The glasses look ridiculous, no question about it. But get past that, and watching tennis in 3-D is undeniably cool. Aces whistle by so realistically that you'll duck. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for everything from the cartwheeling spin on some shots to the vast territory that players cover in a single point.
About $1 million has been invested in 3-D production at this year's U.S. Open, the last of the year's four Grand Slam tournaments, which takes place Aug. 29--Sept. 11. Using 10 special cameras positioned around the perimeter of the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, CBS will offer a 3-D option during its coverage of both weekends' matches. If you aren't among the 700,000 or so fans attending over the fortnight, consider this the next best thing.
There is, though, a certain irony here. Professional tennis has never been less in need of visual enhancement. The quality of the game is nosebleed high. Players hit balls with unprecedented accuracy and pace. They defend as never before, not only scrambling to catch up with shots no one would have reached a few years ago but also firing back with just as much force. Spark up YouTube and watch matches from the '80s: Comparing the tennis of John McEnroe and Chris Evert with the play of today's top pros is like comparing James Naismith's peach-basket game with the modern NBA.
Not only that, but the men's game is blessed with not a rivalry but a trivalry—a nuanced three-way power grab among top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia, No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain and No. 3 Roger Federer of Switzerland. Djokovic has lost exactly two matches this year (two, in fact, since Thanksgiving weekend of 2010), turning in what is to date the finest men's season since 1969. Meanwhile Federer and Nadal may end their careers as the two most accomplished players of all time. Want to talk dominance? In golf the last 15 majors were won by 15 men. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have claimed 25 of the last 26 Grand Slam singles titles.
August 28, 2011
Better still, each of the three is unique, playing his stringed instrument in his own key. Federer, now 30, is the dignified old lion, trying to use his artistry to stave off his younger challengers. Nadal, 25, the defending U.S. Open champ, is short on aesthetics but long on industry and courage. The 24-year-old Djokovic is utterly without weakness and has lately learned how to compete. In the current three-for-all there is, as Federer puts it, "something for everyone."
The relationship among the top trio, in fact, is akin to rock-paper-scissors. Consider the results of the year's last two majors. In June at the French Open, Federer played brilliantly to beat Djokovic in the semifinals, ending the Serb's 43-match winning streak. Nadal then continued his mastery of Federer in the final. Three weeks later Djokovic beat Nadal, as he has each of the five times they've played this year, to win the Wimbledon final.
The staircase down to the next level is a long one, but there will be other abundantly talented players in New York, suggesting that the Golden Age of men's tennis will continue when Federer no longer can. Fourth-ranked Andy Murray of Great Britain—a decorated champion if only he had been born in another era—discomfits opponents with accuracy and guile in both his return and ground games and is fresh off a win in the Cincinnati final. Juan Martín del Potro, a lanky Argentine ranked No. 18, hits his forehand like a man snapping a whip; he beat Nadal and Federer in succession (he is the only man ever to do so) to win the 2009 U.S. Open and is now recovered from a wrist injury. Other dangerous players range from France's athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to Spain's indefatigable David Ferrer.
The women's game is, by contrast, anarchic. The Open field is just that—an open field—as perhaps 15 women have a chance of winning. But here, too, the level of tennis can be exceptionally high. When Petra Kvitova, a 21-year-old Czech lefty, won Wimbledon in July, the BBC reported that her ground strokes crossed the net at 88 mph, faster than the shots of Federer and Nadal. And Kvitova leavens her power with touch; her slice backhand is precise and sharp enough to cut glass.
"She has a real chance to win many titles for many years," says Martina Navratilova. "This is no one-hit wonder."
All this excellence will find the perfect venue at Flushing Meadow. The U.S. Open is the most democratic of the Slams, played on a hard surface that accommodates all styles. The servers can serve, the retrievers can retrieve, the aggressors can aggress. There is also a sense that after the tennis tour has threaded its way from Melbourne to London to Los Angeles and myriad cities in between, the season culminates in New York City. This is where you finish strong.
The players either love it or hate it; the constant thrum is infectious energy to some, repellent chaos to others. The sheer size of it all—the crowds, the endless concessions and the gargantuan Ashe Stadium, the biggest tennis arena in the world by a considerable margin—is either suitable grandeur or wretched excess.
While the tournament is often referred to simply as the Open, organizers don't scrimp on the U.S. part. Red, white and blue is the dominant color scheme. Evening sessions start with the national anthem and elaborate military processionals. The expressions of patriotism will be particularly strong this year, as the men's final falls on 9/11, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the most devastating of which took place just a few miles from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. On the final Sunday, "9-11-01" will be painted in white on the court surface.
The U.S. Open is also U.S. capitalism thrown into sharp relief. The rampant commercialism (even the umbrellas shielding players from the sun bear logos) expresses either astute enterprise or uncontrolled greed. Put simply, the Open reeks of money. Walking through the parking lot, you can be forgiven for thinking you've stumbled on the world's largest Range Rover dealership. The suits in the suites are Wall Street and hedge fund royalty. With all those moneyed fans filing in over two weeks—and prices in Arthur Ashe ranging from $50 for an above-the-timberline seat to $700 for a spot courtside—the Open has become the highest-grossing annual attended sporting event in the world. Gross revenue for the two weeks will approach $250 million. And given that the players' prize money barely accounts for 10% of that (even with the men's and women's singles champions taking home a whopping $1.8 million apiece), the U.S. Open is among the world's most profitable sports properties.
There is, alas, one American component glaringly missing: top-ranked players. And this brings up the central tension of this year's Open. While we're in a gilded age for tennis overall, it's a dark era for U.S. tennis. At one point earlier this year, for the first time, the weekly rankings contained no American in the top 10 of either the ATP or the WTA.
Serena Williams is still the prohibitive favorite on the women's side, having won tournaments in Palo Alto, Calif., and Toronto in the last month, but she and her sister Venus have come to resemble your mother's good china, making appearances only on special occasions. As a result Venus is ranked 36th and Serena 29th. On the men's side Andy Roddick, who this year ended more than a decade (gulp) as the top-ranked U.S. man, is 29 and often injured, but he will try against the odds to win the second major title that has eluded him for so long. At the moment the highest-rated American is No. 7 Mardy Fish, also 29, who on this summer's circuit won in Atlanta and reached the finals in L.A. and Montreal. After these players the cupboard's awfully bare, especially among the women. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the second-ranked Yank at No. 33, has more hyphens in her name than career WTA singles titles. And Melanie Oudin, the belle of the Open ball two years ago, has fallen out of the top 100. Not for nothing did HBO devote a Real Sports segment last week to the decline of the American game.
So is this historical low the result of the USTA's failure to nurture talent (the nonprofit USTA invests U.S. Open income in developing the game, but critics complain that it also spends lavishly on administrative salaries), or is it the inevitable result of an ever more global sport? Or is the real question whether nationality in tennis is even relevant? A good many players carry multiple passports. Easily half are now based in a country other than their motherland. Maria Sharapova has spent 17 of her 24 years in either Florida or California. Fourth-ranked Victoria Azarenka has spent her entire career based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and speaks English without an accent. Sharapova and Azarenka play under the flags of Russia and Belarus, respectively, making these patriot games seem rather arbitrary.
U.S. sports fans, nevertheless, can be a provincial bunch. We like cheering for our own. And while we're generally fine with Dirk Nowitzki or Ichiro or half of the NHL coming from abroad to play for our league teams, in individual sports we prefer to see a U, S and A following an athlete's name. Boxing will continue to struggle in the U.S. until more champions are American. Interest in the Tour de France drops when Americans are not winning. Likewise, as the Williams sisters go, so go domestic tennis TV ratings and general interest in the U.S. Open. If Djokovic were from Chicago or Pittsburgh, we'd be enthralled with his astonishing 2011 record of 55--2 going into Flushing Meadow. As it stands, he could walk down Broadway next week and, one suspects, go unnoticed for blocks.
There will be plenty of nostalgia at this Open, most of it harking back to the days of U.S. dominance. In Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, commentary will be provided by McEnroe, Evert, Navratilova and former U.S. Open champ Tracy Austin. Rest assured that we'll get our fill of Jimmy Connors on this, the 20th anniversary of his Open run at age 39. Images of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi will appear throughout the grounds. It all suggests an insecurity about the present, a sense that tennis once occupied more glamorous real estate in the sportscape.
But it's not so. U.S. tennis isn't what it once was. Tennis, overall, is better than ever. So consider this a plea to fans to disregard the players' nationalities and simply enjoy the matches. Pick a star among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Revel in the embarrassment of riches on the men's side. Watch Kvitova. (Pretend, if you must, that she's from Boca Raton or Pasadena.) Appreciate the fitness of the players, their mental toughness, the simultaneous displays of power and control. It will be like adding a fourth dimension.
Follow @jon_wertheim for his up-to-the-minute thoughts on tennis and a host of other topics.
SEVEN PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Some of these men and women may not make it to the second week of the U.S. Open (then again, you never know), so look for them in the early rounds
• After Serena Williams (No. 31), Germany's Sabine Lisicki represents the biggest differential between a player's ranking and her ability. After missing the better part of a year with an ankle injury, Lisicki, who has the hardest serve in women's tennis (it's been clocked at 121 mph), dropped out of the top 100. She's back with a bullet, fresh from reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, at age 21. Her ranking is 23, but don't be fooled: This is a top 10 talent.
• Like the Canadian dollar, Canadian tennis is, unthinkably, threatening to surpass its U.S. counterpart. At the start of 2011 Toronto's Milos Raonic was ranked a lowly 156. Riding his elephant gun of a serve, the 20-year-old was in the top 25 by Wimbledon, making him the highest-ranked Canadian. A hip injury stalled his progress in London, but if he's healthy in New York, put the 6'5" Raonic, now ranked No. 28, on the short list of players to follow.
• A year ago Alex Bogomolov Jr. was a washed-up former pro, giving lessons at tennis clubs in the New York City suburbs. Then he decided to give his playing career a last shot, financing his travel with a credit card. Winning begat winning. Now the 28-year-old Bogomolov, the son of a former Soviet national tennis coach, is in the top 50, has recently beaten Andy Roddick and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and has won more than $250,000 in prize money for the year.
• Given our propensity to hype U.S. women who show even flashes of promise (see: Oudin), optimism about Christina McHale should be guarded, but it's hard to ignore her progress. A 19-year-old from New Jersey, she is nearing the top 50 and upset top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki last week in Cincinnati. McHale is light on weaponry but heavy on consistency and resolve. Given the volatile state of the women's game, those virtues could presage success.
• While his father drove a cab around Queensland, Australia, Bernard Tomic became adept at piloting tennis balls around the court. At 18 he is already ranked 61st, fresh off a run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals that included upsets of Nikolay Davydenko, Robin S√∂derling and Xavier Malisse. Standing almost 6'5", Tomic hits the ball with such force that, inevitably, he'll be nicknamed A-Tomic. Provided he improves his movement, he'll be a star.
• Inasmuch as there is a young U.S. men's hope, the distinction-cum-burden goes to Ryan Harrison, a 19-year-old Texan. Now up to No. 78 in the rankings, Harrison made a minor run through the qualies and to the fourth round at Flushing Meadow last year and has been improving ever since. Still filling out his six-foot frame, he already has a versatile game and—unlike too many recent U.S. prospects—drips with intensity and focus.
• You think Novak Djokovic has had an impressive year, losing just two matches? Then consider Esther Vergeer, who hasn't lost since January. Of 2003. The 30-year-old player from the Netherlands, a five-time U.S. Open women's wheelchair champion, is riding a dumbfounding 422-match winning streak. Watch her while you can, and remember her the next time you hear another athlete described as "dominating" a sport.