The players' lounge was empty. I walked upstairs into the locker room. It was 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 30, the first Wednesday of last year's U.S. Open, and the only other player in the locker room was Pete Sampras. We watched the television monitor; on the stadium court John McEnroe was having problems in his second-round match with Paul Haarhuis. Sampras and I both had to remain at the USTA National Tennis Center, though for different reasons. Sampras had to play defending champion Mats Wilander in the next singles match in the stadium, and I, three years out of Princeton and struggling on the pro circuit, couldn't leave until the last first-round doubles match of the day began.
My partner, James Schor, and I were the first alternate team for the U.S. Open doubles. Sixty-four teams were in the draw; our combined doubles ranking had left us the 65th team. As first alternates, we would be placed in the draw if one of the 64 teams was unable to play. Given recent history, we stood a good chance: The previous year several teams had dropped out, thereby making room for alternates—often called "lucky losers" because someone else's misfortune is their gain.
We had focused our attention on Wednesday—when most of the doubles matches in the first round would be played. Of the 128 players entered in the doubles, surely one would turn an ankle, sprain a wrist or pull a muscle in a singles match. Or, because the Open is the least favorite Grand Slam tournament for most players, someone might choose to escape the New York City smog and noise after his singles loss and skip the doubles. We were confident.
7 a.m. The day broke clear and sunny. I awoke early at the Manhattan apartment of a friend I was staying with and took the subway to one of the official tournament hotels, where I caught the 9:30 shuttle bus to the tennis center at Flushing Meadow. There I found James sleeping facedown on one of the couches in the players' lounge, another commuter worn out by the hectic New York rush hour.
September 2, 1990
The first shift of doubles matches didn't go on court until noon, so James and I found a place to practice. Then we waited at the "command center" while each of the noon doubles matches was called. No luck yet. But we were not down. We still had plenty of matches to go.
With at least an hour and a half of freedom and anxiety before the next bunch of doubles matches would get under way, we went to practice. While hitting out on Court 32, we saw something that sent our hopes soaring. Jimmy Arias, who was trying to practice before his first-round singles match, couldn't even grip his racket. Something was wrong with his thumb, and after a few attempts at rallying, he left the court to consult a trainer.
Now this was something to keep an eye on—Arias was teamed with Jay Berger in a first-round doubles match scheduled for the next day. We did not, however, have to rely solely on Arias's swollen thumb. Sure, his prospects looked doubtful, but we had an ace in the hole in Slobodan Zivojinovic.
The hulking 6'4" Zivojinovic had won the doubles title at the 1986 U.S. Open with Andrès Gómez. But after losing his first-round match in the singles at the '88 U.S. Open. Zivojinovic, according to player scuttlebutt, had chosen a Florida beach over his doubles match, to the delight of an alternate team. We were laying odds that this year's circumstances would result in a repeat performance.
When Horacio de la Pena, of Argentina, had asked Zivojinovic to play doubles with him, Zivojinovic agreed, but with a condition—he would play only if he won his opening singles match against Jaime Yzaga, a talented Peruvian player. The deadline for signing up for doubles was 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28, the first day of tournament play. At 5:55 p.m., Zivojinovic was still on court with Yzaga and the outcome was very much in doubt. Thus, de la Pena had a problem. What if he entered them in the doubles, and then Zivojinovic lost his singles match and refused to play? Big fine for de la Pena. (A player can withdraw without penalty in the case of an injury or personal emergency, but pulling out for no apparent reason is against the rules.) Then again, Zivojinovic might beat Yzaga. No one with a ranking as high as Zivojinovic was available at the last minute, and de la Pena needed the higher-ranked partner to qualify himself.
De la Pena signed them in. Zivojinovic lost the last two sets 6-4, 6-2, and he was furious when he realized he was entered in the doubles. James and I, on the other hand, were shedding no tears, since this was the chain of events we hoped would leave us poised to take a spot in the draw.
1:30 p.m. We returned to the tournament desk to confirm that all the teams in the second group of doubles matches had taken the court; they had. Any scratches here would have been a big surprise, as we had not heard of any problems with these teams. Like tipsters at the track who hang around the stables, we were keeping our eyes and ears open as we tramped around the locker room and grounds of the tennis center. We felt sure that we would get lucky in the third group of matches, for it was then that de la Pena and Zivojinovic were scheduled to play.
2:00 p.m. With the second bunch of doubles matches under way, I had time to watch Boris Becker playing Derrick Rostagno in the stadium. I knew Rostagno, having spent a week with him the previous spring at a small tournament in Salzburg.
My player badge got me in, but rather than sit in the players' section I found an unoccupied scat in a box. Some latecomers settled in behind me, and one of them exclaimed, "Who is this guy 'Rust-and-go'? Never heard of him." Rostagno won the first set 6-1. In Salzburg, the then 46th-ranked Rostagno had been a star, the top player there. He had even been a quarterfinalist at the '88 U.S. Open. But sharing center stage with Becker in New York, he was a nobody again. No matter what view of Rostagno you took, though, one thing was clear: Becker was in big trouble when Rostagno won the second set in a tiebreaker.
2:30 p.m. I left the Becker match, and met up with James outside the clubhouse. We headed upstairs to the locker room for some free orange juice and then slogged downstairs for lunch. As alternates, we were entitled to $10 per day in meal tickets (players in the draw receive $20) to be used at the restaurant in the players' lounge. This is no subsidized discount haven; a sandwich and salad go for about $13. As James and I tried to fill up, we saw Arias and asked him about his thumb. "Pretty bad. You should be standing by," he told us.
He was holding out hope that he could play his doubles match on Thursday. He also suggested that we find out if an alternate team could still come in after the warmup started. Our check with an official confirmed that until the first point is played, substitutes can enter.
4:00 p.m. The players' lounge was mobbed. What had earlier been our nap-time room was now swarming with coaches, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, agents, parents, journalists and even a few players. All eyes were turned on the TV monitors in the lounge. Becker, after winning the third set 6-3, was facing match point against him in a tiebreaker in the fourth. We all watched in disbelief as Becker's passing shot clipped the net and sailed just over Rostagno's perfectly positioned racket. The place went nuts. My first reaction was to grab the person next to me and exclaim " íDios mío! ¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèIncreíble, no?" Gabriela Sabatini, however, seemed a bit standoffish, so I simply made a pronounced head-shake of wonderment in her direction. Becker won the tiebreaker, Sabatini left, and Becker went on to beat Rostagno 6-3 in the fifth set. Missed opportunities all around at the Open that day.
The net cord was a bummer for Rostagno, and I felt bad for him, but it didn't pack the same personal punch as what I now heard through the grapevine. Zivojinovic had been spotted on the grounds. I knew we should have sent him those vacation brochures. The big guy was upstairs, preparing to take the court. Things were starting to look bleak. There were only about a dozen doubles matches left to start that day, and all the teams seemed to be healthy and accounted for.
5:00 p.m. On the stadium court McEnroe was playing Haarhuis. To McEnroe and the rest of the tennis elite, Haarhuis, then a 23-year-old Dutch qualifer, was an unknown, but I knew him well. I had seen Haarhuis earn his first ATP point two summers before in a small town in the Netherlands. Six months earlier we had both played in the qualifying rounds of a tournament in Rotterdam. We were both ranked about 500 at the time.
Each time I saw Haarhuis that spring, his ranking had climbed. I practiced with him and supported him in his matches, but could not make a similar move myself. My ranking held steady at about 500, which usually limited me to playing doubles and trying to qualify for the singles.
By qualifying for the Open and winning his first-round match, Haarhuis had moved up to 115. He had made great strides, but taking on McEnroe in front of thousands of New York fans was at an altogether different level. As I watched him, I felt more vicarious pride than envy.
The floodlights were now on in the stadium. With Haarhuis closing in on victory, my chance to play in the Open was ebbing away, as the rest of that day's doubles matches went on court. Though it was frustrating to be so close to playing, I couldn't help being struck by how nice it was simply to be at the Open. For as long as I could remember I had found a way to get in to see the pro tournament each summer in my hometown of Washington, D.C. I had been a ball boy at age 10. I had seen my first U.S. Open only two years before when a friend gave me a ticket he couldn't use, and in another year I would probably be coughing up $35 for my own ticket.
But on this day I was sitting courtside watching my friend play McEnroe, with still a remote chance that I would play in the Open myself. Perhaps I should have been more upset. The $1,100 guarantee for getting into the draw was certainly much needed, but I wasn't thinking about it. At that moment I was content.
7:00 p.m. Time to find James and start heading home. I was passing the command center when I finally saw what I had been looking for all day. There on the match-update blackboard that we had checked countless times was the unlikely result we had been waiting for: 6-2, 6-1 RETIRED. Scott Davis had retired because of a pulled stomach muscle in his second-round singles match against Yzaga. Davis was scheduled to play doubles in the grandstand that night.
We had checked the blackboard so many times, only to see completed matches, that by now we were only going through the motions. The result had been posted for more than an hour, but we had missed it. James and I rushed around trying to find out what was going on with Davis. There was only one man to ask: ATP tour representative and troubleshooter Weller Evans. But where was he?
We finally tracked down Evans in Slew's Place, a coffee shop at the Tennis Center, with Davis and Davis's partner, David Pate. We didn't have the nerve to break up that intimidating triumvirate with a frontal assault. So we waited...and waited...and waited some more, until Evans finally left the table.
We ambled over to Evans, and I casually said, "Oh, hi. Looks like it's going to be a late night. That's quite a match on in the stadium." Evans quickly assumed a bored yet wary look. "No more Pepsi in the dispenser, huh?" Pause. "Is Davis playing?"
Evans narrowed his eyes and replied, "Yes, he'll play."
Busted. That was it for the day. We were getting our stuff together when Haarhuis, playing with the poise and confidence of a seasoned pro, put away a high forehand volley to finish off McEnroe. Sampras and Wilander had just started in the stadium as we waited in the parking lot for a courtesy car to take us back to Manhattan.
Our best chance now was the tender thumb of Jimmy Arias, and as I drifted off to sleep that night I knew what I would dream about.
Thurs., Aug. 31, 3:00 p.m. We slipped into our playing outfits and followed Berger and Arias to Court 20, an outer court. Though Arias's career has taken a downturn, he is still a popular player, particularly in New York. The crowd that filled the courtside bleachers stood and cheered when he appeared. I knew then that he would play. People had come to see Arias, not merely to see a doubles match. How would the fans react if Arias and Berger walked off, and we walked on? What had seemed plausible the night before now seemed like fantasy. Arias wouldn't step aside once he was on the court.
We waited until we saw Arias serve the first point. Ten minutes later the match was suspended when Arias, unable to continue, called for the trainer. After a long delay while his thumb was retaped, he finished the match—a 6-2, 6-3 loss—but he and Berger never had a chance. Neither did we. All the calculations, possibilities and hopes were now dashed.
10:00 p.m. The driver gave me a ride from the tennis center all the way to my friend's apartment—a nice favor. I rode the elevator upstairs and got ready for bed. I flipped on the TV and watched a few minutes of tennis highlights, a galaxy away from my quiet room. I turned off the TV. I turned off the lights and slept well. I did not dream.
Mark Ozer will be watching this year's U.S. Open from the sidelines.