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Featured Meltdowns


Finding Roger Federer Meltdown footage on YouTube is like finding a seat on the Number 4 Lexington Avenue subway at 9:30 in the morning. [Non-New Yorkers, take note: it's rare.] The Greatest of All Time usually deals with blown shots by dragging his middle finger across his forehead and tucking his hair behind his ear. Not this time. This was a semi-final match with Novak Djokovic at the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Florida. Djokovic just broke Fed in the third and deciding set and was up 15-0 when the Greatest of All Time took his eyes off a routine approach shot that could have evened the score. Federer went through lots of racquets when he was playing the junior circuit; wonder if he felt a little wave of nostalgia upon banging this one hard into the court.

On the Sideline

Entries from September 1, 2013 - September 30, 2013


Tennis Fee Hike Did Little to Raise Money, But Much to Deter Tennis

Haters, I was pissed -- and so were many of you -- when New York City's Parks Department raised tennis fees two years ago.  The cost of a seasonal permit doubled, from $100 to $200.  The price of a single-play permit went from $7 to $15. So did the fee to reserve a court in Central Park and Prospect Park.  

The courts at Central Park. Fewer people are making reservations or buying tennis permits because of 2011 fee hike. Photo: Amy Eddings

So, permit me a little schaudenfreude here upon learning that the fee increase did not raise as much money as the Parks Department thought.  That's because it drove people away from the courts.

According to an analysis by the New York City Independent Budget Office, the Parks Department thought it would milk an additional $1.2 million from the hoity-toity, deep-pocketed types who play tennis.  Ha!  We are the 99%, not the 1%.  And we proved it by refusing to pony up more for the opportunity to play on our taxpayer-funded public courts.  

Seasonal tennis permits fell by 43 percent, from 12,774 in 2010 to a paltry 7,265 in 2012. Single-play permits dropped by nearly 46 percent.  And reservations?  They plummeted by 64%.  Rather than make reservations, players chose to take their chances with showing up as walk-ons, or just waiting for a court to open up.

The flight from tennis permits is not due to a lack of Tennis Love in NYC.  It's due to Tennis Hate from Parks. According to IBO, nearly 20,000 permits were sold in 2001.  That was then.  Two fee hikes and ten years later, just 6,818 permits were sold, "nearly two-thirds less than in 2001." 

That fewer people chose to buy permits isn't surprising.  Then-Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told me he was expecting this to happen.

But what IBO found was the drop-off was steeper than the Parks Department had calculated. Instead of garnering an additional $2.8 million in the first two years of the higher fees, Parks has only raised $520,000 over the $1.8 million it was getting from tennis players in 2010.  

The head of New Yorkers for Parks, Holly Leicht, got it right when she told The New York Times, "For a relatively small amount of savings for the city, this is a really dramatic impact for thousands of people."




US Open: Lessons Learned from Losers

Here's to the losers, the guys who get drilled, again and again, who see their hopes of glory dashed by Rafa, Roger, Nole.  Theirs is the glory of trying again.

Stan Wawrinka, long overshadowed by his countryman and friend, Roger Federer, played his way into the semis (a first for him in a Slam), the headlines and many fans' hearts with his smart, spirited play. 

Wawrinka looks to a nihilist to defeat Tennis Hate. Photo: Amy Eddings.

"I love you, Stan, " said a guy sitting behind me at Louis Armstrong during Wawrinka's nearly 3 hour match against 5th-seed Tomas Berdych.  He inspires bromance, does Stan the Man, with his beautiful one-handed backhand, his all-court game, his deftness at net, his weird spiky hair.  And, for me, his tattoo.  

The New York Times wrote about it, and how it sums up Wawrinka's philosophy of life on the tour.  It's from the Irish grouch, playwright Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

“It’s my vision of my job and my life in general,” Wawrinka said. “In tennis, as you know, if you are not Roger or Rafa and Djokovic or Andy now, you don’t win so many tournaments and you always lose. But you need to take the positive of the loss and you need to go back to work.”

Wawrinka's tattoo, and his explanation of its meaning to him, shows he's found value in the game beyond winning."

The Times titled the article "The Power of Positive Thinking," but it's not positive thinking at all.  It's not about cultivating positive expectations for the future, some sort of magical thinking that is supposed to create the conditions in which you emerge victorious, hoisting the trophy.  Wawrinka's tattoo, and his explanation of its meaning to him, shows he's found value in the game beyond winning.  Ever failed. No matter.  He loves the pursuit of excellence.  That excellence has borne fruit that may not taste like Federer's 17 majors, but they are awfully juicy all the same.  He defeated two Top Ten players, Berdych and US Open defending champ Andy Murray, on his road to the semis. He almost got the number one player in the world, Novak Djokovic, in their amazing five set match.

The press applauded him when Wawrinka walked into the interview room.

He still looked for positives, even after letting victory slide away, 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6.

"I think I was playing better than him.  I was doing much more things than him," said Stan.  "But he's not No. 1 for nothing.  He was staying with me all the match, and at the end he pushed me, pushed me far, far, far back.  I had to find everything I had in my body today to stay with him, and he won the match. But, yeah, I think was still a good tournament."

Then there's Richard Gasquet, a tennis prodigy who hasn't done as well as an adult as he did as a kid.  He, too, made it into the semis of the US Open for the first time in his career, in a journey that included two 5-set victories. One of them was against Canada's First Big Thing, Milos Raonic.

Ouch, that hurts. With his semifinal loss, Gasquet is 0-11 against Rafa.

I was at that match, on Court 17.  It was a day session match that had stretched into the very humid night. Raonic and Gasquet looked like they had their shirts wheat-pasted onto their torsos.  I had been in the stands for the first two sets and had left after watching Raonic aceing out several 40-0 games in a row.  Gasquet, the old dog, is getting euthanized, I thought.

Wrong.  I hustled back after seeing on a scoreboard that it was in a 4th set.  Gasquet had found a way to answer Raonic's serves.  The two were in the process of pushing one another to a sublime place, and the crowd was with them.  

There were competing chants of "Let's go, Rao-nic!" and "All-ez, Gas-quet!"  It was like a Davis Cup match, but the setting was neutral ground, New York City, home of all nations.  One guy did a goofy, raspy stage whisper, "Allez, Gasqueeeeeeet!" during the quiet moments of the match, just as the Frenchman was toeing up to the baseline to serve.  The mood was electric, and so was the tennis.  Three tiebreakers sets and four and a half hours later, Gasquet emerged sweaty and victorious, 6-7, 7-6, 2-6, 7-6, 7-5.

Of course, I'm jealous of Nadal."

But then there was, as there always is deep in a Slam, Rafael Nadal.  His unbeaten hard court season continued with a 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 march over Gasquet.  At least Gasquet broke Rafa's serve.  No one else had done that yet during this tournament.

Gasquet is now 0-11 against Nadal, a guy he once beat when they were kids.  Poor Richard admitted to some Tennis Hate -- just a little -- against his fellow 27-year-old. 

"Of course I’m jealous of Nadal, who won Roland Garros eight times,” he told the New York Times. “I would have preferred it had been me, but hey, I’m not badly off. I was eighth in the world, seventh in the world. I have a lot of good fortune to be where I am in life. I’m quite happy, but of course I would have preferred to be in Nadal’s spot in tennis terms. It’s normal. I just admire what he’s done."

Gasquet said he was happy being in a semifinal, but now he's setting his sights on winning enough points to play the Masters Cup. Already, he's moving on, looking ahead, setting another goal.  Try again. Fail again.  Fail better. 



US Open: Wake Me When the Women's Final is Over

Haters, don't call me during Sunday's US Open re-match final between defending champion Serena Williams and number 2 seed Victoria Azarenka.  

I don't want my nap interrupted.

So familiar: Serena exhultant, after beating Li Na in semifinals. Photo courtesy of AP.

Yes, this year's US Open has been a real snooze-fest, especially for fans who've paid hundreds of dollars to score prime seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the show court of the US Open.   The matches have not been very compelling, especially if you've been following world number one Serena's march through the draw.

Williams has lost 16 games in six matches.  In her semi-final against 5th-seed Li Na of China, she dropped just three games, 6-0, 6-3. That bagel in the first set was one of seven she's buttered up for her opponents so far. Her double-bagel beat-down of Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals took 55 minutes. Anyone who took a bathroom break during that match missed much of it.

Up until Saturday's five-set thriller between world number one Novak Djokovic and 9th seed Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, Arthur Ashe ticket holders were not getting any better value for their dollar from the men.  Djokovic, last year's US Open runner-up, has been carbo-loading on bagels, too, delivering a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 platter to Spain's Marcel Grenollers in their fourth round match.  Defending champion and Wimbledon winner Andy Murray wasn't exciting to watch, either.  He won his early matches easily and then, just as easily, went down to Wawrinka. Wawrinka's more well-known countryman, Roger Federer, looked inspired in his 6-3, 6-0, 6-2 dismissal of Adrian Mannarino of France, but seeing Federer in top form was the only thing going for that lopsided match. Two days later, on Ashe again, the once-dominant Federer was upset by 19th seed Tommy Robredo. That match was compelling because of Roger's early exit, and not because of the quality of the match.  Federer went down meekly in straight, sloppy sets.

The tennis I'll remember from the 2013 US Open won't be the marquee names and the center court matches.  It'll be the matches on the outer courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, between the lesser stars in the pro tennis constellation.

This is where the best fan experience is.  It's real tennis, as in, tennis you can sink your teeth into.  Tennis you can see, for one, without binoculars.

I was one row back from the baseline in Louis Armstrong Stadium for Wawrinka's fourth round upset of 5th-seed Tomas Berdych of Czechoslovakia.  I watched them pace in front of me, toweling off, muttering under their breaths.  I could see, without the benefit of TV close-ups, how keyed in they were to the flight of the ball, how fast they were reacting to each shot, could see the ropes of the muscles of their forearms jump as they walloped the ball. It was a see-saw battle between two evenly-matched players that took 2 hours and 47 minutes to decide, nothing like the easy victories being played on Ashe.

On Court 17, another memorable match was the grueling, sweaty five-setter between the young Canadian, Milos Raonic and the veteran Frenchman, Richard Gasquet.  It was a day session match that had stretched into a humid night.  The stands were packed equally with Canadians and French. Chants of "Let's go, Rao-nic!" were countered by "All-ez, Gas-quet!"

I felt swept up in the moment, the madness, the sport.  It's why I love tennis on the smaller courts.  It's what made my US Open special.  And it's what I hope, but don't expect, for the fans in the gilded gold seats of Arthur Ashe Stadium when Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka take the court for their final. That bagel in the first set was one of seven she's buttered up for her opponents so far.


US Open: The $59.99 Used Ball

Nothing is more forlorn and unloved than a used tennis ball.  They're found split open and cradling the tips of senior citizens' walkers, covered in slobber in the dog run, rattling around in the trunks of cars.  

But some used tennis balls at the US Open are finding a more dignified afterlife.  They're being sold as collectibles.

Touched by greatness, or at least, by Greatness' racquet. One of Federer's 1st round balls could be yours. Photo: Amy Eddings

Haters, I did a double-take when I passed the MeiGray Group's booth at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and saw a used ball in a plastic cube going for $59.99.  It wasn't just any used ball, however.  It was one that had been in the hand of Roger Federer, and on the strings of his Wilson K-Factor Six One (the old frame, not the new one).

Touched by Greatness.  The ball seemed to glow a little in its cube. 

"The balls from the Federer match, they sold out in about 30 seconds after they got here to the booth," said Barry Meisel.  He's the "Mei" in MeiGray, the official authenticators of the balls at the US Open for the United States Tennis Association.  

Fans seem to like the fact that they can watch a match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, come over to our booth, and, 15 minutes later, walk home with a ball that was used in that match."

Prices of US Open balls vary, depending on the players and whether they're balls from a first round or a final.  A ball that was crushed by defending champion Novak Djokovic in his second round mop-up of the unseeded German, Benjamin Becker, retails for $49.99.  A ball hit by potential champions Jamie Hampton and Sloane Stephens in their all-American third round match sells for $39.99.  

Used balls from unsexy outer court matches go for $10. Photo: Amy Eddings."We had 14 women's and 21 men's finals balls [from] last year.  They sold out at $200," he said.  This year, depending on who reaches the championship, "they'll probably sell for $250."

Meisel said he's never sure of how many balls he'll get from each match.

"At the US Open and most major tournaments, they change balls every 9 games," he said.  "A 5-set match will have many more games than a straight set match.  So I can get as few as 10 to 14 balls off a court for a quick match.  But if a match goes 7-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6, I can get 30 to 35 balls off the court."

He must've hit the motherlode with American John Isner, king of the tie-break and the 5-set match.  The 13th seed was upset in the 3rd round by 22nd-seed Philip Kohlschreiber of Germany, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6.

"Isner has the hardest serve in tennis, at 140 miles per hour," said Meisel.  "The balls came off the Isner match, and you'd have thought they'd been hit by a truck."  

You've heard the sportsism, "tattooing the ball"?  Isner literally does this.  His Prince racquet left residue on the ball from the black "P" logo sprayed onto the strings.

"The ball was filled with black marks, the fuzz was really rubbed off," said Meisel.  "So, the authenticity is right there.  You could see where the player has really put a whacking to those balls."

Tattoo you: Red marks from Venus Williams' Wilson racquet can be seen on a ball from her match with Zie Jheng. Williams lost. Photo: Amy Eddings.

But that's just visual authenticity.  Real authentication, Meisel said, is a process that begins at the end of a match.

"We have people on the grounds, on the site, taking chain of custody with the balls used in the matches directly from the officials," said Meisel.

Chain of custody?  I told him it sounded like the transfer of an inmate from one jail cell to another.  

But Meisel said such custodial care is the key to a collectible's worth.  Once MeiGray employees take possession of a bag of used balls from an umpire, they mark it with invisible ink that contains synthetic DNA, made just for the company.  That tells collectors who authenticated the ball.  After inking, the ball is placed in a plastic cube and is ready for retail.  The process happens in a matter of minutes.

There's going to be a hobby here."

"Fans seem to like the fact that they can watch a match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, come over to our booth, and, 15 minutes later, walk home with a ball that was used in that match."

This is only the second year that the USTA has asked MeiGray to authenticate balls at the US Open.  Meisel said it's too soon to tell how much the balls will accrue in value.  He said the market in tennis collectibles is in an "embryonic" stage.

Embryonic, because there's not enough reliable gear out there for fans to collect.  Those wristbands that Federer routinely tosses into the crowd after a match?  They don't cut it as a collectible, Meisel said, because there's no way of proving to the next collector you're trying to sell them to that the Master himself sweat on them.

"This is a brand-new concept," said Meisel.  "My job is to get this program off and to get a hobby started and see if there's enough interest."

So far, he said, from the business his booth got last year, and is generating this year, "there's going to be a hobby here."