becoming tennis fans?  Well, one major factor is exposure.  Other than Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, tennis is not talked about in the United States very often.  The other two major tournaments (Australian and French) take place at hard-to-watch times and are barely televised in the United States.  To make things worse, the Australian takes place in January, when most sports fans are bombarded by football and basketball.

Another factor is that tennis doesn’t fit into the mold of stereotypical masculine American culture.  Though tennis players are often in better physical shape than most baseball players, tennis players are often tall and skinny.  The muscled physique of Rafael Nadal is an exception.  Most tennis players have tremendously strong legs, very low body fat, and massive forearms, but their bodies might not be shown on a bow-flex commercial, or as endorsements for supplements, attempting to attract the muscle-bound, iron-pumping, beefy American male.  If you are a typical modern American male, you may enjoy violent collisions, aggressive displays of dominance, and the more visceral aspects of contact sports.  The most violent collision that happens in singles tennis is when a player scampers to the net racing after a drop shot and inadvertently collides with the net (which costs them a point, by the way). To be fair, most fans do enjoy it when a player loses his temper and slams his racquet at the court in protest to the tennis gods, hoping to deform his tool into mere shrapnel.

A third factor is the time commitment.  Though watching a tennis match is kind of like watching a baseball game (you don’t have to see every point, but it helps to know when an underdog is nearing a break-point), the matches can be marathons.  Each match in the major tournaments is a best-of-five, which means they last at least two, and up to five, hours.  Especially in the early rounds of these majors, the first set is the only one you need to see.  Big upsets rarely occur after the underdog has dropped the first set. The best players have insanely good records after winning the first set.

Here’s the thing: it’s worth the investment.  Like a playoff baseball game, the drama builds with every passing opportunity (either taken advantage of or missed).  There are highlight moments (especially when Nadal or Murray are at their best, returning every ball in sight, using their foot-speed and instincts to track down everything) and their are minor catastrophes (double faulting to lose a set).  When you watch four or five sets you get a feel for a player, for their ability to bounce back after mistakes.  For their tenacity, their inner drive. Especially in the heat and humidity of outdoor summer events, the durability and fitness of each player is tested in a way that other sports cannot easily show.  In the NBA, you can see how hard players are working, fighting, scrapping, sprinting back on defense.  In the NFL, you can see a lineman in a no-huddle offense, dragging his enormous frame around the field without timeouts, but in men’s tennis (women’s tennis plays best-of-three-sets, not best-of-five) you see one man and his acceptance or denial of his own threshold of exhaustion.

You see Pete Sampras, denying his body’s resistance and fatigue, and overcoming it all to survive in a five-set match with Alex Corretja in the 1996 U.S. Open.

***

How to Watch: first set is a must

Top current players and their career records after winning the first set (in all tournaments):

Djokovic, 443-22
Nadal, 564-29
Federer, 808-59
Murray, 349-27

So…watching Djokovic and Nadal play opponents ranked outside of the top 8 (the first four or five rounds of each major, excluding the semifinals and finals) really means watching the first set.

While Djokovic, Nadal (knees withstanding) and Murray are still in peak-form, Federer’s fourth-round loss to 19th-seeded Tommy Robredo (his first loss before the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open since 2003) is another indicator of his age (32) and his descent from dominance.  The loss came in straight sets, and was only mildly surprising to genuine Federer fans.  Roger’s age has led to inconsistent play throughout this year.  After utterly dominating the tennis world from 2004-2007, and making the finals of at least six tournaments in each year since 2008, Federer has won only one title (Halle, a grass court event in Germany) and has made only two finals appearances in 2013, compiling a 32-11 match record.

Federer’s descent and Murray’s ascent (finally overcoming the Wimbledon hurdle and becoming a full-fledged mega-star in the United Kingdom) have tilted the balance.  Other contenders who may join the top 3 are perennial Spanish baseline battler David Ferrer, who may be the hardest working man in show-business), and Argentinean Juan Martin Del Potro, whose forehand is one of the strongest in the game.  Del Potro and Milos Raonic (detailed below) may be the two biggest threats to the top 3.

The fourth round, also known as the Round of 16, is when things start to get really good.  One of my favorite young players, 10th-seeded Milos Raonic, lost a heartbreaking five-setter to 8th-seeded Richard Gasquet last night, in the fourth round.  The twenty-two year-old Raonic, attempting to become the first Canadian men’s player in tennis history to reach the quarterfinals at a major, had opportunities to finish the match in a 4th set tie-break (three of the five sets ended in a tie-break), but couldn’t overcome Gasquet.  To the Frenchman’s credit, he overcame his own albatross–a 1-15 record in the fourth round of Grand Slam, another indication of how hard it is to crack that top tier of men’s tennis.

Unfortunately (and frustratingly for me), CBS’ coverage of the match was intermittent.  Instead of showing the best match of the day, they showed Nadal-Kohlschreiber. Nadal gets more viewers.  Kohlschreiber surprised by taking the first set, and fought hard through the second, before bowing out in four. And this is part of the problem, only ESPN3 (ESPN’s streaming site) was showing the match live.  And I happened to be watching on delay Monday.  The accessibility of the sport needs to improve.  Tennis Channel makes attempts at this, but doesn’t have the rights to the four major events, which means they can’t show live matches.  And, in an attempt to attract the most viewers, they showed Federer’s straight-sets loss to Robredo instead of the Raonic-Gasquet match.

***

If things go according to plan today in Round 4, these are the potential U.S. Open Quarterfinal match-ups:

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Mikhail Youzhny (21) / Lleyton Hewitt

Djokovic should have no trouble with either Youzhny or Hewitt.  Hewitt will have the crowd’s backing if he manages to fend off Youzhny, as the 32 year-old Australian former number one has gone further at a major than he has since 2006.  Djokovic should advance to the semifinals easily.

Andy Murray (3) vs. Tomas Berdych (5)

Assuming Berdych overcomes Stan Wawrinka (9) in the 4th round today, Murray and Berdych should be an excellent QF match-up. Berdych has won 6 of 10 head-to-head meetings, and his big serve plays well on hard courts.  Berdych is vulnerable to windy conditions, however, due to his high service toss.  If the weather cooperates, Murray-Berdych should be interesting.

Richard Gasquet (8) vs. David Ferrer (4)

After surviving Raonic, Gasquet is in for another marathon with the tireless Ferrer.  Both players endured grueling matches to arrive in the quarters.  Gasquet is surprisingly 6’1″ but has a disproportionately large head.  Ferrer is listed at 5’9″ and is relentless.  This match may go five sets, but is guaranteed to leave either victor in difficult shape for the Semifinal against…

Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Tommy Robredo (19)

Congratulations, Tommy.  You make waves by beating Federer in straight sets, and then you get to face fellow Spaniard Nadal, who is playing at an insanely high level this year (53-3 on the year, 19-0 during this hard court season).  Nadal in three easy sets before facing a limping Ferrer in the Semis.

***

Semifinals Predictions:

Djokovic over Murray in 4
Nadal over Ferrer in 3

Finals Prediction:

Nadal over Djokovic in 4

Conclusion
Watch tennis.  Nobody gets concussions, though they may throw up every once in a while.  For those that love women’s tennis, I apologize.  While I do watch it every once in a while, it doesn’t hold the same appeal for me.  That is, unless a tiny woman or severe underdog makes their way into the conversation.  Nothing against the women’s game, and I do enjoy watching a few players (Li Na, Sloane Stephens, and in the past Justine Henin and Steffi Graf).  Just my preference.
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