Photos: An all-Swiss blast on AA

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – A few observations from a practice match on Arthur Ashe Stadium between Roger Federer and longtime friend and fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka.

The first, and most notable one, is that Wawrinka appears to have all of his speed back. 

Maybe it’s happened at some point earlier this season.

But it was our first real close-up view of him at work in a (fairly) serious practice session. And he was quick, and explosive. Impressive.

The level at which these two fellows do things is truly off the charts – even well into their 30s. Which is probably why Wawrinka, a late bloomer, is a multiple Grand Slam champion and Federer is … well, Federer.

Still. They hit the ball SO hard. And they move SO quickly from side to side – and up and back. The pace was literally furious. And the conditions seemed pretty quick, too.

Here’s what it looked like (as always, we’d have shot video if we could. Rightsholders rights and all, to be respected).

Wawrinka MIGHT have won

On this day, Federer had some issues getting onto Wawrinka’s serve. But since we don’t keep score when watching practice matches, we can’t tell you who won (plus, we didn’t watch it all).

It appeared that Wawrinka broke Federer when he was serving for the first set. And then, he won the tiebreak.

We do know that Federer looked fresh as a new rose despite the conditions in Arthur Ashe Stadium when the roof is closed. It’s a looong, long way from the way he looked during the last match he played in there, against John Millman at last year’s Open.

In that one, the conditions got the better of him for one of the rare times in his career.

Sweaty Stan

Meanwhile, the opposite was true of Wawrinka.

The man was a dripping hunk of sweat – until he finally changed his shirt after that first set.

We kind of like that about him, actually.

Anyone who’s not as naturally gifted as these top players (that is to say … everyone, basically) can appreciate someone who appears as though it’s at least hard work to play at that level.

Wawrinka

Small crowd for Fed-Stan

Arthur Ashe Stadium is open to the public before the first official day of play for the first time this year, during “Fan Week”.

But there was a surprisingly small crowd to see these two play. It was astonishing, really.

It’s not all that easy to get in; you have to know which gates are open (there are only a couple, both leading to that one side of the court across from the sit-down chairs. A lot of entrances are locked. The main entrance at the front of the stadium, through which thousands enter, was blocked by the “Fan Week” stages.

And it appeared they were doing a little crowd control outside all week, to limit the number of fans in there.

But as you can see, there were loads of empty seats.

Wawrinka

Later that night, on the shuttle bus back to the city, we might have solved that mystery.

A fellow passenger, who works in TV but whose son was at the tournament, said that her son had been told, when he went to try to watch, that they weren’t allowing anyone into the stadium.

To bad for the fans who missed it.

But it was good for Jenson Brooksby, who was playing his final-round qualifying match around the same time.

The 18-year-old American had a pretty massive crowd to watch him make the main draw. Great atmosphere, too.

Wawrinka

 

Sharapova – Serena on marquee Monday

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – From a head-to-head perspective, Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova is about as one-sided as it can get.

Williams leads it, 19-2.

But from a “marquee matchup” standpoint – particularly for those who are not diehard, 12-months-a-year fans – they remain the gold standard individually. Not to mention collectively.

But it’s been a long time since the two have met on a regular basis in finals. And it’s been even longer since Sharapova has put a scare into the 37-year-old American.

Their head-to-head began 2-1 in Sharapova’s favour, including Wimbledon (above) and the year-end championships, both in 2004.

Since then Williams has gone on an 18-0 run.

The only recent blemish came in their last scheduled meeting. That was a highly anticipated one, in the fourth round of the French Open a year ago.

Williams couldn’t make the date.

A pectoral issue that made it extremely difficult for her to serve. 

Serena Williams withdraws before Sharapova clash

The poignancy of “maybe the last”

There may be some animus between the two, although Williams has had the final word where it counts, on the tennis court. There is exponentially more animus between the fan bases of both players, which is unpleasant.

And in the end, rather pointless. Because given where both are in terms of their careers at this point, meetings between the two biggest marquee attractions in the women’s game – still – are rare.

That 2018 French Open might have been Sharapova’s best recent chance to put a dent in the lopsided head-to-head. She had been playing very well; this was before her shoulder woes kicked in again. 

And it was Serena who was fighting a more uphill battle. Last year’s Roland Garros was only her third tournament back after 16 months away as she gave birth to daughter Olympia (with all that came in the aftermath of that). And then, the pec issue.

This time? Who really knows what Monday night will bring.

Sharapova
Serena Williams practices her serve Friday, in preparation for her first-round match Monday night against Maria Sharapova. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Back spasms force Williams out of Toronto

In Toronto just a little over two weeks ago, Williams was hit with a case of back spasms. She said it’s something she has dealt with periodically during her career. 

The American took the court clearly diminished against home-town girl Bianca Andreescu. And at 1-3 in the first set, she called it a day. Those touching moments with Andreescu on the court went all around the world.

(As it happens, the two were practicing side by side a few days ago at the US Open).

Typically, Williams said, they dissipated in 24-48 hours. But she wasn’t able to make the date a few days later in Cincinnati. She stuck around scenic Mason, Ohio for awhile, though, cheering on sister Venus as she made a run and enjoying some time with some members of her family.

Sharapova struggling with back-to-back

For Sharapova – only 32 but 15 years (!!) down the road from that first Wimbledon title won as a teenaged ingenue, the problem has been the shoulder.

For the better part of the last decade, it has always been the shoulder.

When she has played, she has played pretty well. But she plays one match – and then can’t answer the bell for the next one.

Since returning from her 15-month doping suspension, Sharapova hasn’t managed to get back into the top 20. She got very close; a year ago at this time, she hit No. 21.

But she has played just seven tournaments this season. There was nearly a five-month gap between the walkover she gave Daria Kasatkina in the second round of St. Petersburg after the Australian Open, and her return on grass in Mallorca in mid-June.

She played one match there, then lost to Angelique Kerber in the second.

Sharapova had tried to get back for the French Open, but couldn’t make it.

At Wimbledon, she was a second-set tiebreak win away from advancing against Pauline Parmentier in the first round. But then she retired down 0-5 in the third set (Yeah, we know).

In Toronto, she lost her opener to Anett Kontaveit in three sets. In Cincinnati, she defeated Alison Riske in the first round, then fell to Ashleigh Barty.

How her form is, and what she’s capable of on the biggest stage in tennis, is the question mark.

Sharapova practiced this week with some “breathe-right” strip on her nose. No, we don’t know what that’s about. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Serena at No. 8

Williams has made three Grand Slam finals since her return, including this year at Wimbledon.

So overall, her form at the majors has been very good – a big reason why she’s ranked No. 8 in the world right now. But in rank-and-file WTA events, she’s not performed.

Williams, too, has played just seven events in 2019. But they’ve all been big ones – three majors, two Premier Mandatories, and two Premier 5s.

After beating Victoria Azarenka in her Indian Wells opener – a cracking early-round match that had many of the elements this one does – she retired against Garbiñe Muguruza. In Miami, she won her opener and then gave Qiang Wang a walkover.

In Rome, she won her first-round match – and then gave sister Venus a walkover.

But her road to the Rogers Cup final included her first win over defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka, And if she didn’t play her best tennis in Toronto, she scrapped hard, and reached the final before having to retire.

You know she’s up for this

Coincidentally – or not??? – Williams hit with Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, after the draw was out and the first-round matchups were known.

It’s not the first time she has practiced with Dimitrov, especially before a Grand Slam. But there’s a special piquant to this one, as fans of both well know and we need not reiterate here.

Maybe the last time

The anticipation for their meeting in Paris ended in disappointment. All you can hope is that this one offers Slam-final like atmosphere and intensity (you know it will from the players) and that the tennis is both competitive and high quality.

There aren’t many “marquee”-type names that well justify a slot in an Ashe Stadium night session, from the women’s side.

There are plenty who deserve it on accomplishment. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, in this venue, in this city, and for the predominantly casual tennis fans who attend these night sessions for the atmosphere and the show.

That two of them will meet in the first round – and thus, one will be eliminated – is a cruel joke by the draw gods.

If it is the last time they find themselves on the same court, let’s hope they at least go out with a bang.

US Open Fan Week expands

Starting Monday, the US Open presents the second year of its free “Fan Week” during the qualifying.

There’s an extra day; matches begin on Monday. And the Legends matches now will extend over three days (all male, looks like).

There also will be a women’s Hall of Fame doubles match featuring Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.

Arthur Ashe Stadium will be accessible for the first time, and there will be a slate of musical acts.

A new Althea Gibson sculpture will be unveiled in front of Ashe. And there’s a Pride event on Aug. 22.

CiCi, CoCo to return at US Open?

The US Open unveiled its entry lists Wednesday.

And two American players with protected rankings are of significant interest, as CiCi Bellis and CoCo Vandeweghe both have been out for a long  time.

Bellis, whose special ranking is No. 43, hasn’t played since Miami in March 2018. Still just 20, she has been living an injury nightmare and has had four surgeries.

Vandeweghe, 27, hasn’t played since last September because of an ankle issue. She’s due to play Monday in World Team Tennis and is entered in the Rogers Cup qualifying.

Both are entered in Cincinnati, as well.

New job for umpire Jake Garner

Longtime American umpire Jake Garner has a new job.

“I made the decision at the early part of this year to step away,” Garner said on a US Open podcast hosted by Nick McCarvel.

Garner, who chaired the US Open men’s singles final six times, has taken a desk job.

He is the USTA’s “senior manager of the professional pathway for officiating”, to help train and bring on the next generation of officials.

Garner said he still loved his job, but having a wife and two young daughters made the decision to be home easier.

US Open Labor Day tix all but gone

Individual tickets for this year’s US Open went on sale Monday.

And if you waited this long, you’ll be out of luck if you want to hit Flushing Meadow Labour Day weekend.

Saturday and Sunday are sellouts. There are Arthur Ashe nosebleeds and grounds passes remaining for Monday – both at $85.

As of late Friday, there were about 50 Arthur Ashe tickets left for the extended Labor Day weekend (Friday through Monday) – at $600 and up.

The men’s singles final already is sold out. There are lots of the “cheaper” tickets ($160) left for the women’s final.

US Open celebrates 50th with new logo

There’s always some resistance when an iconic logo undergoes a makeover.

An exception may have been the Australian Open, which had a server inthe trophy position, replaced by “A” and “O” in bold letters. That one went over well.

The US Open, celebrating its 50th year, has decided to change its logo. It is foregoing a tennis ball. It’s also foregoing capitalization. 

No doubt the brand consultants sent a big bill. The event will henceforth be known as the “us” open (grammatically speaking, should that not be the “we” open?)(Or is that Wii?)

New Armstrong stadium making process

The new Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open is starting to look like … a stadium.

The tournament posted nearly a dozen photos Wednesday that chronicle the progress in the big construction project, which was at a bare-bones stage just three months ago when work was halted during the 2017 edition of the event.

A temporary stadium seating about 8,000 was put up for 2017.

The new venue will seat about 14,000 and – this is the big work still to come – will have a retractable roof.

The original total cost of the tournament renovation project was pegged at $550 million.

US Open promos “Battle of the Sexes”

Billie Jean King is getting all the attention she richly deserves this week, as the US Open helps promote the upcoming “Battle of the Sexes” movie.

The tournament invited media to an advance screening earlier this week and will have a press conference Saturday before the women’s final. It will feature King along with Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone, who portrays her in the movie, and other cast members.

As well, King’s 1967 Triple Crown (singles, women’s doubles with Rosie Casals and mixed doubles with Owen Davidson) will be honoured.

Stan Wawrinka gets a goodie bag

Defending champion Stan Wawrinka may have been forced to skip the US Open this year because of knee surgery. He has already called it a season.

But the tournament, and player liaison Eric Butorac, didn’t forget him.

They sent Wawrinka a goody bag featuring a towel personalized with his 2016 exploit, a teddy bear and – in case the reminder that he was unable to defend his title upset him – a little sample from the vodka sponsor.

A very appreciative Wawrinka Tweeted about it.