Monday August 29th, 2011

No tournament mints stars quite like the U.S. Open does. Score a few big victories and the agents start to circle, the shoe company reps sit courtside. Two years ago, Melanie Oudin -- then a winsome American teenager with inspirational sayings scrawled on her shoes -- won some gripping matches. By the tournament's middle weekend, she was being courted by morning television shows, signing new endorsement deals and flouncing around Manhattan in a limo and courting invitations to lucrative exhibitions in the offseason. She turned into a pumpkin by the quarterfinals. But by the then the moneymaking celebrity machine has achieved velocity and she had plenty of earning star power.

Last year Ryan Harrison, another American teenager -- handsome, poised, with a streak of confidence -- upset Ivan Ljubicic, a seed who was once a top five player. At another event, this would have been a solid win end of story. But this was the U.S. Open where everything is magnified. So Harrison was suddenly playing in front of a packed house on Grandstand, hailed as the next big player of note. His earning star power was surging.

The flip side of this moneymaking star-making apparatus: For the ambitious player, a lousy showing at the U.S. Open represents a huge missed opportunity to make money an impression. Harrison was back on the show court this year, christening the tournament at 11:00 a.m. Hype and potential and anticipation trailed behind him like invisible rudders. Though Harrison's opponent, Marin Cilic, the 27th seed, is no slouch of a player, a win would have added still more wattage to Harrison's earning star power.

Harrison, though, played like, well, a teenager. Which is to say, impatiently, erratically and with more than a touch of irritability. After losing the first set, he served for the second and a chance to level the match. He was broken handily and was soon down two sets to none. Serving for the third set and a chance to claw back into the match, he was broken handily again. In the tiebreaker, he held a set point and couldn't convert it. He ended up losing to Cilic 6-2, 7-5, 7-6 (6). It was barely 1:00 PM on the first afternoon of the tournament, and he'd been eliminated.

Around the same time Harrison walked off one show court, Petra Kvitova walked onto another. Kvitova may have won Wimbledon eight weeks ago, but a strong showing at the U.S. would really consolidate her earning star power. Unfortunately, Kvitova, like Harrison, let the opportunity slip by. Looking like a player still uncomfortable with the mantle of Grand Slam champion, she fell in a straight-set upset to Alexandra Dulgheru. It marked the first time a defending Wimbledon female champion has ever lost in the first round of the U.S. Open. Yet it scarcely caused a ripple. Perhaps because Kvitova still lacks marketing star power. She and Harrison both earned $19,000 for their troubles. But there's no telling how much they left on the table.

Toward the end of the afternoon session, the Young British player, Heather Watson, had a chance to augment her earning star power, paired as she was against Maria Sharapova, the biggest earner star of them all. Watson won the first set and hung with Sharapova for 5-5 in the second. But then, as if both players remembered their roles, Watson retreated and Sharapova asserted herself. By the third set, it was all over but the shrieking. Watson was left to ponder a fine match but, ultimately, a lost opportunity. To Sharapova's delight, and also that of her sponsors, agents, the networks, and the tournament itself, Sharapova moved on.

Another day, another dollar.

Why not take Serena's points (1780), divide by number of tournaments she's played (4), multiply by the smallest number of tournaments played by top 32 players (15 for Clijsters and Sharapova), and seed her No. 3 at the Open based on her adjusted points (6675)? Conveniently, this would have dovetailed nicely with the Clijsters withdrawal at No. 3. -- Quang, Oakland, Calif.

• The USTA was in an unwinnable spot here. Either Serena takes the third spot and a dangerous precedent is established -- whereby the tournament deviates from the rankings -- or, despite being the clear favorite, she is seeded in accordance with her ranking. (Which means that she's on a path to play a top four seed in the third round.) To her credit, Serena was asked about seeding today and took the high road.

Have a request. As a casual tennis fan, I'm not familiar enough with the lower ranks to understand which matches might be fun to watch on the side courts during the early rounds, so we always just look for the highest profile players to watch. Now that the draws are set, can you please point out a few players (singles or doubles) worth watching? Like the guy with the two-handed racket, players with interesting playing styles, or interesting doubles pairings. -- John Beck, Philadelphia

• Ah, yes, the Battistone Brothers.

I can't top that. But off the top of my head:

1) Alex Bogomolov. Two years ago, he was giving tennis lessons, running a $40,000 debt on his Amex Card and known mostly as the ex-husband of former tennis player and Playboy centerfold Ashley Harkleroad. With prodding of his new girlfriend, he gives tennis one last shot. Today, he's on the verge of cracking the top 40.

2) They were Austria's answer to the Bryan Brothers. Sandra and Daniela Klemenschits were twin sisters who forwent singles careers to play doubles alongside each other. Slowly but steadily, they were ascending the ranks. Then in 2006, they both contracted the same form of abdominal cancer. Daniela died in 2008 in Salzburg at age 25. Sandra survived. Now 28, she plays on with a variety of partners and a heavy heart.

3) Grigor Dimitrov: (Who may be eliminated by the time this posts) His results have been all over the place, but the salon believes this kid could be a Grand Slam champion in the future.

4) Michael Llodra: Villagers, come and behold: a serve-and-volleyer!

5) The Indo-Pak Express: Sam Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna.

So what's your take on the new Rafa book? Is it worth reading? Be honest. -- Mark, Austin, Texas

• I'd say it's worth reading. Is it as gripping and bracingly candid as Andre Agassi's Open? No. But I think the co-conspirator, John Carlin, did a great job researching the topic and getting Nadal -- not exactly the most public of athletes -- to reveal a bit more of himself than usual. You can't blame anyone, but one of the more interesting segments of the "Nadal narrative" is this sudden mental block against Djokovic. For obvious timing reasons, that's not really explored.

Why did Donald Young and Ryan Harrison need wild cards for the US Open? They are both in the top 100. Shouldn't they automatically be in based on ranking? -- Mike T., Alameda, Calif.

• At the time of the cut-off -- six weeks ago -- neither was ranked sufficiently high.

Jon -- just finished an article that talked about Nadal's "lack of preparation" for the Open due to burned fingers. Just how much practice does the No. 2 player in the world need? Or any player, for the matter? Is "practice" still really necessary at that level? -- Marina, Easton, Pa.

• Racket back. Early preparation. Low to high. Scratch your back on the overheads. Follow through. You know, the usual. Seriously, the week before a Slam, "practice" for most players entails getting a feel for the court and trying not to get hurt. In addition to passing up a piscatorial pun, the great Mark Bittman, blogging for the New York Times, observed Mardy Fish practicing with Federer and was rightly unimpressed by the rigor of the session.

• The Empire State Building will be illuminate in yellow tonight in honor of the U.S. Open.

• Three Japanese players retired within the first three hours of the tournament. Kei Nishikori, age 21, has nine career retirements already. Who's his coach, anyway?

• If you missed it, here's Novak Djokovic and his special treatment:

• Michael Lack, Nesquehoning, Pa.: "If for a single game the entire crowd would grunt along with perpetrator(s), I'm reasonably sure player's audio affront would be quelled forever."

• Steve, New York City: "Hey Jon: Did you see this? Rafa plays the Masters.

• In case you missed it here's Andy Samburg.

• Scott Humphrey of Pflugerville, Texas. "In the men's qualifying draw, the sixteen winners represented twelve different countries. Monaco, Turkey and Tunisia, which were previously unrepresented in the men's draw now each have a player. Two countries, Canada and Ireland, went from zero to two representatives each in the men's draw."

• John W. Sellers of Royal Oak, Mich: "Separated at birth: Santiago Giraldo and Mark Sanchez."

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