NEW YORK’S DIVINE COMEDY OF ERRORS • U.S. OPEN TENNIS

Written by: on 19th September 2018
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USA TENNIS US OPEN 2018
NEW YORK'S DIVINE COMEDY OF ERRORS • U.S. OPEN TENNIS

epaselect epa06999274 An image made available 05 September showing a plane passing over the skyline of New York City at sunset as seen from Arthur Ashe Stadium on the ninth day of the US Open Tennis Championships the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, USA, 04 September 2018. The US Open runs from 27 August through 09 September. EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE  |
An image made available 05 September showing a plane passing over the skyline of New York City at sunset as seen from Arthur Ashe Stadium on the ninth day of the US Open Tennis Championships the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, USA, 04 September 2018. The US Open runs from 27 August through 09 September.  EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

 

 

By Alix Ramsay

 

Dante was a tennis fan. He even went to the US Open. It says as much in the Divine Comedy. Honestly. Have a look.

 

There are those more scholarly than us who are of the opinion that his masterpiece represents the journey of the soul toward God. But you only have to have a squint at the first bit of his narrative poem, Inferno, to realise that these academics have missed the point.

 

Inferno details Dante journey through the nine circles of hell. The first circle is Limbo and he moves from there through Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, via the Central Well of Malebolge (if memory serves, you turn left there), and on to Treachery. From there it is straight ahead to the Centre of Hell. Or Flushing Meadows, as it is also known. Dante was a clearly a US Open veteran.

 

This year’s Open has been, to put it politely, ‘challenging’. That which the weather has not steamed to a gibbering pulp has been left to the vagaries of over-zealous officialdom, bizarre umpiring and honest-to-goodness cock-ups. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong in Flushing and it all begins with the journey out to the site.

 

Simply getting into the complex is a nightmare thanks to the help and assistance of the uniformed personnel who, for two whole weeks, are given a hi-viz vest and licence to wave their arms about in the face of on-coming vehicles. What started out as a bit of a traffic jam (many cars trying to get in to a single file and through the security cordon) becomes total gridlock once the arm-wavers have tried to help. This is but a tiny taste of what is to come: so many circles still to navigate, so much still to endure.

 

Let us start with the weather. Now, the steamy conditions are not the fault of the USTA; however what the USTA does in these steamy conditions is entirely their fault. Deep within the press bunker, the motley crew were scratching their heads trying to recall the last time the weather was as consistently hot and humid as it has been this past couple of weeks. Yes, there have been hotter days; yes, it has been suffocatingly humid before – but for so long? Without respite? This is truly unusual.

 

The much vaunted roof over the Arthur Ashe Stadium is not helping matters. In the old days, the wind would swirl around the court causing all sorts of problems. But at least it moved. Now, even with the roof open, the air stays put. Nothing moves. And when that air is humid, it is like running through treacle. Even the mighty Roger Federer, the man who never sweats, melted in the stifling conditions as he lost to John Millman in fourth round. Why did he lose? “It was hot,” was the simple reply.

 

“You have soaking wet pants, soaking wet everything,” Federer said. “The balls are in there, too. You try to play. Everything gets slower as you try to hit winners.

 

“I do believe since the roof is on that there is no air circulation in the stadium. I think just that makes it a totally different US Open. Plus conditions maybe were playing slower this year on top of it.”

 

Novak Djokovic really does not like the humidity. He struggled through three rounds of stickiness and almost keeled over in the process. He was even on the verge of losing his lunch against Marton Fucsovic in the first round (he asked for a trash can to be put beside his chair, just in case) and was hugely relieved that the USTA had suddenly created a new heat policy for the men’s draw.

 

The women’s tour has long had a heat rule allowing for a 10 minute break between the second and third sets should the temperatures reach boiling point on court. But the men had always been left to fend for themselves – or they were until someone thought they might lose a champion or two in New York. So in came a break for the boys between the third and fourth sets when it got too steamy – and Djoko was off like a rat up a drainpipe once the third set was done against Fucsovic.

 

“It was quite a wonderful feeling,” he said, afterwards. “Battling with a guy for two-and-a-half hours and then you get into the locker room, you haven’t finished the match, and you’re naked in the ice baths. It was quite a magnificent feeling I must say.”

 

Bizarre though that visual was (and some of us may be having nightmares for some time to come), Djokovic had a more serious point to make. Once he had dripped his way past Millman in the quarter-finals, he made his feelings plain.

 

“I have never sweated as much as I have here,” he said. “I have to take at least 10 shirts for every match. I asked the chair umpire whether they are using some form of ventilation or air conditioning down at the court level, and then he says ‘Only what comes through the hallway’. This tournament needs to address this. Because whether it’s night or day, we just don’t have air down there. It feels like a sauna.”

 

Djoko speaks; the USTA acts. To combat the suffocating atmosphere, they provided on-court fans. Desk fans. Tiny, wee things beside the player’s chairs. They puffed out a gentle whoosh that might cool a chap’s elbow – and, who knows, a cool elbow could be the difference between winning and losing a title – but little else. Compare these Staples summertime specials with the huge, industrial jobs they provide in Cincinnati. Whacking great things they are, the sort of fans that with the right training, diet and ambition might grow up to be a wind tunnel. Then again, Cincy is grown-up enough to admit that the conditions there are sweltering and the players need all the help they can get.

 

The USTA has been winging it with the heat since Day One. No one was completely sure how the heat rule worked – Andy Murray asked for specific instructions, followed them to letter and was then horrified to see that his opponent, Fernando Verdasco, chatting happily to his team (strictly verboten) during the 10 minute break. Others were not sure what to do.

 

For those on Arthur Ashe, it was easy: they could nip to the locker room and sit naked next to Djoko (bathing cheek to cheek). But for those on the outside courts, where was there to go? Cam Norrie was out on Court 10 losing to Dusan Lajovic when he was given his 10 minutes off.

 

Figuring that it was a hike back to the locker room, he ducked into the media room for a few minutes to cool down. “It’s got the coldest AC anywhere on site,” he explained, speaking for experience having shivered his way through several interviews with the British press in previous days. Even so, the minder sent with him to ensure he did not receive any coaching or treatment in his break failed to get him back on court in time and Norrie was given a warning for being late. Clearly no one thought to tell the officials to synchronise watches before they waved the players off for their breather. Why were we surprised?

 

Cast your mind back to the first week and poor Alize Cornet. In her haste to get back to the court, she had put her shirt on back to front. Oh, oops. So she whipped it off, turned it round and popped it back on again. And got a warning from the umpire for daring to flash her sports bra, a garment significantly more demure than some of the tops warn by the lady spectators in the stands, for a nano-second or two.

 

It was not as if the crowd had been scarred for life by the sight but the ump clearly thought a woman’s underthings were just plain rude. Cue a huge kerfuffle and much apologising by all concerned the following day. Again, we were not surprised. We had elbowed our way through several circles by this time and were immune to plain and simple idiocy.

 

Mohamed Lahyani, though, did catch us all out. Watching from the ump’s chair as Nick Kyrgios slumped to a set and a break deficit to Pierre-Hugues Herbert, he got down and had a chat with Australia’s great hope. “This is not you,” he told Kyrgios. “I want to help you.” And he did. Kyrgios bucked his ideas up and won the match.

 

Now, imagine it is the World Cup final. The match has gone to penalties. Big Bloke No.1 steps up to the spot and misses. The referee blows his whistle. “No, mate, don’t put it there; aim for the top corner. The goalie will never get it. Try again…” We would never hear the end of it. Lahyani – usually a fine umpire and always a very nice fella – must have had had a brain storm. Maybe it was the heat. Who knows? But he carried on officiating as if nothing had happened. On to the next circle.

 

The scheduling. In the event that several of your best players are either injured, returning from injury or are out of sorts, best make the most of what you have got. And when you have the likes of Fed and Raf, you really can’t complain. So what did the US Open do? Put them on in the middle of the night.

 

Raf’s five sets and five hours against Dominic Thiem was the match of the tournament and yet it finished at 2am when most people were tucked up in bed, no newspaper could get the result in the paper and it was only prime time for insomniacs. It was the same with Fed’s loss to Millman, the surprise result of the tournament – it was well past 1am when that one ended. The genius who thought that schedule up needs a promotion…. to chief lavvy cleaner on Court 11.

 

And so we have reached the very centre of hell. In Dante’s journey, he escapes by crossing the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and returns to earth. For us, salvation comes in the form of a taxi to the airport.

 

If only there had been yellow cabs back in the 14th century, it would have saved our Dante a whole heap of bother.

 

Editors Note • This was written prior to the Ladies Finals.

 

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