"So what do you think of New York City?"
Toss out this little query and you are guaranteed an earful of anything but ambivalent responses. Some will turn all Frank Sinatra on you, crooning about the town as if you haven't lived until you experience the bright lights and big energy of Gotham. Others, however, will twist their face as if they've just swallowed a lemon and deplore, "Interesting place to visit, but couldn't wait to get out of that concrete jungle."
So it shouldn't be too surprising that the U.S. Open, held just across the East River from Manhattan in New York City's easternmost borough of Queen's on Long Island, elicits the same kind of boon or bane reaction from players.
Some see the year's final major as a kind of obligatory drudgery. The cacophony of the city and site makes for a distasteful experience. To them, Wimbledon and Roland Garros inspire, but the U.S. Open just tires. And yet they make their way to Flushing Meadows nonetheless — there is too much prestige and prize money at stake to do otherwise. This grin-and-bear-it attitude usually results in a flight home to more comfortable environs before the end of the first week.
Others, though, view the commotion as their calling. Boisterous crowds, late-night matches, noisy planes, congested roads and practice courts — these are opportunities to overcome, not obstacles to avoid. For them, it's a matter of discipline in the midst of distraction, of mind over Manhattan. Only this outlook will give one the chance of being in the hunt after Labor Day.
Where both sides would agree is the U.S. Open presents the sternest of tests. By this time of year, players are bruised physically and drained mentally after eight months of tournaments and travel. The hard courts and heat only exacerbate the adversity. Winning seven consecutive matches over two weeks in these conditions is not possibile for the faint of heart.
It's been a summer of surprise heading into America's Grand Slam event. Almost as shocking as Serena Williams losing in the fourth round of Wimbledon was 28-year-old Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli winning the title and then retiring from the sport last week after a first-round loss in Cincinnati, citing chronic injuries. Talk about going from the top of the game to out of it in a very short period of time.
World No. 1 Williams, nearing 32 years old, has no such exit strategy. The four-time Open winner and defending champ enters New York with a 60-4 record on the year, including one title and a runner-up finish in the two hard-court events she has played since Wimbledon.
But as we found out at the All England Club, this doesn't mean Serena is invincible. The world No. 2, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, beat Williams in a three-set final last week and nearly did the same last year in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Fast-rising young American Sloane Stephens startled everyone by toppling Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and has since moved into contender status at No. 17 in the world.
On the men's side, the world No. 2 and 2010 champ, Rafa Nadal, has rebounded perfectly from his early exit at Wimbledon to win the two biggest hard-court tournaments of the summer in Montreal and Cincinnati. Undefeated on the surface this year (his other title was in Indian Wells), the reigning King of Clay is making a strong case for hard-court royalty if he keeps this pace up.
But can Nadal's body, specifically his injury-prone knees, withstand the punishment of three-out-of-five-set matches over a fortnight in Flushing? Can he make it through a difficult quarter of the draw where both five-time winner Roger Federer, who is still dangerous despite slipping to his lowest ranking in over a decade (No. 7), and big serving-serving John Isner, the highest-ranked American at No. 14, are lurking?
In the other half of the draw, who will be left standing after a potential semifinal face-off between defending champ Andy Murray, flying high after his history-making win at Wimbledon, and the world No. 1 and 2011 champion, Novak Djokovic, whose best surface is hard court and who is no doubt itching to win a seventh major title?
These questions and more are why we watch the drama that unfolds late each summer at the National Tennis Center in New York. A drama, I remind you, that is much easier watched than played.
Minnesota's David Wheaton was a quarterfinalist in singles and a finalist in doubles at the U.S. Open in 1990. He also won the junior title in 1987. He is now a radio host and author. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.