As with every other kind of news, with sports you stick to the facts just the facts, thank you. But also as with every other kind of news, you cannot ignore the meaning of it all, now can you? It was in fact not by any means insignificant that the first day of the pro-football season brought out comments on the anniversary upon which it fell. To take an example, it was more than pure chance that Washington met New York on September 11. And it was very touching, if not surprising, out at the Redskins’ home field in Landover Maryland, that both teams’ fans engaged in patriotic fraternization. Americans find themselves in the sports they play and the teams they support, and know that divided we fall united we stand. Good show.
Now if you want to get symbolic about it, you could question whether it made sense for Washington’s team to win, given that in the years since 9/11, New York City has done better than Washington in terms of showing us what Americans are made of, but if you say that just think of the endless arguments you provoke, so forget it. What really matters is that we like it when the best man wins and it is even more thrilling when the best man is, or was, the underdog and pulls if off. The other New York team, the Jets, pulled off a comeback victory against a Dallas team that was making a powerful statement, skill strength speed, until the mistakes began halfway through the fourth. And without meaning anything other than what recent history tells us, we won the Cold War and blew the peace and found ourselves once again at war, due to hubris or lack of the vigilance that might ahave pre-empted the bad guys — and addressed the ills of the rotten societies that produced them — who want to do us in.
During these emotionally charged days of commemoration and memory and renewed commitment, you are thinking about the victims of the remembered day and although you may not know any of them personally you think about them with passion and fear and trembling and anger and, sorry but this is the reality, they are yours and you think about them in a true way that you cannot bring to thinking about the poor souls who lost their lives in an overcrowded ferry off Tanzania or in a fire trap slum in Nairobi. You think of men like Rick Rescorla, who never asked what he should do, who knew.
Life goes on, and should, not as distraction or escape, but to be ourselves, which means to serve our loved ones and our country. You can grumble about how sports have got overhyped over the years, and maybe it is true our priorities could take some thinking over. And face it, it may well be that it would help us understand what we have done wrong since 9/11 to think about what we feel is wrong about the way sports figure in our society as well as our personal lives, just as it may help to think about what is wrong with the way we teach — or do not teach — kids about our history (and much else.) Or the way we eat — I am serious — or the way we buy cars, and so on and so forth. Sometimes — usually, I should hope — a Little League ball game is only that and a take out meal in lieu of a family dinner is a banal convenience and a new Mustang is just what you need and nothing more nor less. But the dots connect, too, and you have to know how, and when, to connect them.
Well, it was a pretty good U.S. Open, and the fans at Flushing Meadows showed good fandom putting up with the inclement weather and the competitors mostly gave it their all, only a few pulling out due to exhaustion or injury. You are supposed to stick it out no matter what, but then again, maybe this is to remind us that you have to keep things in perspective and sometimes it makes sense to throw in the towel. In the end the winners were deservers in this last of the 2011 Grand Slams.
One fluke that perhaps really was not one: displaying typically and fittingly American teenage insouciance, the mixed doubles team of Melanie Oudin and Jack Sock, unseeded wild card entries, took the trophy in their department, in a match against the Argentines Gisela Dulko and Eduardo Schwank that was won on the tightest margins. Melanie Oudin, who went deep at Flushing Meadows two years ago, has yet to raise her game to the top level in singles. Her 18-year old partner, a tall fresh-faced Nebraskan, reminded my stringer who was watching them of the young Don Budge, winning smile and loose quick movements, always on point beneath the aw shucks air.
We need more like both of them. Actually, our players did pretty well at this Open, certainly compared to what you would have expected given the record of recent seasons. Andy Roddick, the last American man to have won here, in ’03 (Serena Williams won in 2008), played forcefully until being stopped cold by Rafael Nadal in the quarters, and Donald Young, who has been a perennial promising champion for about eight years now, got as far as he ever has, the fourth round, when he was stopped by Andy Murray, while Mardy Fish in the same round lost a tough five-setter to France’s mighty Jo Tsonga. Young gave a very good account of himself, playing with an thoughtfulness and maturity that is new. Only 22 — a case, one has to say, of one thing that is wrong with tennis, letting young people turn pro much too early — he is coming into his own.
The umpire’s penalty call against Serena Williams in the first game of the second set of the women’s final seems in hindsight to have been sort of like a teacher over-reacting to a kid coming in from recess and carrying on the rowdiness just a few seconds too long. Especially a smart kid, whom you do not want to indulge, but you do not want him to hold a pointless grudge, either, that will take his mind off the lesson. Serena lost the first set rather badly to a fantastic Samantha Stosur, who has been a mainstay of Australian tennis for several years but who has fallen short in the big ones. She is a poster girl for the sport, understated and utterly well-behaved, Australian the way Jack Sock is American, and you could not ask for a prettier, nicer, more gifted player to take up the baton last held by the great Evonne Goolagong and the even greater Margaret Court.
Which simply adds to the wrongness of the call against Miss Williams. The best American in the tournament, not only because she made it to the final but because of the masterful way she disposed of every opponent until Sam Stosur, there was nothing in her “Come on!” a couple seconds too early that should have cost her a service game. The rules state you cannot verbally interfere with your opponent, which is why I never (I confess: once this summer and twice many summers ago, and they had it coming) say anything other than a low-decibel “nice one” when they hit well, or “ooo, baby,” when they pass me, let alone yell out, “Look out, ya slipping!”) just when the other guy is about to whack one.
The noise level at Flushing Meadow’s huge Arthur Ashe Stadium (23,000 capacity) is such, however, that it is almost certain Stosur was not distracted. If the officials want the game to be played they way they think it should be played, they should find some way to get the crowds under control. But of course they cannot, and they would be foolish to try. American sports spectators are loud. The U.S. Open is played at a loud venue. The fan noise is part of the atmosphere in Queens, N.Y. Tennis courts are all the same in their shape and dimensions, unlike baseball fields, but they are placed in variable environments. Serena can be a spoiled brat but she was quite right to say, “This is America, last time I looked.” Changing scenery is part of the challenge of the sport, and, if you can appreciate it, part of its pleasure.
Interference, at Flushing Meadows or anywhere else, should be penalized, but was this interference? Miss Stosur was not going to get that shot back, a whiplash forehand winner to her left corner. Then what? Then, going by the way the set played out, Serena would have gone to 4-3 instead of 3-4. The set was divided pretty clearly in two: a tight first half and a breakout second half when Sam ran away with the match (having won the first set with beautiful — and untypical for her — control all the way through). But — can you extrapolate? Maybe at 3-3, precisely, Serena let the rising resentment of that call get to her, and she lost her focus. Maybe she was worn down anyway. But ya never know, so it helps to have umpires who can sense the flow of the match and not be overly strict, even if, of course, when there is any kind of doubt, you go strictly by the book. Which they did not do when they let the men’s doubles champion team of Philipp Petzschner and Jurgen Melzer get away with brazen cheating compounded by shameless lying, in the final against Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski, who admittedly were losing the match anyway. They are fine athletes, as good a doubles team this year as the French-Serb ensemble of Llodra-Zimonic or the famous Indo-Pak Express of Bopanna-Qureshi, and even if they cannot touch the mighty Bryans, they did make it to the finals (and won). But if a degree of faking and pulling fast ones on umps and refs belongs to the lore and mores of certain team sports, including soccer, baseball, and basketball, it is emphatically verbotten in tennis, as these guys’ great predecessor, without whom they would be nowhere, emphasized over and over, I refer of course to the greatest German tennis man of all time, Gottfried von Cramm. It scarcely needs saying Cramm would have been appalled by Serena’s behavior, of course, viewing her vulgar insulting of an umpire as a mark of disrespect for the sport, not as the self-expression of a wronged athlete. However, cheating in the end is more corrosive than rudeness and narcissism. If the reviews confirm what happened, as the films of the match already do, and they do not get sanctioned for this, the tennis establishment really is opening itself to all the worst charges that have been leveled at it, from illicit payments to permitting tanking and even worse.
Although professionals are by definition steel-nerved when at work — consider the heart surgeon who has a temper tantrum during a triple-bypass operation — they are still human. Roger Federer demonstrated this in a howler to beat all howlers during his semi-final loss to Novak Djokovic. He had him 40-15 at 5-3 in the fifth set of a beaut between two geniuses of the sport. He had, in the view of many observers including my stringers, played a better tournament than Novak, creating a dramatic expectation that the “Roger of old” — the feet, the grace, the forehand winners, the unreadable serves placed on dimes, the perfect volleys, the unfazed cool — was back and would go all the way.
It was a fine clean shot to the side of the service box, but Nole stepped sideways on his right foot and slapped it back at an extremely sharp angle, sending it to the side of the opposite service box, unreachable even by Federer, whose feet are the fleetest in the game.
Well, that still left it at 40-30. But no, it was over, eye off the ball. Like the Cowboys offense the other day.
As I said before, just stick to the facts. And yet context matters, or as they say in real estate, location is all. You are winning, and something gets to you. You can replay it in your mind and you know how small the adjustment could have been. But there it is. In the final against Nadal, who had beaten Murray in four sets in the semis, Djokovic stayed calm and played a fine defense, went after everything Nadal hit to him and got most of it back, got him all shook up, took the first set and made it look easy. But Rafa got into his groove in the second and almost made it even. It was his turn to be in the hole now, but like Nole two days earlier, he was getting stronger as he went on and his opponent was, improbably, just slightly getting his eye off the ball. Rafa took the third set tiebreak in a stunning display of muscular fury, and then —
As one of our great writers used to quip, You can look it up. And American tennis is on the mend, not to worry. Grace Min beat the favored French girl in the girls’ final. Sloan Stephens is warming up. Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock are developing well. Need some encouragement? The First Lady made an appearance, told kids to take up the sport. Let us see if some of the educrats drop some of the stupid polemics that have been making the schools worse year by year and start a few tennis programs. We can come back because we are Americans. We’re on the way, as always: yes it’s only a game, and like America, it is one that is always thrilling and always on the way.