U.S. Open Fever

By George Ofman

Forgive me, hardcore football fans.

And those of you who worship at the shrine of the almighty baseball diamond, please understand.

Basketball and hockey fans . . . just cut me some slack.

Gluttons for golf, have some patience.

I enjoy all of these sports.

But I must profess I'm hopefully in love with tennis and specifically, the U.S.Open, which just got underway in the fabulous environs of Flushing.

Okay, so Flushing isn't fabulous. I also happen to be in love with alliteration.

But there are no two weeks on my sports calendar more alluring, invigorating, and so thoroughly entertaining as the ones spent glued to my TV watching matches most people couldn't care less about.

Come to think of it, most people couldn't care less about tennis in general, but these people are stuck in a major sports abyss. You're missing something here, folks.

Tennis isn't a dainty game anymore.

Ever see Andy Roddick serve or Rafael Nadal rifle a backhand or Serena Williams overpower just about anyone in her way?

The Open is one of the world's most prestigious and electrifying events, staged at the National Tennis Center housing the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium. If only the legendary Ashe could have competed in this usually raucous arena. Sometimes you think you're at a rock concert, especially during late-night matches on the outer and more intimate courts.

I remember attending the '02 Open when Pete Sampras dismantled his first-round opponent over at Ashe and then strolled over to Louis Armstrong Stadium to witness the end of four-setter between Canadian Greg Rusedski and young American Alex Kim. The crowd had thinned out a bit - it was past 11 p.m. But those who remained were absolutely rowdy. It's part of the Open's signature. (They screamed for Kim to win but he fell to the hard-serving Rusedski.)

Okay, so there are a lot of Russian women in the tournament whose names end in "ova." I understand why this would be a bit frustrating. Maybe we should get Hawk Harrelson to describe a match and when it's over he can yell, "This match is OVA!" Granted, watching a grunting Svetlana Kuznetzsova trading baseline shots with the screeching Maria Sharipova doesn't exactly get a real rise out of my racket. But I'm still watching and still paying homage to their guile and athletic prowess.

For me, tennis is the drug. I started taking it about 31 years ago and I've been hooked ever since.

How could you not be lured in by the tempestuous John McEnroe trading ground strokes and verbal volleys with the brat turned U.S. Open love child Jimmy Connors? This wasn't just a tennis match, it was terrific theater. I watched for the histrionics just as much as McEnroe's gifted touch and Connors' irresistible zeal.

And how could you not be enthralled by the riveting rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who became Chris Evert Lloyd and then Chris Evert again? Tell me you didn't watch any of these matches. If you didn't, you missed sport at its highest level.

Maybe you were too young or not even born. That's too bad. Perhaps you peered in on the feisty Michael Chang challenging the spectacular Swede named Stefan Edberg or gave just a little lip service to the marvelous Steffi Graf twice defeating the greatest grunting champion of all time, Monica Seles.

Isn't this precisely why we're sports fans in the first place?

I'm not a golf fanatic. I don't even play. But I do pay close attention to the majors. I'm as big a Tiger Woods fan as there is. But I'm also just as big a fan of Roger Federer, arguably the greatest player ever to grip a racket. And I'd rather see him play a championship match against Nadal than see Tiger tackle Phil Mickelson on the back nine of Augusta.

Are you telling me Sampras and Andre Agassi weren't worth the price of a few hours of your time? And Venus and Serena Williams weren't compelling enough to leave the remote on hold?

But the U.S. Open is not just about the championship or semi-final matches. It's just as much about those first-round draws, ones such as Roddick getting stunned in '05 by a chap named Gilles Muller. The upsets are an enticing appetizer.

Just the other night, The Tennis Channel was playing a classic U.S. Open match. It was the then-39-year-old Connors making his last stand and stirring the crowd into total frenzy as he rallied to defeat Aaron Krickstein in five memorable sets. And I watched the whole thing - again.

Like I said, it's a drug. One I suggest you try.

-

George Ofman, an original member of The Score and a veteran of NPR, has covered more than 3,500 sporting events over the course of his career. Comments welcome.


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