Most of our friends here in New York City aren't nearly as into sports as we are; you have no idea how difficult it is to corral an NFL Sunday crew. But the one sporting event everybody here loves, whether they care about sports or not, is the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows.
Why? Because unlike Shea and Yankee Stadium, it matters that you are seen. This is why we usually don't go — we hate being seen, hate it — but why countless New Yorkers are willing to spend 25 bucks on a hot dog in the middle of August.
Anyway, the rest of us can look on with the same bemused attachment we reserve for the rest of tennis. So, after the jump, with a U.S. Open preview is Dylan Stableford, formerly MediaBistro.com. He insisted on the Sharapova photo.
The 2007 U.S. Open will be the first since 1985 without Andre Agassi. And don't think the USTA and USA Network doesn't know this: last year, Swiss milquetoast champion Roger Federer ripped through the draw to capture his third consecutive U.S. Open title. Yet it was a hobbling, sobbing, 36-year-old bald man from Las Vegas who, despite losing in the third round, captivated Flushing Meadows more than Anna Wintour's occasional boy-toy ever will. (USA will be praying for downpours just so it can show rain-delay staples like Agassi-Sampras '01, Agassi-Blake '05 or Agassi-Baghdadis '07).
Without Agassi's tongue-bitten tears, there are, admittedly, few story lines to follow, and even fewer questions to ponder: Does America care about the Federer-Rafael Nadal (Roger-Rafa) rivalry? Will Maria Sharapova use fingers or a banana to communicate with her coaches' box? Will the Williams sisters show up? Will drunk tennis fans be savvy enough to heckle the Pete Rose of tennis, Nikolay Davydenko, properly? Will Rodionova try that shit in Queens? Will the U.S. Open be anywhere near as compelling as Brooklyn's Wiimbledon? And, of course, the biggest question in tennis in 2007: Will it be a kitten or a cougar?
A rough, rough guide to the next two weeks:
To illustrate just how bleak the U.S. men's tennis scene has become, look no further than the ATP rankings. Roddick and James Blake are ranked in the top 10 again, but you'll have to travel all the way down to no. 47 to Sam Querrey to see another American.And even Roddick and Blake lack a certain WWF — sorry, WWE — quality of the Agassi-Sampras era. "With Sampras or Connors, there wasn't a court, there was a cage," Luke Jensen, the older Hanson brother of men's tennis analysts, said recently. "The players today are nice guys, but do you really want to get in the cage with them?"
Blake's a great story, though. His recently-released autobiography, Breaking Back, chronicles his comeback from a broken neck, his father's death and the subsequent shingles that paralyzed his face, culminating in the epic 2005 quarterfinal against Agassi. And, with a faithful cheering section annoying opponents at every tour stop - the "J-Block" — he's playing about as well as he was coming into the 2005 Open. Biggest problem for Blake, 28, is the same for the rest of the men's tour: Roger Federer exists.
Forget Blake and Roddick. Novak Djokovic, from the sleepy Serbian ski resort town of Kopaonik, is the one guy who could make things interesting for Federer. At the Rogers Cup in Montreal last month, he beat Roddick in the quarters, Nadal in the semis and Federer in the final, a feat all-but-assuring a letdown here.
The Williams Sisters
The Open has scheduled both Williams sister to play the first night matches at the Open, a nod to Althea Gibson, the first African American woman to play the Open. Expect USA to milk the hell out of this one. (Quick question for USA network producers, and anyone else planning to fawn over this made-for-cable event: Would Althea Gibson have spent 26 hours prepping her hair for the ESPYs?)
All you need to know about glistening defending champion Maria Sharapova can be summed up with the explanation at Saturday's press conference as to why she'll be wearing a red Nike dress — adorned with graphics of New York skyscapes and studded with more than 600 Swarovski crystals — at this year's Open: "I've never worn a red dress before. It's a really big statement because it's the Big Apple and apples are red," said Sharapova, at once evoking both her pin-up predecessor, Anna Kournikova, and a four-year-old. And despite a favorable draw (no Williams sisters, no Justine "Dropped the Hardenne" Henin), a repeat won't be as breezy as those Canon commercials: Sharapova was pummeled by Serena in Australia, spanked on clay in Paris, and rocked by Venus on grass.
Outside of the Williames and Sharapova, the names begin to sound like obscure rashes: Zakopalova, Perebynis, Cibulkova, Kostanic Tosic, Parmentier, Malek, Brianti, Jeong Cho. "Who are these people?" Steve Tignor asked on his Concrete Elbow blog on tennis.com - and that's a paid tennis blogger asking.
It's as close to a McEnroe-Borg rivalry as tennis is going to get - having won 13 of 15 Grand Slams since 2004. Federer has spent 187 consecutive weeks at no. 1, the Beatles to Nadal's Stones (109 consecutive weeks at no. 2). But, like the American men, they're just ... too nice. (After Montreal, Federer flew Nadal in his private jet to Cincinnati when the Spaniard was having trouble getting a flight. How cute.)
Another problem: Federer is just too good, too Swiss, for the drunken Flushing faithful to care. It's getting to the point now in Vegas where you - or, say, Davydenko — take Federer, like his buddy Tiger Woods, over the field. (Even throbbing heterosexuals like Richard Gasquet have no chance.) And that's just not that interesting.
"I really do believe it's difficult for American fans to warm up to it since we have so many other things going on with baseball, basketball, football," Blake told the Associated Press. "But I hope they can because they're both great guys."
Of course they are, James. So are you.