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.
“Ladies and gentlemen, due to the humid conditions, Millman is going to change his attire.”
In the middle of the second set on during the men’s quarterfinal at the US Open on Wednesday night, with his opponent, Novak Djokovic, up a set already, unseeded John Millman took a precautionary measure with regard to his attire. He was sweating through his shirt, his shorts and maybe his shoes and hat, and he wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. For all intents and purposes, it’s been the story of the tournament in Flushing Meadows: the heat is just too damn hot.
The weather is a clichéd topic, one befitting casual acquaintances at a party while waiting for someone better to arrive, anyone who rides public transit at any time and Al Roker. At best, it should merely be tertiary fare for the final Grand Slam of the year. Yet, it has defined many of the matches so far, including Millman’s shocking, four-set upset of Roger Federer in the round of 16. Mother Nature would not sway Novak Djokovic so easily.
It’s a curious thing, this American exceptionalism. It always has been, even before we inadvertently and loudly made this country the most exceptional nation in the world this side of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and even that bit is becoming questionable. Ego begets ego, and the hot air balloon rises seemingly infinitely, toward the clouds, toward the moon, toward the fully-visible sun. In any case, it’s getting away from here.
Every country is exceptional from the jump, at the most basic level. Any country can be exceptional in a next-level, “people are discussing this thing’s exceptionalism to a tautological degree in a bar over high-ABV motor oil right this second” sense. The logical next phrase there should’ve been “if it tries hard enough,” but then, that’s part of what got the United States into this in the first place, constantly feeling like the lights were turned on an hour ago, but you’re still at the aforementioned bar.
Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.
When he found himself down a set to 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, 36-year-old Roger Federer did not blink. As if staring directly into a sun of his own creation, Federer assessed his odds of survival and took to relying on the things that have gotten him by for so long: namely, an unparalleled control of proceedings and measured daring. Tiafoe dared the 19-time Grand Slam champion on numerous occasions, but the risks he took ended up being for naught, at least this time.
With a Roger Federer first round proceeding, the story becomes a narrative unto itself: how does Fed reveal himself, slowly, unsuspectingly, to a tennis public that has witnesses his every move, jut, turn and pivot? Even having abandoned this period of the previous calendar year, Federer remains a captivating sight for the tennis audience, especially those in New York, who yearn to watch perfection reach its most perfect, even under the most relenting of circumstances.
The English poet Francis Quarles, noted paraphrase royalty, once wrote, “The way to bliss lies not on beds of down, And he that has no cross deserves no crown.” As was more or less his M.O., and the standard run of play in seventeenth century literature, he was drawing largely from The Bible, though you could be forgiven if in a vacuum you thought he may have been discussing the rise of Stan Wawrinka, 2016 U.S. Open men’s champion.
Four sets: that’s all Stan Wawrinka needed to upend Novak Djokovic in the men’s final of the U.S. Open, which he captured in a magnificent 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win that elicited some of the best shot-making either player has ever flashed. Once an underperforming prodigy, Wawrinka is now, against most well-meaning odds, a three-time major champion as well as, for the moment, the king of New York.
Putting a torch to a flame: that’s one way of dealing with the vexation of presumed certainty turning to capricious doubt. Nothing is certain, and doubt can be a useful progenitor for inspiration. Even Jesus looked around in anger.
Down a break in the fourth set to Ilya Marchenko, Stan Wawrinka looked inward, his steely resolve having forsaken him, and, as has happened on many occasions before, dispelled the rage within him via the destruction of a racquet, an inanimate Judas for lack of anything else.
If, at the beginning of 2014, I would have asked you to guess what Swiss male tennis player was going to win two majors over the following two years, you almost certainly would have guessed Roger Federer. Steady Fed did not win a major the previous year, but a nagging back injury limited him, and in periods of health you could still see his heady mastery of the game on full display. A recovery was inevitable, and anyway, it wasn’t looking like the next generation of tennis talent was prepared to challenge the Big Four. It mostly still isn’t.
Almost three complete seasons later, however, another native of the neutral country has emerged as a worthy adversary to the quartet that has dominated the men’s game for the last decade. The son of farmers, Stan Wawrinka is a two-time Grand Slam champion and, at 31, may be playing the best tennis of his life.