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A Sporting Chance: Star Spangled Open

Once a year, the stuffy world of international tennis lets its hair down when the sport comes to New York for the annual madness that is the U.S. Open. The strict and formal player dress codes that mandate the wearing of white, modest clothing is tossed out the window as players are allowed to let themselves go fashion wise.

The result is an explosion of color and style pleasing to the eye (in most cases) and a refreshing change from the norm in Grand Slam play.

The normally staid and properly behaved grandstand you would find at Wimbledon or Roland Garros fills up instead with raucous New Yorkers who may be short on tennis fan etiquette but make up for it by adding an electricity to the venue unknown and unheard of anywhere else in the world. The players respond by usually playing some of the best tennis of the year with seeded players falling like ripe fruit, picked off by unknowns who are themselves adopted by the tennis faithful at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and cheered lustily as far as luck and raw talent can take them.

Quite simply, the US Tennis Open is where it’s at. For the fortnight in August and September that the tournament holds center stage in the tennis world, the players and fans develop a relationship so special that the feelings for some players extend many years beyond their playing days. New Yorker John McEnroe was the “Bad Boy of Tennis” everywhere else he played except at the US Open where his antics were cheered to the rafters. Andres Agassi approached rock star status whenever he took the court at the Open. And even though Jimmy Connors was not as popular as many players early in his career, his dramatic run to the semi-finals at age 39 in 1991 endeared him to the faithful forever.

This year’s Open has featured the usual upsets and drama along with the spotlight being shown on several emerging stars in both the men’s and women’s brackets. Two young Americans broke through to the third round and showed that rumors of the death of men’s tennis in America have been greatly exaggerated. Don Young (18) and John Isner (22) won their first Grand Slam matches and gave as good as they got before going down to defeat. Isner gave top seed Roger Federer all he could handle, taking him to a tiebreaker in the first set and winning the third, eventually losing in 4 sets. Young lost to Feliciano Lopez in another tough 4 setter. Both youngsters bear watching.

On the women’s side, it has been the emergence of a quartet of Eastern European players that have the stands buzzing. Tamira Paszek (16), Agnes Szavay (18), Victoria Azarenka (18) and Agnieszka Radwanska (18) from Austria, Hungary, Belarus and Poland all won third round matches with Radwanska pulling the upset of the tournament, ousting defending champion Maria Sharapova in round 2. All four teens are speedy, technically flawless, and have the heart to compete at the highest levels against the toughest players. There may be another upset or two by the kids before all is said and done at this year’s Open.

In the men’s draw, top seed Roger Federer appears to be rolling, winning through to the quarters where he will face American Andy Roddick on Wednesday night. Rafael Nadal is the two seed and has been bothered by a sore knee. But he hasn’t let it affect him much as he too has steamrolled the competition to date. If Federer can get by Roddick – he’s beaten the 5th seeded American 12 out of 13 times in his career – the number one player in the world’s next test will come in the semis, probably against the Serb Novak Djokovic. Nadal’s injury is a wild card but most analysts expect him to also win through to the semis which would set up another dramatic Federer-Nadal scorcher in the finals.

The women’s side of the draw has seen the dramatic re-emergence of the Williams sisters who appear to have put disappointing injuries and controversies behind them and are once again playing great tennis. Both Serena and Venus are in the top half of the draw, heading for a dramatic semi-final match on Friday. The winner of that match could face a number of players but I like the way the number 4 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova has been flying around the court. She appears to be at the top of her game – a prerequisite if she is to compete against either of the Williams sisters.

The upcoming championship weekend of tennis at Flushing Meadows will no doubt see some dramatic tennis with roaring crowds and an atmosphere that you just can’t find anywhere else in the tennis world. If you don’t watch much tennis during the year, this is the weekend you definitely don’t want to miss. Wimbledon may have history. But there is nothing like watching the best tennis players in the world working the best venue in the world as the best fans in the world roar their approval.

It is a singular sporting event not to be missed.