10 Things to Lookfor at The Open
1¬†Will theParty Go Late?
ROGER FEDERER coulddefend his title without losing a game. Serena Williams could rescue her careerfrom the abyss. Anna Kournikova could interrupt the women's final riding a pogostick and playing Heard 'Em Say on bagpipes. Ultimately, it won't much matter.Ever since Andre Agassi announced that the 2006 U.S. Open will be his lasttournament, it's been clear that the year's final major will be a farewellparty masquerading as a tennis event.
The Matt Lauerpretournament interview has been booked, the agassi and the ecstasy placardsprinted. A USA Network producer has no doubt unearthed that Image Is Everythingcommercial, as well as footage of the infamous Barbra Streisand "Zenmaster" interview.
The inconvenientquestion is: How long will Agassi stick around? He's 36 and has finally startedacting his age. Beset by chronic back pain, he hasn't made it past thequarterfinals of an ATP event this year and limps into New York with a matchrecord of 8-7. On the other hand, he was a finalist at the U.S. Open last year.Buoyed by all the support, could he have one last magical run left in him?
2 The BestEver-Except Now?
SO LONG as RogerFederer is in the draw, men's tennis events have tended to recall a line fromDante's Divine Comedy: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter." Since 2004,the Swiss colossus has won a preposterous 93.6% of his matches. But suddenly heno longer stands alone. Unawed by Federer's incandescence, Rafael Nadal hasbeaten Federer four of the five times they've played this year. While tennis'schattering class has been debating whether Federer is the Best Ever, he hasstruggled mightily with the No. 2 player. "Now he's the best," Nadalconcedes. "In the future? We're gonna see."
TheFederer-Nadal-Federal?-juggernaut has won eight of the last nine Grand Slamsand has all the required elements for an enduring rivalry. Their styles are astudy in contrasts. Federer, a righty, is a delicate pointillist; Nadal, alefty, an aggressive expressionist. It will take an upset to prevent them frommeeting in the Open final, and that match, played on a medium-speed hard court,could tell us plenty about the state of the rivalry.
3 Can Jimbo FindAndy's Mojo?
IT SOUNDS like thepremise for a lost episode of The Twilight Zone: Star player is featured in anad campaign about a mythical slump and then really starts losing and just can'tstop. It was at last year's U.S. Open that American Express ads put out an APBfor Andy Roddick's mojo. Then Roddick lost in the first round, and since thenhis ranking has dropped from No. 3 to No. 12.
Last month Roddickannounced that he was retaining an unlikely aide-de-camp to help restore hisfor-real lost mojo: Jimmy Connors, who'd never shown any interest in coaching.Seen as an act of desperation by some, in truth it's not so odd. Connors'sstrengths-his backhand, court coverage and return of serve-are Roddick'sweaknesses. The partnership got off to a promising start with a win on Sundayin Cincinnati, but the acid test will be the Open. If nothing else, it'll berefreshing to see Connors in some context other than his '91 Open defeat ofAaron Krickstein, a match replayed ad nauseum during rain delays.
4 Let's Go to TheVideotape
FOR A sport thoughtto be stuck in another century-the 19th-tennis has taken a bold step forwardwith the introduction of replay technology. Much like the NFL's challengesystem, but without the cloak-and-dagger secrecy, it will be unveiled for thefirst time in a major at the 2006 Open.
Players get twoincorrect challenges per set and unlimited successful ones. When they dispute acall, the chair ump halts play and the shot is shown on the stadium videoscreen. Available now on only the top two courts, the system uses a network ofcameras that track the ball's descent within millimeters to show exactly wherea shot landed. Fans eat it up, and the players can focus on the next pointwithout a feeling that they wuz robbed. The only downside? We may end upmissing the yelling and carrying on over missed calls. What if our enduringmemory of John McEnroe were not of a vintage tirade, but a demure request for areplay?
5 From Nervous ToImpervious
WERE YOU seekingproof that tennis is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, the careerof Amélie Mauresmo was, until recently, the best evidence. The strappingFrenchwoman was not only an exceptional athlete but also a tennis stylist whoseattacking game was easy on the eyes. Only problem: When the match tightened, sodid she. With the predictability of time and tide, Mauresmo would reach thelatter rounds of big events only to buckle under the weight of the occasion.Last January, she finally broke through, winning her first career major, inAustralia. Even then, of course, she was spared the pressure of actually havingto close out the match when Justine Henin-Hardenne retired in the second set.But at Wimbledon, Mauresmo convincingly drove a stake through her demons,rallying from a set down and then serving a brilliant final game to defeatHenin-Hardenne again. "I don't want anybody to talk about my nervesanymore!" she said later. A Heimlich candidate no longer, Mauresmo, 27, issuddenly a good bet to win her third Grand Slam of 2006.
6 Comeback Time Forthe Williamses?
EITHER VENUS orSerena Williams won the U.S. Open every year from 1999 to 2002, and twiceduring that time they played each other in the final. Contrast this to theirstate today: Venus hasn't won a tournament all year, and Serena has fallen evenfurther-she had to win four matches in L.A. earlier this month just to reenterthe top 100. Critics assert that the sisters' side interests (fashion, acting)have exacted a price on their tennis. Supporters contend that they've just beeninjured. Will a Williams win for a fifth time? Doubtful. But you'd behard-pressed to find two players better able to shake the rust off their gamesin a hurry.
7 So Graceful, YetSo Graceless
NOW THAT LleytonHewitt has married, mellowed and-perhaps not coincidentally-lost his edge,tennis's black cloud now perpetually hovers over Justine Henin-Hardenne.There's plenty to admire about the Belgian, from her versatile andcomprehensive game to her immunity to pressure. Yet the self-absorption, pluckand ambition that have made her an elite player can also conspire against her.A five-time major winner, she has a knack for controversy that she exacerbateswith clumsy p.r. One example: Trailing badly, she quit during the 2006Australian Open final, citing stomach pains, then scarcely acknowledged winnerAmélie Mauresmo in her runner-up speech. "I had a lot of respect for thechampion she is," says Mauresmo, "but I don't feel this behavior is achampion's behavior." At the Open, where every faux pas is elevated to afelony, the smart money says Henin-Hardenne becomes a cause cél√®bre.
8 Too Much Mr. NiceGuy
JAMES BLAKE maywell be the flip side of Henin-Hardenne. He's a genial, thoughtful guy reveredfor his grace and sportsmanship. Yet all of his, well, fundamental niceness caninconveniently express itself during matches. Armed with a weapons-gradeforehand and perhaps the best set of wheels in tennis, Blake last month reacheda career-high ranking of No. 5, but he's still awaiting his breakthrough in aGrand Slam event. When faced with resistance, he seems to lack the requisitenasty streak, hence his 0-for-9 record in five-set matches. (When Blake lost adesultory Wimbledon match to Max Mirnyi 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-0, The BostonGlobe's Bud Collins was moved to capture the collapse in song: "At the endwhy do I always lose? Guess I've got the fifth-set blues.") If Blake cansomehow channel his inner Justine and find a reservoir of bile, he's the playerwith the best chance of derailing the "Federal" Express.
9 The New BritishHope
WHEN BRAD GILBERTannounced last month that he was giving up broadcasting to coach Scottishteenager Andy Murray, the move raised eyebrows. Murray, 19, was ranked outsidethe top 40 and thought to have too little power to become a top player. It nowlooks as though Gilbert made a shrewd move, as Murray last week beat RogerFederer in Cincinnati. Having cracked the top 20, Murray arrives in New York asperhaps the hottest player on tour.
10 Are Vents inThis Year?
NEW YORK'S FashionWeek begins on Sept. 8, the day before the women's final, but you might thinkof the Open as an unofficial preview. With an increasingly lax dress code,players don't so much push the fashion envelope as propel it on a jet stream.Recent sartorial stylings include Federer's Gatsbyesque blazer; Nadal'ssignature clam diggers; the double-vents look of Dominik Hrbaty (below); andSerena Williams's denim outfit and knee-high boots. Then there's BethanieMattek, whose get-ups merit more attention than her tennis. At last year's U.S.Open, she was fined for taking the court in an argyle cowboy hat.
The fashionpossibilities are endless. Andy Roddick in overalls and John Deere cap? NicoleVaidisova, a Sharapova manqué, in cocktail dress and fishnets? The truth is,the field could play naked and still not siphon much attention from Agassi'sadieu.