The one thing you know about the 2014 U.S. Open as it heads into its first weekend, is that it is as open to hope and change and surprise and drama and unexpected reversals as the borough and the city, and the state, and the country, where it lives. This is the glory of the great New York tennis tournament, the last of the year’s four majors, the world series of this sport.
Especially in the tournament’s first week, when 128 times two top players from everywhere in the world (in the men’s and women’s draws) compete every other day for the privilege of staying a day longer, plus the doubles players who do not overlap with the singles (many play in both draws), plus the handicapped who play in wheel chairs and earn our unstinting admiration for grit and courage, plus the kids — the Juniors, boys and girls, plus the bums — the journalists who cover the event for the millions worldwide who stay in touch with big league tennis but are not among the hundreds of thousands who will attend in person over the fortnight — who try to get a set in, maybe just one (they do have some sense of professional responsibility) on a public court somewhere in the vicinity of the Billie Jean King Center at Flushing Meadows, one of the world’s finest parks.
Well, you get a little sentimental about these things, these reminders that even in a world gone wrong and goin’ even more so, there are still islands of civility and reason.
Civility: after getting trounced by Serena Williams on the court of Arthur Ashe stadium before what must have been twelve thousand spectators, a teenage phenom named Taylor Townsend acted the lady, in effect thanked Miss Williams for the opportunity and was all smiles. “I’ve never seen someone so intense and so, like, driven to win, you know? I gained so much respect for her [for her great comeback from injury a couple years ago.]”
That, if you have any experience of high school teaching, fills you with hope about the future of American adolescence. Yes folks, they do not all become bums and turn to journalism, they become ladies and gentlemen, earn a good living (as Miss Williams does), build America, inspire other kids.
And in the midst of a straight set victory over what, on the face of it, seemed a better, more experienced team, the young American doubles men Francis Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh behaved well, congratulating their opponents for good plays with the traditional tennis racket and hand clap. I admit this was more that I expected, notably from young Tiafoe, who sometimes — more than sometimes — acts the petulant show-off and makes you want to tell him, if you ain’t ready for the bigs, go back to the juniors, kid. But no, he and his pal were superb, exuberant, made up for many mistakes, stayed in control — benefiting, it must be said, from a performance from Teymuraz Gabashvili that dragged down the artistry and furia of his partner, Victor Estralla Burgos, who played the best game of the four in that match.
At present, Mmoh, who is 16, is the stronger of the two American prospects, better poise, better focus, better discipline, better serve. Tiafoe has some astonishing strengths, a lightning forehand that is a killer when it is on, as when he snaps a return of serve straight down the line or into a hole, but his footwork is oddly sluggish with the obvious consequence that he gets caught flatfooted by shots toward the alleys. But these are boys still sixteen years old, and there is no reason why, like Miss Townsend, who is eighteen, they should not go very far — as far as the gorgeous blue skies over Queens.
Two other American boys (while we are on the subject) did well in first round matches that they lost without losing face. Jared Donaldson and Noah Rubin (who won the juniors at Wimbledon this year), seventeen and eighteen respectively, were beaten in straight sets, but they were sets well worth watching and you could see the weaknesses are the kind that training and experience will fix.
Rubin, who lost in straight sets (including a 6-0 third) to Federico Delbonis, was awed by the venue and the circumstances, hesitated when he had chances at winners, showed he was nervous both physically and mentally. Who in his position would not be? Donaldson, who will be eighteen in October, claims he was not, and his game against the French ace Gael Monfils, whose hamming and acrobatic athleticism have given him a strong following here — the Grandstand court was rocking, what with the young homeboy (Donaldson is from Rhode Island) and the popular visitor — was full of sparks and boldness. Hitting balls on the rise and fearless, he was a good match for Monfils. He appears to be the fastest of the young cohort coming up now, to relieve, perhaps, an American pro contingent that has been battered in the past decade. And yet, he all but gave up toward the end of the last set, highlighting the “how-could-I-be-losing-I’m-too-good” body language he tends (like Tiafoe) to put on display during matches, and it would seem fair to say he was in fact just as unprepared as Rubin, arrogance being a mirror of pusillanimity.
This is okay. They have time. Time will tell. New York was not built in a day. (It was built pretty fast.) And it keeps improving. In America, you can keep improving. There may be no second acts in certain areas of American life, but in others, there sure are, and third and fourth ones. These boys are fine. They took inspiration, one hopes, from a fifteen-year old girl named Catherine (“CiCi”) Bellis, who won her first round against an established (if still very young too) star, the little onion from Slovakia, Dominika Cibulkova. And from Miss Townsend (if I may return to her), who after all had the toughest act of these young prodigies, going up against the number one player on the biggest tennis stage outside Wimbledon and Roland-Garros.
They should take inspiration from Queens, too, which itself is the perfect setting for this world series of tennis. Queens is, in some respects, the most interesting borough in New York City. Of course it is foolish to say one borough is more interesting than another, but there is a certain homogenization creeping into the other boroughs that Queens, so far, has avoided. Manhattan is becoming a zone reserved for the one percents. There is nothing wrong with being one percent, on the contrary, quite apart from the fact that the top tennis players belong to it (the prize money at the U.S. Open this year is $40 million, I am not making this up), who else is going to invest the money needed to build and rebuild America? Warren Buffett? The head of the Teachers Union?
But from the perspective of the diversity and vitality that defines us as Americans, Queens has it in a way the other boroughs used to at one time but increasingly do not. There must be more languages spoken in this borough than in Nigeria or Cameroon (or the UN, which is in Manhattan, and which it would be well to move to Khartoum.) There is more food. The immigrants here — this is what I mean by diversity, not the enforced diversity of the thought- and food- and fashion- polices that are driving God out of our classrooms and trying to turn us into a nation of sheep (they will fail) come from everywhere on earth, bringing their drive and their food. You cannot, for example, find better Mexican food in all of New York than around Corona Park, a mile or so east of Flushing Meadows.
As a matter of fact, I met a young man of Mexican ancestry at the tennis center who was promoting — in America, and it is to our credit, the huckstering never stops — a food called chia for the company he represents, called, yes, The Chia Co. I am not sure how to describe it, despite my daughter’s being a producer for the mighty food guy Anthony Bourdain, but it is served in different forms and it is a great improvement over canned fruit and jello. This is not a placement ad — I tried the stuff and it works. Me personally, I will eat whatever my better half puts on my plate, no matter I cannot fathom what she did to make it, so long as it is her typical delicious. So I am always blind-tasting.
This chia grain, or seed, by the way, is due to the ingenuity of an Australian farmer, John Foss, who developed uses for this seed, or grain, which is served in different delicious flavors, such as banana and strawberry, which I, personally, tried.
The Australians are doing pretty well, meanwhile, with Matthew Ebden and Bernard Tomic and the phenom Nick Kyrgios, whom our boys will soon be meeting in finals here, we hope, and the mighty Sam Groth, the most breathtaking classic serve-and-volley Aussie since the great serve-and-volley Aussies of yore, getting into the second round. Groth goes up against Roger Federer on the weekend, and Federer is looking awfully sharp these days, with his gorgeous classic form, and he handled a difficult compatriot of Ebden’s and Groth’s in the first round, Marinko Matosevic, with grace and class. Just goes to show — as TAS pointed out during the French Open (see “The End of Roger Federer?”) — the cult of extreme youth is overdrawn and tennis “veterans” like Federer and Serena and Venus Williams, all in their early thirties, are showing us why.
My new food friend happens to come from a food family, his mom still runs the kitchen at the Casa Mexicana, which is in a town called Othello (but why are there no Western towns called Will Kane?), near Seattle, Washington. I have not been to Seattle in many years, but I am going to ask the TAS food critic, Mr. Stein, who lives nearby (in Western terms), to stop in and give the old blind taste test. Judging from the intelligence and courtesy that this young man displayed, I would be surprised if his parents’ restaurant is not one of these hidden treasures of American gastronomy — and due entirely to our having a sensible immigration policy.
Which of course, at present, we do not have. But look at the Open: you have absolutely the best tennis players from everywhere. The other day there was a breath-taking fight, five sets, down to the very wire, between two fer’ners, Joao Sousa from Portugal and Frank Dancevic from Canada. On the court next to them were a couple of wild Russians, Evgeny Donskoy and Alexander Kudryavtsev, manifestly trying to hit every shot hard enough to go into orbit, and a few courts down there was an Austrian player, Dominic Thiem, masterfully outplacing (and outplaying) a fine Slovak player, Lukas Lacko. One of his supporters was yelling encouragement in their native language so I chimed in, under my breath, “bolshoi, bolshoi.” The Slovak heard it, though, and corrected me: “We are Slovaks, not Russians. Not same.”
“Well, you are welcome here just the same, sir,” I said. “This is a free country.”
“That’s good,” he said, and returned to his tough job — Lacko was going down in straight sets.
And this is only the men’s draw. Tennis is a fine sport. It is hard law of sports, a law that will not be wrecked by no amnesty, that one must win and one must lose. But you can only marvel at the openness of America: this is what we should be doing, attracting the best of the best from all over, and give them a chance.