Saturday, September 12, 2015

Impressions from watching Leander's 17th Major win

We went to the US open yesterday and watched Leander and Martina win the US open mixed doubles title. This was Leander's 17th win in a doubles event at Grand Slam events. Some of my observations from yesterday. 

1) The best access to Flushing Meadows from Central Jersey is to get to NY Penn and then take the Long Island Railroad to the Mets-Willets station and walk from there. It is worth buying the LIRR tickets from a ticketing station (one has to stand in the queue to do this as the stations dont automatically show Mets-Willets) than to buy it in the train (a steal usually of $6 per ticket). The alternate possibility of taking MTA-7 subway from Times Sq and 42nd Street (or elsewhere) is not the best access from NY Penn. Plus, MTA subways while cheaper than LIRR ($2.75 vs $6) end up being less cleaner, longer with more stops (but more frequent at less than a 30 min wait) and more crowded. 

2) Before the mixed doubles event began, there was an ongoing women's doubles semi-final match. This match ended up being a close call, but a good chunk of the people (including us) were egging on the match to finish up faster. That was because of the coming Leander-Martina match-up. 

3) The mixed doubles' final was initially scheduled for the much bigger Arthur Ashe stadium, and as luck would have it, got pushed to the much smaller Louis Armstrong* stadium. Unlike AA, a good view of everything (including the grunts, the moans, the whines, the screams and the chest thumps when they do happen) can be had from even the far corners of LA. We sat 3-4 rows behind the reserved seating area (which in itself is pretty small), so that gave us a pretty darn good view of Leander and Martina as well as Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sam Querrey (the runner-up).

4) While Bethanie and Sam are Americans, and the match itself was on 9/11, the Indian/Indian-American crowd was far more behind Leander. For every "Go Bethanie" or "Go Sam" crowing, a "Go Paes", "Go Leander", "Go Martina" cry crowded it out. While noone was disrespectful of/to the Americans, surely the Indian crowd was behind Leander. Why not? After all, Leander has been the most nationalist** of all tennis players ever seen on the Indian circuit, far more than anyone else I have ever seen or watched or read about.

5) Leander is really old, at 43. And it shows. Every serve of his is accompanied with grunts leaving everyone with a sad reminder that age catches up with everyone, even good people. Leander's super-quick reflexes are all but a distant past. He actually made a number of errors going the opposite way of the ball many times (I counted 4), calling balls that were in long (2-3 times), and catching the net on a weak second serve a few times. This is not the Leander I have seen before, nor the one I expected to see. (That amazing acrobatic 6-3, 4-0 lead against Agassi in the 1996 US open seems a distant past.) His still decent serves took him to hold the game many times here though and therein lies the rub.

6) But it was Martina's day and she kept it going. She took a majority of the return serves (inspired or conspired). The number of points Leander pulled out could have been counted, no disrespect that. But when it mattered the most, at 7-all in the match tie-break, he pulled a clutch shot on the line. With 2 serves to close out the match, and after one "dam lagaa ke aisha" (yes, it happened), we had a winner. Martina and Leander had closed out the match 6-4, 3-6, [10-7].

7) That brings us to the scoring system. The USTA uses one of the most non-puritanical scoring systems in doubles events. At deuce, the first point winner wins the game (the no-Ad rule). If it is 1-set-all, the system moves to a "first to win 10 points with a 2 point gap" tie-break scoring scheme (the super tie-break rule). These belong to the class of innovations introduced by the Hall of Fame founder, James van Alen, primarily with TV scheduling in mind. Unlike the other three majors as well as Davis/Fed/Hopman Cups that employ a tie-breaker only in the non-final sets and an Advantage set (remember the Isner-Mahut scoreline of 70-68 in Wimbledon 2010) in the final set, the USTA prefers a tie-break set in all the five/three sets of men's/women's events. In the mixed doubles, pushed by an aggressive TV schedule, only the Wimbledon runs the best of three set event with the other three following a super tie-break. However one debates it, a super tie-break is a super cop-out, as is a no-Ad rule. If I am paying to see the match, I would rather have a fighting game bringing me value for the cash I am spending than a quick cop-out, esp. if I have a good view of the match. Why not? If I am watching the game on the telly, I would rather have a quick game with who I like as the winner. These two benchmarks are potentially conflicting and the USTA in its grand wisdom of who brings the most profits for them has decided on optimizing over one goal than the other. While this is always the reality with anyone, it is worth noting that.

8) All that said, of all the 4 players speaking after the match was over, Leander was the most gracious. He was gracious to Martina, Bethanie as well as Sam (with whom he played in the World Team Tennis event). He was the most jovial and most articulate. And at the World Team event, he had given hints to Sam on playing doubles. While Leander did not give explicit credit to his horde of "Indian" supporters, that is understandable in this time of having to wear an American flag on one's lapels or empathizing with one doing such raucous stuff even if that statement/act is undeserved and unnecessarily in-your-face. After all, either one is with Americans or against them with no middle ground in place and life is all black or white (did not MJ say that?).

9) On the other hand, Bethanie and Sam had put up a team like 30 minutes before the sign-up deadline for the mixed doubles event. That speaks volumes on how disorganized this whole doubles scene is and how "easy" it is to come up trumps relative to the singles scene. Leander and Martina were richer by $150k, and compare that with the women's singles winner Flavia Pennetta's paycheck ($3.3 million). So Leander's take home of $75k, after due diligence to Uncle Sam and his set of trainers/coaches/physios and travel budget, etc. etc., comes to around $25k (for two weeks of hard work). Surely, singles is a more physical game, but the 40 times mark-up is deserved? For pure interesting-ness, doubles games are far more capable candidates than the walkovers we saw in the men's singles scene (an injured Cilic winning three games against Djokovic, or another cakewalk by Stan Wawrinka against Federer). That also explains why Leander is still playing at 43. In addition to his interest in the game, he has a grave need to win more events to retire peacefully and in economic safety. Whatever the case is, it makes for a sad little side story on prize money. And all that equal prize money etc. etc. is perhaps only for singles events, one assumes. Looking at the official prize money list (see pic below) shows how skewed this whole charade really is.

10) In any case, after the match was over, Leander went around the stadium (small as it is) twice to sign autographs on any damn thing (cap, ball, t-shirt, paper, anything). I must have seen him up close for a long enough time to see no airs, the banter and all. Sad that I forgot to wish him good luck to get India into the world group stage at the Davis Cup in a week's time. He needs all the luck, as does India given that the Czech Republic (even minus Tomas Berdych) are a strong team. But the match-up is in Delhi and all seedings calculations are off. As far as the Indian crowd that missed the Davis Cup thing entirely, I dont know what to make of the brave "Go Leanders".

11) This win makes Leander a winner of three major mixed doubles event this year barring the French, where he and Martina lost in the second round. At age 43, winning 3 on 4 is not just great, it makes for some fun scenes where you make up a majority of your team age (43/78). That said, the last time Leander won at Flushing was in 2013, when he and Radek Stepanek (who will be in Delhi the coming week) stopped the Bryan-Slam (another time when the Queens' crowd was as maddening as it was yesterday waiting, hoping and praying -- mostly braying -- for the Serena Slam). The guilt of a prior racist history that runs amok at the neo-liberal USTA is hard to miss as well as the in-your-face patriotism (wanting minority singers rendition 'America the Beautiful' or 'God Bless America' and illustrating the melting pot that it would nt be otherwise), what with James Blake getting a serious round of applause when he came on the jumbotron at AA later in the evening. Surely, some of that guilt could be fired at the mistrial in Alabama, or better yet, to actually help the African-Americans get ahead in life without institutional blocks rather than do lip service to them by honoring Arthur Ashe, Louis Armstrong, Serena Williams, etc.

* I really never understood why the LA stadium was named after Louis Armstrong. Sure, LA was a great jazz figure (perhaps the greatest) and he lived right next to the NTC, but other than that, what are his connections to tennis? If this is meant to appease the predominant African-American residents of Queens, well, that is a point worth noting.

** I dont know how long Leander will play, but having watched him from 1989 or so, from his winning the Junior Wimbledon in 1990 to slaying the French at the Frejus clay in 1993 (aye-aye sir to the Ramesh Krishnan ambling to win the 2 games on the 4th day to finish the miracle against who was that Rodolphe Gilbert) to the Indian Express thing that was still-born to the assorted set of partners from a Martina he idolized to a Martina who was named after her to having the sort of respect on the Tour that he is seen as a good bloke to be with, and to actually have nice words from everyone else except the touring club of Indians (ouch!), it will be sad to see him go, whenever that is. Sure, there will be Grounds Admission next year on, and I hope to catch him still, again, hopefully winning more major events. Yea, sure, Leander is no saint, no god, no vodka, no turn-on that you get when you finish up that badass paper, but he sure will always be the most Indian of Indian tennis players on the circuit. That gets him something more than the bronze he won at Atlanta beating who was that Fernando Meligeni. And that something does nt come from wearing your two-bit Stars and Stripes on your lapel, but comes with knowing and acknowledging that you are neither with them nor against them. After all, Galatians 6:7 rescues us all, amen to that.

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