“Coloring the sunshine hours. They are the ladies of the canyon.” – Joni Mitchell
It’s hard to know if the first few days of the U.S. Open set the tone for the rest of the event. After wondering if Opening Day would actually open after Hurricane Irene lashed the northeast over the weekend, fortunately New York City was spared the worst of it and tournament organizers went ahead as planned even though grounds crews spent most of the Monday rebuilding and restocking the various performance stages, bars and stores that make up the U.S. Open experience.
I use the word experience because attending Flushing Meadows is really tennis overload and it’s very easy to spend the whole day soaking in “tennis” without actually watching any yellow balls flying across a net. Thankfully, plenty of intriguing matchups were on hand at the very start including young American hope Ryan Harrison who took on No. 27 seed Marin Cilic. The week before down in Winston-Salem, Harrison told the crowd he would “do some damage” up in New York, but the only damage done may have been to his own reputation as he endured a rousing New York jeer after tossing his racquet late in the second set. Up until then, the crowd cheered for every point Harrison won, but that outburst proved that even rowdy New Yorkers will accept a certain amount of rude behavior. Harrison lost in straight sets to Cilic and though Harrison will definitely be back, that racquet toss along with a moment when Harrison dropped kicked a tennis ball into the stands resembling a 20 yard field goal, illustrated the whole dilemma U.S. fans have with Harrison in that it looks like we’re going to have to take the talent with the tantrums for quite some time.
The grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center provide plenty of smaller show courts that allow fans a chance to see their favorite players up close and personal. That intimacy, which is great for fans, comes at a cost for the players as the sounds of rattling carts, crying babies and roars of fans’ cheers from nearby courts and the ever-present planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport all add to the sonic distractions the pros must deal with. For those superstars and their often unheard of first round prey who find themselves booked on the massive Arthur Ashe Stadium, the constant humming buzz of 23,000 plus fans constantly moving and talking (good luck telling that crowd to be quiet chair umpires) takes aural overload to a whole new level.
Players may say it’s an honor to play on Ashe, but tennis fans (who don’t have a seat in a luxury sky box or courtside) may say something else with a few choice obscenities about having to make the hike, (and it is a hike) up to their birds’ eye view of the court below. The love/hate relationship fans have with Ashe stadium is well known, with some fans totally swearing off stepping foot inside the canyon-like structure. But for those with an Ashe ticket for the day, when a match changes course or starts to get really good as it did on Monday when young Brit Heather Watson found herself up a set and then neck and neck with Maria Sharapova in their first round match, then one owes it to themselves to climb up to their perch to take in the drama and, when a well-played point ends, feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck as 23,000 plus people roar their approval. You may not be able to see the players’ faces, but you will definitely hear it as the stadium magnifies either the triumphant yell from a player after she wins a hard earned point followed by the roar of the masses assembled together.
Sharapova withstood the early charge by Watson and managed to claim the second set before going on to win the match in three sets. After the day session ended, the always glamorous night session started with another woman who knows a thing or two about being in the spotlight on the biggest stage tennis has – Venus Williams. The two-time U.S. Open champion came into her first round match against Vesna Dolonts with questions marks not only surrounding what she would wear, but more importantly, about her game as Venus had not played a match since Wimbledon. I didn’t have a night session ticket, but I did watch a few minutes of the match on one of the big monitors near the food court. Seeing Venus magnified on the screen, the sparkles of her dress made even brighter by the glow of the screen, I wondered if this might be Venus’s last match ever on Ashe, considering her recent bout of injuries and lack of matches this year.
Williams won in straights against Dolonts setting up an anticipated second round match against Sabine Lisicki that sadly never took place. Minutes before they were too take the court on Ashe, Williams withdrew citing her ongoing issues with being diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, a sometimes debilitating auto-immune condition. Williams said she hopes to be back playing tennis soon and she may well be back in better health next year. But if her night match on Ashe on Monday was the last time for her, then at least she gave her final performance in a winning style, once again proving that among all the ladies who have graced Arthur Ashe stadium since it opened in 1997, Venus, amid all her accomplishments, has had the most memorable moments in her career on the biggest stage in the sport, and for that, Venus may not just be one of the ladies of the canyon but very well, its queen.
The U.S. Open is underway. And if the first day is any indication, the drama is just beginning. I can’t wait.