This year served as yet another reminder of why you should never buy tickets to the early-round night sessions on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open.
OK, saying you should never buy those tickets is obviously overstating things. You should absolutely buy them if (1) you want to ensure seeing the best in the game hit a tennis ball at least once, (2) you've never been to Ashe (everyone should sit in there at least once), or (3) you have a perverse love of beatdowns. And when the roof finally comes in a few years, you'll definitely want to buy Ashe tickets for the simple guarantee of getting two matches regardless of the weather.
But if you're clamoring for the type of competitive, dramatic matches that create a uniquely U.S. Open atmosphere, avoid Ashe like Novak Djokovic avoids gluten. This year, the Ashe night sessions -- which ended Thursday with the last men's quarterfinal -- produced 11 bagel sets (there were only four last year), 10 6-1 sets and 15 straight-set victories in 20 matches. Meanwhile, the outer courts -- which you can access with just a grounds pass -- featured tense and exciting late-night four- and five-setters that will be remembered long after the tournament is complete. America's No. 1, John Isner, and the most electric man in tennis, Gael Monfils, playing before a boisterous crowd? That was on Louis Armstrong Stadium. Richard Gasquet's comeback win over Milos Raonic in 4 hours, 40 minutes? Try Court 17. Tim Smyczek's heartbreaking five-set loss to Marcel Granollers in the third round? That was out on Grandstand.
This trend of snoozers on Ashe isn't new (or confined to the night sessions). Putting the biggest names on the tournament's main show court against lower-seeded (or unseeded), overmatched opponents is a recipe for one-way traffic. You can understand the organizers' predicament: If you gamble by putting a potentially more competitive but less star-powered match on Ashe, you risk getting a dud, which means fans can't even walk away saying they saw a Roger Federer or Serena Williams. Put a star on the court and, regardless of the result, many fans will have been satisfied with their experience.
The tournament did generate two great singles matches during the night session, and it's not surprising that neither one involved a top-five player. The best match on Ashe this year, day or night session, was Lleyton Hewitt's 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1 win over 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, which lasted 4 hours, 3 minutes. The next day, winner machine and 136th-ranked Camila Giorgi upset sixth-seeded and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours, 32 minutes.
Here's how we rank the 20 night matches on Ashe. And here's hoping we get something other than a Nyquil commercial as we head into the final weekend.
1. Lleyton Hewitt d. Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1 in 4 hours, 3 minutes. It's the one match that made the largest tennis court in the world actually seem like a cool place to play.
2. Camila Giorgi d. Caroline Wozniacki 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours, 32 minutes. The shy Italian kept it simple: See the ball, hit the ball. Lather, rinse repeat. It was audacious, at times reckless, and completely effective.
3. Bob and Mike Bryan d. Colin Fleming and Jonathan Marray 7-6 (7), 6-4 in 1 hour, 37 minutes. Some of the most exciting tennis you'll ever see was on full display in the 61-minute first set, which saw both teams save set points in spectacular fashion.
4. Rafael Nadal d. Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 in 3 hours, 12 minutes. The drama was in the fact that Nadal was losing the first set just as Roger Federer was crashing out to Tommy Robredo on Louis Armstrong Stadium. Kohlschreiber gave Nadal his only test of the tournament so far.
5. Andy Murray d. Denis Istomin, 6-7 (5) 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in 3 hours, 7 minutes. Anytime Murray drops a set at a Slam it's kind of exciting, right? He tends to live on the edge.
6. Roger Federer d. Adrian Mannarino 6-3, 6-0, 6-2 in 1 hour, 21 minutes. To the extent beatdowns are enjoyable, Federer's made them an art form. A very quick art form.
7. Andy Murray d. Michael Llodra 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in 1 hour, 38 minutes. Murray came out focused in his first-round match after having to wait for a late start, but Llodra's serve-and-volley style and penchant for entertainment and making the crowd laugh kept it fun.
8. Sloane Stephens d. Urszula Radwanska 6-1, 6-1 in 58 minutes. It was the best match Stephens played all tournament and a nice reminder of how good she can be when she has an eye toward being aggressive.
9. Rafael Nadal d. Tommy Robredo 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 in 1 hour, 40 minutes. This was Nadal at his most merciless.
10. Novak Djokovic d. Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-0 in 2 hours, 34 minutes. Though Youzhny was able to take it to four sets, the result was never in doubt.
11. Serena Williams d. Francesca Schiavone 6-0, 6-1 in 60 minutes. At least we got a funny hug out of it.
12. Li Na d. Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 6-0 in 57 minutes. The fourth-round result signaled to the field that Li was a real contender.
13. Victoria Azarenka d. Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-3 in 1 hour, 16 minutes. A fairly well-played match, with both finishing with a positive winners/unforced error differential.
14. Serena Williams d. Yaroslava Shvedova 6-3, 6-1 in 1 hour, 14 minutes. The match felt closer than the scoreline, but that's not saying much.
15. Novak Djokovic d. Joao Sousa 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 in 1 hour, 40 minutes. Clean, clinical, and pretty boring.
16. Rafael Nadal d. Rogerio Dutra Silva 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 in 1 hour, 32 minutes. Nadal faced a break point, which is news these days.
17. Novak Djokovic d. Ricardas Berankis 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in 1 hour, 22 minutes. This Day 2 match kicked off the shortest night session of them all. Combined with a Victoria Azarenka double bagel, the playing time was just under two and a half hours.
18. Victoria Azarenka d. Dinah Pfizenmaier 6-0, 6-0 in 1 hour, 5 minutes. See above.
19. Caroline Wozniacki d. Chanelle Scheepers 6-1, 6-2 in 1 hour, 7 minutes. Despite dropping out of the top five, Wozniacki got two matches on Ashe.20. Serena Williams d. Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-0 in 52 minutes