U.S. Open: Court of Appeal

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MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS

Rafael Nadal of Spain sports his 'pirate pants' during his U.S. Open match on Monday

At the U.S. Open, tennis spectators head for the big name matches at the new Arthur Ashe stadium, or the old Louis Armstrong stadium (Pops could really swing, but he had no net game). Tennis fans, on the other hand, head for the side courts, where the world’s greatest players—OK, so maybe they’re not the top seeds—are no farther than a drop shot away. The first day session at the Open is a fantastic place to see the amazing skill you need to play at this level, to catch youngsters on the way up—say, Roger Federer in 2000—or watching some familiar names struggle with their games.

The first match I got to this morning is a perfect example. There was Maria Sharapova on Court 7, uh, wait a minute, that’s not the No. 1 ranked Russian. She’s the feature attraction at the evening session. No, it’s 16-year-old Nicole Vaidisova, another one of those Eastern European wonder women. A Czech, she’s just short of six feet tall with legs that go from Prague to Brno and the power to hit the ball just as far. This kid can smash it. She’s seeded 26th in Queens, but she reached the 3rd round in Wimbledon. Her path was made a little easier when defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova got chopped down on the big stage by Ekaterina Bychkova. This is a tough town to defend your crown.

The side courts are tougher, even cruel: you can watch players self destruct at close range, watch them staring into the racquets as if that would made them invisible. Walking to Court 6 , I was just in time to watch Tobias Summerer implode in a winnable match against Ivan Ljubicic, the 18th seeds. Three reckless shots cost him the second set, while his lone fan tried to encourage him in German, although not too loudly. Ljubicic looked like he was mad at everyone; his serve was just vicious and its force drew occasional gasps from the crowd.

On Court 8, Xavier Malisse, once ranked in the top 20, was in the middle of a meltdown, which wasn’t difficult. The heat this week is going to be oppressive, and any player not in top condition—there was some whispering in the press area about Serena Williams’ fitness—is going to have a tough time surviving, particularly if they have to play day matches or a couple of five-setters. Down 4-2 in the second set, Malisse looked like he had just stepped out of a swimming pool and swung like he was under water. He kept looking around for help, and there was none to be found, not even a solitary Belgian to root him on. Remarkably, Malisse finally found the right gear to pull out a 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 win over Jan Hernych.

It was certainly not a day to be wearing black, or long pants, especially on a tennis court. But Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal has a reputation to uphold, not to mention a sponsor. His 3/4 length black Nike pants looked suffocating. But up top, Rafael was wearing a matador-red sleeveless number that looked like a body stocking with the arms cut out. Against the new blue court of the Ashe stadium—okay, I did go to the big court, just to take a look—Nadal stood out like a freshly painted fire hydrant. It was lunch time by now, and a young American named Bobby Reynolds was being served. Reynolds was game enough, going for broke at every opportunity, getting as much pace as he could muster behind every ball. But Nadal sent Reynolds 125 mph serves back at his feet, and showed a delicate touch from everywhere on the court. Despite those pants, this guy’s got style. The match ended before lunch did, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.