With American men’s tennis still in the wilderness — our last Slam winner was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open — it seems fitting that the 136th edition of the great tournament, the last of the year’s majors, is the scene of clashes between old and new. Such clashes are signs of renewal.
At the new Grandstand Stadium, for example. It was packed all day. It is supposed to be the replacement Grandstand, but without making an issue of it, they could have picked a different name. Another famous Queens person, for instance Billie Holiday — to accompany the soon-to-be redone Armstrong, which will include the space of the old Grandstand — a gem of a place that will be missed — and a retractable roof too, just like the amazing one (on or off in seven minutes) that is now part of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But this is a debate for another day; the new stadium is fine, and it showed plenty of character on its opening day. It was hot as blazes and packed. Every seat was taken (there are over eight thousand). The matches attracted more and more people, who stood on the walkways and above the highest seats to catch some of the action. The matches were hard-fought, first the young American Taylor Townsend, a yet-unproven but popular hope on the women’s tour, who lost a close match to former number one Caroline Wozniacki, a Dane whom the great Bud Collins once dubbed the “golden retriever,” both for her blonde locks and her indomitable defensive game.
Miss Townsend, who is 20 and attractively round and lively, with a fantastic smile, seemed to have Miss W. on the run several times, but in the end she just could not close. The retrievals — what tennis pros call the counter-punch style — were just too much, and in the third set Miss Wozniacki got a couple of key backhands on shots that could have been winners, securing the break-of-serve she needed.
The next match lasted all afternoon, an epic five-setter that got the perspiration going in that bullring-style stadium in a way that would have been distinctly uncomfortable. It scarcely mattered. The match was so gripping no one would have cared, had they noticed.
The mighty John Isner, the top-ranked American (around No. 20 in the ATP computer), was pitted against 18-year old from College Park, Maryland, Frances Tiafoe. With several others his age or thereabouts, Tiafoe is widely viewed as the future of American tennis, and he showed the roaring crowd why.
The kid took on the veteran — who, at 31 is playing the best tennis of his career — and for about two hours he looked all set to take him down. But after losing the first two sets, Isner, who is nothing if not calm under pressure, at least by pro-tennis standards, steadied his game, notably found ways of dealing with Tiafoe’s whiplash forehands (which still continued to do a lot of damage), and, as he always does in times of crisis, turned his service into a demolition machine.
John Isner is most famous for winning the longest match in the history of Wimbledon, against a Frenchman named Nicolas Mahut. It went on for three days in June of 2010, final score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68. Since then, Isner has shed his reputation as a man with a big serve and little else. He has a powerful, steady baseline game. He attacks the net aggressively, reaches above his six feet ten frame to whack overheads. It was in fact some heroics at the net that clinched the third set tiebreak for him, saving the match. He won the fourth set easily over the exhausted teenager. But Tiafoe showed tremendous heart in taking the deciding set to another tiebreak. Fittingly, Isner closed it with a big serve that Tiafoe reached but hit long.
The two players showed deep appreciation for each other after the match, and everyone in that sardine can of a new stadium knew that if Tiafoe continues this way, moving on from the brash and somewhat self-obsessed teenager he was when he broke into the big time a couple years ago, to a serious competitor who works on every aspect of his game, he will go far.
There is always some red-white-and-blue hoopla in a big sporting event, with honor guards and the national anthem and a sense that the vigor on the field or the courts has a connection to our national purpose. No one needs to belabor this, and no one needs to disparage it either, which is why the Kaepernick controversy is silly even as it can be toxic, too. At any rate, the issue somehow came up and Isner observed, diplomatically but forcefully, that it was the wrong way to go about making a political point.
Making mock of the national anthem does nothing to advance social justice, if that is what the San Francisco 49ers football player really is interested in. Is he? That is the question that Isner’s response intuitively raises, and his intuition — like American tennis today — is healthier than what much of our public life these days would suggest. And as to the Grandstand, whether they keep the name or decide to change it out of respect for the old one, it will be the site of great tennis for another century at least.