Ashes to Armstrong: Snapshots of the 2019 US Open

Photo courtesy of moi

On a breezy August evening, one perfectly fit for briefly forgetting both the sweltering summer and its miserly, frozen, hibernating kin, I sojourned to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens to take in the selected offerings from the first round of this year’s US Open. Specifically, three players – Rafael Nadal, Aryna Sabalenka and Nick Kyrgios – offered their assorted splendors to varying degrees, making for predictably excellent tennis. There are worse ways to turn the night into the morning.

Nadal (2) – J. Millman

If there is one men’s tennis player who more embodies what has changed about the stylistic nuances within professional tennis over the past two decades or so, it’s Roger Federer, who employs the serve-and-volley of yesteryear as effectively as the power and topspin which drew the game away from it. If, however, there is a single men’s player who embodies the catalyst that pushed – emboldened? – Federer to get there, it’s Rafael Nadal.

It’s a staggering declaration of who I thought I was supposed to be at the time to admit that I favored Nadal over Federer for most of my adolescence. There was and remains something primal about him, even as his hair has withdrawn to wisps from its formerly mane-esque glory; the Spaniard’s overwhelming and extremely apparent athleticism, combined with his constantly playing the foil and underdog (except on clay) to Federer for the better part of their rivalry, appealed immensely to me.

I used to – still do! – love his snarl. It reminds me of a habit at least one of my brothers and I share of sticking our tongues out the side of our mouth when in deep concentration. Even insofar as the stature and position requires it, Nadal is a player of unfathomable concentration, which immediately revealed itself in his match Tuesday night against Australia’s John Millman.

In the first game alone, Nadal had to wait to get himself going. The crowd, ever restless, had to quiet before he hit his first serve, and then, three points later, he waited for a train outside the stadium to pass. Those bouts with externalities aside, Nadal coolly held serve, setting the tone for what would end up being a swift dismantling.

For his part, John Millman’s energy is kinetic, addictive and frantic. He has a certain easygoingness about him, the “Well, I don’t know how that happened, but I’ll take it” attitude that Andy Murray has long personified among elite men’s players but without all of the hazardous self-doubt that has at times plagued him. John Millman is Andy Murray minus Drake.

Even so, for all of the beauty of Millman’s ball toss, which dances above him like a butterfly on a string, he quickly let the match get away from him. Or perhaps, more properly, Nadal firmly took it from him. All this, while Rafa maintained a constant, yet subtle, use of towels, which he does in any match he plays. This is because Rafael Nadal sweats more than any person in human history.

Aesthetically, Novak Djokovic is almost robotic in his racket placement and precise movements; Roger Federer adds grace to his precision, a touch of flair for those who might’ve forgotten. Stan Wawrinka can hit his backhand from Mars into the opposite box in Louis Armstrong.

This may be the quintessential image of Nadal: Whereas many men’s players place their forehands such that their instruments end up approximating their shoulders, Rafa’s tends to fling far above his head, which can result in shots that pop as high as the upper deck of whatever stadium he’s in at the time as well as those that barely graze the net on their way to being a winner.

Millman won a final service game in the third set to bring it to 5-2, but it was to be a formality. Nadal closed out the Australian in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. Afterward, he would praise Andy Murray for courageously participating in the singles draw of his namesake tournament back home in Mallorca. We all like to see Andy Murray out there. So, too, do we like to see Rafael Nadal.

*     *     *

Azarenka – Sabalenka (9)

Just across the way, in the aforementioned Louis Armstrong Stadium, a skirmish was breaking out: Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka were engaging in the first meeting of two players from the nation in a Grand Slam since it established its independence, in August 1991.

Victoria Azarenka is the greatest and most important tennis player in the history of Belarus. She has two Grand Slam singles titles, two Grand Slam doubles titles, a pair of Olympic medals and a former world No. 1 ranking to her name. She has endured injuries and custody battles and tabloids from Los Angeles to Minsk, and she’s come out of it with the same resilience that guided her to the top in the first place.

Surely keeping all of this, or perhaps none of it, in mind, the 30-year-old Azarenka took the first set 6-4 over her friend and protégé Sabalenka. The former entered the tournament unseeded and ranked 38th in the world, while the latter is the ninth seed and a dubious[1] no. 13. It was a star-crossing moment, in real time, a pair of fireworks bursting simultaneously in opposing directions.

Azarenka’s game directly informs Sabalenka’s; each have incredible ability along the baseline, hitting forceful groundstrokes that seem to bounce louder when they land than when they were hit. Sabalenka has the tendency that accompanies her 21 years of hitting nearly as many unforced errors as winners, and every time she did in this match, her countenance reflected as much. Her self-awareness, especially at this age, may end up helping her in the long run, so long as she can balance that with what makes her wonderfully captivating to watch.

A good friend of mine[2] texted me a little before 10 pm, probably around when Azarenka was up 3-2 in the second set, that the Kyrgios-Johnson match was scheduled to start at 10:15 on the Louis Armstrong court. I told him that Aryna Sabalenka may have something to say about that. And did she ever.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sabalenka’s signature yelps were muted in the third set against her mentor. Maybe aggression or focus or some other abstract thing had gotten the best of her, or maybe her voice had dulled beneath the flood of Satchmo’s lights. While some players, Nadal and Serena among them, tend to be heard whenever they hit the ball, Aryna was only vocal when she seemed to really be straining, stretching for a second chance or lining up for a forehand winner.

After taking a strained second set, Sabalenka put herself in the driver’s seat for the third, rarely getting knocked out of position or losing herself in the moment. Azarenka served with a lead at 2-1, but it would be her last. Aryna settled in and delivered a masterful close of her elder countrywoman, winning 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Afterward, Sabalenka thanked the crowd for their ongoing support, which was effusively returned, before declaring, “I’m happy I found something at the important moments.”

*     *     *

Johnson – Kyrgios (28)

Finally, the closing match of my evening was the Australian wunderkind/bad boy/fuckboi/basketball and dog enthusiast/enraging bottle of talent, Nick Kyrgios, against ex-Olympian and mustache aficionado Stevie Johnson. From his entrance to the arena, Kyrgios was in form, meaning he was doing largely what he wanted to be doing, minus the tennis part, while entertaining the crowd and pleasing the fervent ones who stuck around to see him.

From his warmup, during which he played a ball between his legs and generally nodded his way from the pair of Air Jordans he had been wearing to his tennis sneaks, it was clear that Kyrgios’ reputation accompanied him everywhere: his Supreme-esque boldness, underlined by his nonchalance toward whatever you, the viewer, were doing earlier today to earn a sliver of what he would soon be raking in, all with a capitalized “L” for “Literally anything but tennis rn tbh”.

I have no idea whether Nick Kyrgios ever considers his opponent. He reacts to him physically, of course, but I don’t know if her ever thinks about more than a single, isolated action resulting from a series of incremental motions that another human body makes at a time. Here is a real headline from the Sporting News:

Nick Kyrgios openly expresses his contempt for the game he plays for a living. The problem – and this is where it turns from “problem” to “complicating factor” – is that his talent is also imminently, frustratingly apparent. Quite simply, he can do things no other tennis player can, seemingly at will: he would routinely back himself into corners, clumsily mashing double-faults and lackadaisically chasing after balls well within his reach, only to turn around and hit ace after ever-loving ace to close a game.

Controversy follows Kyrgios, or perhaps he chases it. His opponents and the tennis media, especially the old guard, have routinely chastised him for taking the easy way out in higher-pressure situations. He can be stubborn, brash and foolhardy, tying his larger failures to indifference.

But he can be equally hypnotic. His technical brilliance is well-established, and his body is built to succeed in modern tennis. He does what he wants because he knows he can; the issue arises when he does not care to. He seems only to play well when he is inspired, as against Rafael Nadal, John Isner, Alexander Zverev and Stan Wawrinka earlier this year on his way to a title in Acapulco.

Perhaps the floodies are bright enough at a major, or at the US Open. Even while hitting all his standard marks – arguing with an umpire, clobbering no-chance serves, alienating his opponent and using his racquet to point nowhere in particular while yelling at nobody in particular – his excellence shone. Though it often seemed as though Kyrgios was attempting to top Riley Opelka’s tournament-best 142 mph serve, Kyrgios was nevertheless routinely giving the crowd serves of 138, 139, 140, 141.

He would close out Johnson in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4. His second set tiebreak included an episode in which he engaged the crowd, exchanged jibes with a handful of (older, white) avid non-fans, pointed to them and smashed an ace as if to show that he chooses to do this. Predictably, they did not meet him with applause, but plenty of other members of the audience did. Including, presumably, the fan with the Mets jersey in the front row with Kyrgios’ name on the back of it, numbered, of course, 69. Nice.

Afterward, Kyrgios would deem tennis as a profession “boring”[3] and then rag on the dark purple and black color scheme Nike has deployed for this tournament. Kyrgios loves the tweener. Kyrgios hates the circumstances that require him to be in a position to hit the tweener.

I came away from watching him thinking that Nick Kyrgios is exactly as billed: headstrong, engaging and wildly, insanely talented. He puts on a show and seems to revel in doing so. Assuming health, if he never wins a major, it’s hard to think that it would come down to anything other than his not especially wanting it. But that is missing the point of how he approaches the tennis hierarchy in 2019.

Nick Kyrgios needs a player that challenges him the way he challenges other players. I don’t know if he will ever win a major, but if and when a player like that comes along, you would be best served going to a bookie and seeing what’s what with regard to the Aussie. For now, we have him, or at least as much of him as he’s willing to give.

*     *     *

[1] To me, at least

[2] And Nick Kyrgios fan, but we’ll get to the latter in a minute

[3] While seemingly referring to himself, curiously, in the third person

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