Monday, September 3, 2007

U.S. Open lives up to the hype

ON TENNIS

There were plenty of ways I could have spent my Labor Day. You know, the traditional barbecue. Or maybe a canoe trip down the Huron River.

I could have watched some dramatic golf (wayta go, Lefty!). Or enjoyed a Cubs' loss (don't all of us outside of Cubs Nation revel in their defeats?).

But, alas, I was transfixed by tennis all day. No barbecuing. No canoing. No watching golf or baseball.

Thesis statement: Tennis rules the sports-watching section of my life right now.

Why? Because it is simply the best sport being played at the moment. Jabber all you want about the drama of college football (yes, the end of the Michigan-Appalachian State game was exciting). Dissect the upcoming NFL season all you want (no, the Lions aren't going to be good). Predict the result of baseball's pennant races (yes, the Tigers are probably done).

A lot is going on. But for the next six days, the only must on my sports-watching calender is the U.S. Open.

You want drama? You saw it Monday afternoon when fiery American James Blake and German Tommy Haas engaged in a five-set battle full of spirited volleys and back-and-forth action. I sat on the edge of my futon as Haas fought off three match points — showing absolutely no nervousness with each crisp forehand or backhand — before finally dispelling Blake in a tiebreaker (think overtime is nerveracking? A play-to-seven, win-by-two ain't bad, either).

You want impeccable play? That was reserved for Monday night, when Roger Federer, the most dominant athlete I know about (yes, he's better than Tiger), took on Feliciano Lopez. I wanted to see perfection so badly that when the digital cable refused to cooperate and let CNBC work, I decided to watch the webcast on my tiny Apple laptop.

When the streaming began, Federer — miraculously — was down a set to Lopez, whom, the announcers made sure to mention, was playing the absolute best tennis of his life. But it didn't last long. After surviving a difficult second set — showing his resolve in holding off the feisty Spaniard — Federer blew him away in the third set (6-1) and won 6-4 in a never-in-doubt final set.

Federer was so good, he won 35 consecutive points on serve after falling behind 0-40 in the first game of the third set. Yes, clap your hands in applause. If it were anybody else, it would be a mind boggling feat. But it was Federer. And it was amazing (but not that surprising).

Time after time, Federer hit "how'd he do that?" backhands either up the line or cross court, stunning a net-charging Lopez. All Lopez could do each time was shake his head in disbelief. If it weren't pitch black outside, I would have scampered outside after the match to try to emulate The Man — in vain, of course.

Maybe the most overlooked great part of tennis right now is that it's the lone sport in which the outcome is based almost entirely on the participants' actions. With the replay system in place at Flushing Meadows, players — with their keen eyes — can review calls they disagree with. And usually they're right about the challenges they make. But judges get 97 percent of the calls right, and you rarely see arguments between players and judges.

Additionally, reviews take a mere 10 seconds compared to the 3 to 5 minutes a football review takes. And even many football reviews seem flawed, as I witnessed late Labor Day night after the tennis was complete.

Florida State was trailing Clemson by six points in the final seconds when the Seminoles appeared to complete a pass down the sideline with 1 or 2 seconds remaining. However, the pass was ruled incomplete and the slooooooow Clemson timekeepers let the clock expire. A 4-minute delay, which forced the overly excited Clemson students to back off the field, didn't change the mind of the officials (who must have had a late dinner date scheduled, or something).

You just don't see that kind of stuff in tennis. Especially Grand Slam tennis.

It's the best sports spectacle on TV right now. Don't even talk to me about golf (where you can see a guy hit a shot... and then see where it lands) on TV. Only bass fishing is worse, and the spelling bee is better.

Watching football on the tube is great, but it still doesn't compare to being in attendance at a game, where you can see the entire field. And commercial length during football games is inane (the Michigan fans were ready to sling-shot rocks at the man in the red hat who stood on the field during commercials the other day).

Watching baseball on TV is great... if you have something else to do simultaneously (open mail, cuddle with your honey, pet the dog). Otherwise, you come to despise the announcers, who have to come up with mundane anecdotes to fill the between-pitches time — especially if old, deliberate pitchers are on the mound.

But tennis? Well, I have zero complaints. You can see the entire court. There are only brief breaks between points. Commercial breaks aren't long enough to make some toast. And the suspense — especially during night matches, when the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd gets into it — make you feel like you're on top of the action (especially, I would surmise, if you've got one of those flat-panel TVs or whatever they're called).

Perhaps most importantly, Grand Slam tennis' appeal is its purity. There are no dark clouds surrounding the sport or its players. Just the matches. Just the sweat. Just the competition.

No steroids. No taking advantage of amateurs by universities and television networks. No dogfighting. No crooked judges. You know the stories.

In the next five days, I will watch Serena vs. Justine Part IV. I'll find out if Nadal can overcome his knee injury to set up Federer vs. Nadal Part III. Or, maybe, Roddick vs. Federer will provide for some drama before we get to that final Sunday.

Sure, there's a 99 percent chance Federer will make the final, but for some reason, that predictable outcome can't inhibit me from watching each match, each game, each point. From watching a match like Haas-Blake on Monday, because even though Blake lost, he should excite American tennis fans (he's got a lot of potential; not to mention grit).

A week from now, I'll be talking football. Lots of football. Baseball, too, will be a hot topic of conversation.

But right now, it's all about the Grand Slam tennis. I've got to enjoy it while it lasts.

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