NEW YORK -- They held a stand-up comedy show, and a tennis match broke out.
Did you hear about Venus Williams’ first-round U.S. Open encounter against Kimiko Date-Krumm? They had to hold it in the mid-afternoon, so both players could make it to the Early Bird Special and sit down in time for Jeopardy!. (Boom!) Date-Krumm is so old, if she mentions having played mixed doubles with Noah, she's not talking about Yannick. (Ba-da-da-dum). There's no truth to the rumor that they'd be using Carbon-14 instead of Hawk-Eye on contested shots. (I’ll be here all week!) Apart from the prize money, the winner also got a social security payout. (Try the veal and tip your server!) How old is Date-Krumm? When she played her first U.S. Open, in 1989, Pete Sampras had yet to win a Grand Slam title and more than half the current women’s field wasn’t born! (Actually, that one is true, no kidding.)
To borrow from Bill Maher, “We kid because we love.” The jokes on Monday obscured the overwhelming sense of admiration for both players. When Williams (age 34) played Date-Krumm (a few weeks from 44), it marked the oldest matchup of female players in the Open Era and a clash of the two oldest players in the draw.
Taking advantage of her opponent’s nerves -- veterans get them, too – Date-Krumm took the first set 6-2. But Venus, the No. 19 seed, steadied herself, made some minor adjustments, survived a scare from a bee, handled the unpleasant heat better and won the next two sets to advance 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.
There were better-played matches on Monday. There were more gripping matches played, too. But no pairing said more about the character of the two players and the current state of the game.
First, the individuals: Venus last won this event in 2001 and, recently, has struggled with everything from niggling injuries to an autoimmune disease. But the losses and the stints on tennis’ equivalent of the injured reserve list solidified what she had long suspected: Despite her abundance of other interests, tennis is her top-seeded passion. Competition is a close second. Finally healthy this summer, she has been playing her best tennis in recent memory. She acquitted herself well at Wimbledon and on the hard courts with a litany of conquests, including a win in Montreal over her sister Serena, who is the best player in the world. A strong run here means there’s a possibility that Venus could finish the year inside the top 10, her highest ranking in years.
As for Date-Krumm, she made her U.S. Open debut in 1989 and played through 1996. Then, she didn’t play in the main draw again until 2010. She had retired with designs of starting a family. When that didn’t happen, after a decade on the sidelines, she figured she might as well revisit the sport she played better than all but a handful of women on the planet. Now that she is back she figures, altogether reasonably, that as long as she can still play at a high level, why retire?
The longevity of both women also says plenty of about tennis in 2014. The sport is physical -- to an unprecedented degree. Players get injured -- to an unprecedented degree. But if there’s consolation here, it’s this: Players hit their prime years later and stay in the cast later. And while those injury absences are unfortunate, players can benefit from the time off and recoup those lost years on the back end. It was the women who accentuated the aging field on Monday. But a full quarter of the men’s draw is north of 30 as well. Twenty is the new 30? It’s more like 30 is the new 40.
Venus, inevitably, was asked about age after the match. She replied eloquently: “When you're 16, 25 is a few decades away [laughter]. Now 25 is literally a decade behind me. But I'm going to stay as long as I'm playing well and as long as there is an opportunity, as long as I want to be here. As long as I'm here it's because I want to.”
Kids, today …
• Here’s a video of James McGee qualifying for the main draw. Think this moment meant a lot to him? McGee, a 27-year-old from Ireland, lost to Aleksandr Nedovyesov in four sets in his U.S. Open debut on Monday.
• If Victoria Azarenka fails to reach the semis, she will fall out of the top 20.
• If John Isner and Phil Kohlschreiber win their first two matches, they will meet in the third round of the U.S. Open for the third straight year.
• Andy Murray has not beaten a top 10 player since Wimbledon of 2013.
• Who returns to action first, Li Na or Rafael Nadal?
• Genie Bouchard may be struggling, but another Montreal native has been crushing it lately. Francoise Abanda lost all of six games in her three qualifying matches. (Update: Abanda lost her first-round match to Sabine Lisicki 6-3, 7-5.)
• Speaking of qualifying, Melanie Oudin, the belle of the ball five (gulp) years ago, failed to make the main draw. Then again, she was in good company. None of the Americans in the Q-draw advanced.
• If Murray, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic wins the event, it will mark 37 of the last 39 majors claimed by the Big Four.
• Even with wild cards, there are more French and Spanish men in the main draw than there are Americans.
• Send good get-well-soon vibes to Bud Collins.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
What are we to make of the fact that despite having 28 players (by my count) in the U.S. Open men's and women's qualifying draws, no Americans made it out of qualifiers? When was the last time that happened? Given the USTA's emphasis on player development, do you find this an extraordinarily disappointing showing?
-- Clint Swett, Sacramento
• We’ll save this for a larger discussion at another time. But the disconnect here is really striking. The Tennis Center practically drips with money. There’s a half-billion-dollar construction project afoot. Even the most remote parking lots are awash in luxury cars. Sponsor signage may as well be the wallpaper. They’re giving away free chia seeds! The theme of commerce rings throughout.
Equally conspicuous: the absence of Americans. Whether it’s the languages being spoken in the players’ lounge or the country representations on the draw sheets, there just are scant few Yanks, especially on the men’s side. And, as Clint notes, the failure of any Americans to qualify is dispiriting.
At some level, this doesn’t matter. We root for players, not country codes. But when you’re surrounded by all this wealth, flowing to an organization tasked with “growing and promoting tennis,” you wonder where the players are.
From money to Mo’ne ...
How can Mo'ne Davis be encouraged to play tennis? Is that a crazy idea? It is the sport where she could make the most money as a female athlete.
-- Shama, loyal reader in Dallas
• Funny -- I confess that I thought the same thing. Man, would it have been great if she had taken to tennis, not baseball. But especially with kids, there’s no sense appealing to earning power and future income potential. You have to sell the sport and make sure the passion is organic.
• Tennis Channel has named Jeremy Langer as vice president of programming, effective immediately.
• For your tennis read of the day, take the time to read this profile of Serena Williams, courtesy of S.L. Price.
• ICYMI: Bouchard is profiled in this New York Times Magazine story, where we find out she eats baby food quite regularly.
• Today’s long-lost siblings are Canadians Bouchard and John Candy, sent in by Mike from Boulder, Colo.: