2016 Chase Slam Recap

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Even though I am a rabid tennis fan and even though I probably would have flown all the way to Melbourne just for the Australian Open, it happened rather serendipitously that I was already in or very near all four of the cities when the majors were taking place this year. As Serena Williams failed to clinch the Calendar Slam in New York last September, I felt it my obligation to take up the banner for American tennis (fans) and bravely try to make it to all four slams in 2016 as a spectator, a feat moderately less impressive than actually competing. I’d like to extend a thank you to my favorite player Roger Federer, who timed it such that he missed two of the four majors this year, marking the first time he’d missed a slam since 1999. Thanks, old friend.

2016 Australian Open, January 18-31

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Rod Laver Arena

I got lucky in Melbourne in that the weather was actually pretty mild, but I was hoping for that scorching, 100+ degree heat that I’ve always associated with the Australian Open. The courts are as blindingly blue as they look on TV and perhaps because it’s the first major tournament of the year, perhaps because it’s in Australia, but whatever the reason, the “Happy Slam,” as dubbed by Federer, is very laidback. Because it’s early in the year, players tend to be the most fit and combined with the heat, the Australian has produced some brutal, hours-long battles over the years. Even so, it feels less competitive than at the US Open, where every match feels like a war.

Melbourne Park is the newest venue of the four majors. The Australian Open only moved there in 1988 after years of being played on grass in various small-time venues around Australia. Because of this, it has the least amount of character among the majors, particularly because it is the only one built as a multipurpose venue. That said, because it’s a new venue, it does its job remarkably well. With the exception of Hisense Arena, the smallest of the stadium courts that’s marooned on its own in a corner, the grounds are laid out in a logical fashion with easy access into and between courts. It’s smack in the middle of Melbourne, but they still have tons of grounds space. Food and drink are in abundance. There are lots of trashcans and places to sit. They’ve done everything to make going to a large sporting event as easy as possible, which means more time watching tennis and less time screwing around with various nonsense.

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Back in the days when Fed was still showing up for Slams

The one downside of having a slick new stadium like this is that good tennis becomes much more necessary for keeping things interesting. You could sit and watch an empty court at Wimbledon and it would still be kind of cool. Melbourne Park is a blank canvas. It showcases the tennis itself probably better than any other venue, but if it’s a slow day and the matches aren’t great, there’s nothing inherently cool about being in Rod Laver Arena.

I went for two days during the early rounds and as usually happens with these events, the big names slated on Laver came out and crushed whatever unseeded player was unlucky enough to draw them in the second round. If you’re going to an event during the early days of a two-week tournament, the best action is almost always on the outer courts, where you’ll find the less famous players engaged in five-set slogs just to make it to the second week. What I did get to see in Australia was Lleyton Hewitt’s final match, or what was at the time supposed to be. His retirement has proven to be less final than one might have initially thought. Hewitt came into the tournament ranked something like No. 200 and fell short against the relentless veteran David Ferrer in the second round. I don’t know that anyone in the stadium that night really thought he was going to win but it was nice to see 15,000 people hanging on every shot from a guy who’s worked his ass off for almost 20 years representing Australia.

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To me what makes the Australian Open so cool is how into it the entire city gets. For the two weeks during the tournament, everyone in Melbourne is buzzing about and watching tennis. I talked about this more in depth in my original post about it, but Melbourne does a better job welcoming the tournament to the city than anywhere else. There have been vague talks about moving this tournament elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region and while I understand the thinking behind moving a major tennis event to Asia, it would be a huge, huge mistake. Not only is Australia an important country in the history of tennis, but they obviously love having the event there. There’s probably more money in Asia and increased visibility in that part of the world would be great for the sport, but having a city that not only cooperates with, but revels in having a major event there, is something that you can’t replace. Atmosphere is everything with events like this and Melbourne has it in spades.

2016 French Open, May 22-June 5

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Court Philippe-Chatrier

At the time, I really dug into the French for their general lack of effort with this event and I still stand by that for the most part. More than anything, this entire venue needs to be redone. This is the only one of the four slams that has a totally lackluster center court and it presents a great opportunity. Level the thing and start over. Trying to renovate existing structures can be hard and result in compromises that end up solving nothing, but there’s nothing to salvage here. It’s not that I’m opposed to old stadiums; Centre Court at Wimbledon is without question the best court in tennis and it’s 94 years old. Court Philippe-Chatrier has no historicity, no character, and no life. It’s bad for players, bad for spectators, and bad for the tournament. It’s not big and they don’t really have corporate boxes.

What I do like about the French Open is the location. It’s far enough from the city center that it’s not chaos, but still feels very Parisian. As is well established, a Parisian vibe is not my favorite, but it is unique and this is an event in Paris, after all. It’s nice that it’s taken on the local flavor. Getting in and out of the tournament is actually very easy (in part because no one goes, but whatever). The food and alcohol situation is a joke though. Mainly in that neither seem to exist within the tournament grounds. How one expects to host a sporting event without these two things is beyond me.

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Serena Williams, who lost in the final

I defended them in my original post in June and I’ll defend them again here: the French crowd are unfairly accused of being bad spectators. They’re not the most wildly enthusiastic crowd and the only thing that gets them out of their chairs is The Wave (honestly, what). Because nothing about it is particularly luxurious, the only people there are there to watch tennis. Take away corporate boxes and what do you know, the drunken goons only interested in loudly schmoozing during the match and swapping business cards go away. They may not be the kind of fans to be easily riled up but at least they’re quiet and respectful, and no one sits there doing email.

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Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Retired a few games into this match leading Ernests Gulbis

The clay is obviously what sets the French apart most of all and it makes for a markedly different experience in person, a difference that doesn’t come through as much on TV. The slower pace and longer points can make watching in person a little more tedious. Of course it’s always more entertaining to watch a dramatic, highly competitive match but a slow match at the French can feel particularly slow.

To be fair, this was a bizarre year. They got a ridiculous amount of rain during the tournament and that only makes the conditions slower, so perhaps 2016 was not representative. Like the decline of the serve-and-volley game on grass, the art of a clay court specialized game has largely gone away. As the surfaces become more and more similar and as players have gotten so much more adaptable and universal with their games, the French Open has lost something. Winning a major on a clay court now doesn’t mean what it did 30 years ago. As fans we should be grateful; that’s in large part due to the unprecedented level and depth of talent in the game right now, but it has made everything a bit more homogenous.

2016 Wimbledon Championships, June 27-July 10

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Centre Court

Before this year, I’d previously been to both Wimbledon and the US Open, and had trouble picking between them. For reasons that have everything to do with the US Open, Wimbledon is now, without question, the best major in tennis. For a study in how to properly put a roof on a stadium, Centre Court is a perfect example. The roof, if anything, makes it even better and that’s saying something for a stadium that had remained virtually untouched for almost 90 years. The transparent roof, the minimalist design, and the totally unique lighting system make it nothing but a positive change to a stadium that is so historic it could have easily been ruined.

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Soak in the majesty of a proper roof. Because it all goes to hell when we get to the US Open

I’ve been to a lot of different tennis events, including several non-majors, and there is no experience like sitting on Centre Court. It has done what virtually no other stadium in any sport has done: maintained its vintage atmosphere while keeping up with the times. Every court in tennis, even the smallest outer court at the lowest level tournament, has seen a truly great match at some point, but on Centre Court, you can feel it. There is the weight of history there. At the Australian Open, you can’t even imagine someone like Agassi there. Even that feels almost anachronistic. On Centre Court, Ken Rosewall could walk out with his slicked back side part and it wouldn’t seem out of place.

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The all-white dress code is one of the best things still around in tennis and it’s a great way to honor the history of the game while glossing over the highly elitist origins of modern tennis. When the Olympics were played at Wimbledon during the 2012 London Games and the white clothing requirement was lifted, it felt garish to watch Federer and Djokovic run around in a bright red and blue polos. It was almost an eyesore.

Wimbledon is often accused of being too old-fashioned and there’s an element of truth to that. The no-play-on-Middle-Sunday rule is a bit of an arrogant snub to the television market and while I personally like this rule, it is unnecessarily stubborn. I like that after a frenetic first week of tennis, there’s a day off where everyone gets to really think things over before getting into the business end of the tournament in Week 2. That said, not that everything should bend to the will of television, but walking away from a full day of tennis on a Sunday in July is leaving a lot of money on the table without very good reason to do so. Because of a lot of rain during the first week, they actually broke that rule this year and held matches on Sunday to get caught up—the first time they’d done so in 12 years. Longtime tennis nerds may remember that 2007 was also a very rainy year (one of the last years before the roof was installed) and the decision to not play on Middle Sunday was hugely controversial.

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Blazers for everyone

For all its adherence to tradition, Wimbledon gets better every year. This was my third time to the Championships and it has noticeably improved every time. Things are better organized and more efficient; the new stadiums always look great; the food has gotten so much better than when I first went in 2008. Wimbledon is probably an event that could get away with laziness. It is, and always will be, Wimbledon, and they could sit back and do the same thing year after year and charge a king’s ransom for tickets and people would still come. But they don’t.

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If every event on the calendar looked and acted like Wimbledon, it would be a nightmare. Tickets are way too hard to get and absurdly expensive, while the lack of sponsorship logos inside Centre Court is just not a sustainable business model for a professional sport in 2016 on a week-in, week-out basis. At Wimbledon, tennis is still an art form, not entertainment. Much as the world has ever right to hate him, Jimmy Connors almost single-handedly transformed tennis from a country club sport into a global money making machine and as annoying as he is, every single person in tennis today is a lot richer because of him. Wimbledon does not buy into this model. While the sport is more democratic and diverse than it used to be, tennis is still a gentleman’s game when you’re at the All England Club. It is what makes it such a great event and in my mind, the best major without a doubt. There’s only one Wimbledon. (You can find my original write-up on Wimbledon here). 

2016 US Open, August 29-September 11

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Arthur Ashe Stadium

I won’t bury the lead; this tournament has really, really gone downhill. I’ve previously been to the US Open twice so I can say that this is not how it used to be. In years past, this has been a great event: well-run, awesome atmosphere, good crowd. It was a tournament that had a distinctly New York flavor, in the best way. I don’t know where that’s gone or if this year is an anomaly, but how the mighty have fallen.

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You and me both, Johnny Mac

Starting with the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, yikes. They’re so impressed with themselves that it can close in 6 minutes (as compared to the 10 whole minutes that the roof on Centre Court requires) they’ve let every aesthetic consideration go by the wayside. For $150 million, they got a roof that has all the stylistic and acoustic qualities of the lid on a tin can. To add insult to injury, they were so trigger-happy to use the new toy that they would open and close the roof mid-match when it had barely begun to rain

This rule No. 1 with a roof: don’t overuse it and don’t change your mind. At Wimbledon and the Ausrtalian Open, once the roof is closed, it stays closed for the remainder of the match, even if the weather clears up. Changing conditions mid-match is not ideal so you want to limit it as much as possible. That’s why you wait to close it in the first place. At Wimbledon this year, it started to spit several times so the players stopped and waited and five minutes later, it passed. It had barely started to rain one night in New York and they started closing the roof mid-game, much to the annoyance of Wawrinka, who was serving.

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Your 2016 champion, Stan Wawrinka and his fashion blunder

In addition to looking horrible, it’s made the already loud stadium even noisier. The sound of spectators talking in the upper decks reverberates in such a way that their voices are clearly audible at court level. The sound system also needs to be adjusted because even in the lower decks, the post-match player interviews are totally inaudible.

The real problem, however, is how the structure that holds the new roof has completely ruined the stadium, even when the roof is open. Ashe Stadium is known for being enormous, seating 23,771 people as compared to Wimbledon’s 15,916 (Rod Laver Arena and Court Philippe-Chatrier are even smaller). It also has a very distinct bowl shape, which makes it feel even bigger, and it allowed noise to drift out of the stadium. Late August/early September is usually a beautiful time of year in New York and the immense open-topped stadium made for spectacular sunsets that lit up above the stadium. The effect was fantastic, with a huge, late-summer sky mingling with the giant lights that would turn on just as the clouds were turning pink and orange.

I completely understand why a roof was necessary and I can see why the construction of the stadium made that challenging. But they have completely ruined it. In order to hold the roof, they built giant metal wings that extend over the court, reducing the endless expanse of sky to what feels like a skylight practically. At noon on a sunny day, it still almost feels like you’re sitting inside, even with the roof open.

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As a point of comparison, this is from 2009:

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The problems don’t end at the roof, but around the grounds, things are as I remembered, and perhaps a little better. The new Grandstand court, the smallest of the stadium courts, looks great and there is also a new tiered viewing platform above the practice courts that makes that spectating experience a lot better. Everyone working outside Ashe Stadium is efficient and competent and the ball kids, none of whom are actually kids, are the best in tennis.

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I joked in my original post on Wimbledon that as intimidating as the uniformed military personnel who serve as ushers there are, the dyed in the wool New Yorkers who man the doors at Ashe Stadium are perhaps fiercer. That is absolutely no longer true. If you’ve never been to a tennis match or aren’t familiar with the sport, this may seem silly but you can’t just come and go as you please. It’s annoying to other spectators and distracting for the players, so the ushers are supposed to make sure that people aren’t wandering in whenever they please and leaving to get another beer when it’s deuce at 4-4. I don’t know who they hired, but the ushers this year were entirely useless. It was basically a free-for-all the entire day. Which brings me to the spectators.

New York crowd, you guys seriously suck. Every single sport deals with this contingent and it’s a valid complaint. Good seats are expensive at any sporting event, and most sports much more so than tennis. Rightly or wrongly, the people who can afford them are not often the same people who are there to watch whatever it is that’s going on.

Complaining about this is to lament capitalism, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying when everyone around you is doing anything but watching tennis. The crowd at the US Open is notoriously loud, but usually in a good way. The fans often get really into the matches and their cheering and oohing and aahing can disrupt and hold up play, but you can’t complain about having passionate fans in the stands. That’s what makes sports fun. The Aussie fans in Melbourne often descend into hooliganism, and it’s great. They’re obviously a different crowd than you’ll find at Wimbledon but for the setting, it’s totally appropriate. Luckily, I have good news for all you Goldman Sachs pencil pushers who attended this year’s US Open. There’s a place you can go where you can talk about golf and mergers and not watch tennis: it’s known as anywhere else in New York City that’s here.

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What makes this all so disheartening is I used to love this event. In so many ways, it was better than Wimbledon. It was big and loud and wholly American in a way you don’t often see in a sport as international as tennis, but it got the details right. I’m hoping that this year was some sort of weird blip and they’ll get rid of the buffoon they hired to organize it this time around.

For the prices they charge and for the quality of event it was this year, I would never recommend anyone go. The French Open might be its own disaster, but at least the tickets are cheap. The USTA has done irreversible damage with their god-awful roof, but there’s no reason they can’t right the ship in every other capacity, which really comes down to having ushers who aren’t afraid to yell at people to sit down and shut up.

My rant about the US Open aside, of course I was incredibly lucky and very grateful to make it to all four this year. It’s too bad that for basically everyone reading this the Australian Open is never going to be a convenient tournament to attend because for what you get for the price, it’s absolutely the best deal of the four and would be a good tournament for people who aren’t really that into tennis because of its laidback atmosphere. And much as I trashed the French Open, I do think there is so much potential there. If they’re willing to invest the money into it, it could be a really cool event.

As far as I’m concerned, Wimbledon stands alone when it comes to providing the best all-around experience and even though it is the most expensive by far and such a hassle to get tickets, it’s always worth it. Everything about the All England Club seems like it should be stiff and too polished to make for really exciting tennis, but the most nail-biting, dramatic matches I saw this year where two of the men’s quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Both were long five-set matches and Centre Court was full from the first point until the handshake at the net. On paper, Wimbledon seems like everything that’s so great about tennis: elitist, subdued, snobbish. Instead, it shows the sport at its best, with the most engaged fans of any tournament, in a place that manages to embody the entire history of the sport in one simple, subdued stadium.

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I don’t really have anything to add about the US Open. Get it together, New York. This used to be arguably the best of the four majors.

As a final tip, if you’re into tennis but not into spending a small fortune on tickets, the qualifying rounds at the majors are usually fantastic. You’re going to see players you’ve never even heard of, but admission is usually free or something like $10, and seeing No. 131 take on No. 146 is often a fantastic match. Challenger events (AAA tennis, essentially) are also surprisingly entertaining and there tons of them all year, in places all over the country.

But wait, there’s more! I’ll be posting a photo retrospection of the entirety of the past year and some final thoughts on my trip in the next few days. So don’t go quite yet.

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