Is there a sporting event more maligned than tennis's U.S. Open? Everyone, it seems, takes a shot at Flushing Meadow, that New York City garden spot that sits atop a landfill hard by LaGuardia Airport. Wimbledon offers royalty and tradition; the French Open, with its state-of-the-art facilities, runs as smoothly as the high-speed train from Paris to Lyons; and the rejuvenated Australian Open boasts a stadium with a retractable roof. In contrast, the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 27 this year, has all the charm of an Erector Set, horrendous match scheduling, $6 hamburgers, an outmoded stadium and, of course, those incessant jets that appear to barely clear the stands. No wonder then that in a 1989 player poll rating the four Grand Slam tournaments, Flushing Meadow finished last in nine of the 15 categories and third in four others.
Still, for all its flaws, year in and year out, the U.S. Open produces better tennis, played by more top players, than any other Grand Slam event (chart at right). Flushing Meadow has one big advantage over Wimbledon and the French Open: It is played on a surface—a medium-speed hard court—that most players can live with, be they aggressive serve-and-volleyers or die-hard baseliners. It's true that the Australian Open is held on a similar type of hard court, but that tournament doesn't attract as strong a field as the other major championships for two reasons: its place on the calendar (in mid-January) and its place on the map.
Saying that players "can live with" the U.S. Open surface is faint praise indeed, but the fact is, more and more players are deciding that they can't live with the game's two other surfaces, grass and clay. Consider the following:
•Of the 128 men who played on clay in this year's French Open, 49 ducked the challenge of Wimbledon's grass.
•Among the missing at Wimbledon were Thierry Champion, Thomas Muster and Andre Agassi, who reached the quarter-finals, semifinals and finals, respectively, at Roland Garros.
•Among those who played Wimbledon but skipped the French were Ivan Lendl, the world's No. 1 player, fourth-ranked Brad Gilbert and 11th-ranked John McEnroe. All the aforementioned players are entered in the U.S. Open.
•Boris Becker, the 1989 Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion and a finalist at Wimbledon this year, has played more than two dozen clay-court tournaments in his pro career. Going into the Austrian Open he was 0 for 26.
However, by entering clay-court events, Becker at least makes an attempt to play on all surfaces, which is more than can be said for an increasing number of his fellow pros. Pay no heed to the nonsense you heard about Agassi not playing at Wimbledon partly because the staid All England Club wouldn't let him wear his hot-pink bicycle pants. In truth, he skipped Wimbledon for the same reason 48 other French Open entrants avoided the English tournament: He didn't have a prayer of getting far on Wimbledon's slick grass. Likewise, Gilbert and McEnroe, who prefer fast surfaces, knew they had little chance of performing well on the slow red clay at Roland Garros. For his part, Lendl, who once declared that he was "allergic to grass," passed up a shot at winning his fourth French championship because he felt that by putting in extra time on grass he would have a chance of winning his first Wimbledon title. It still eluded him.
Forget grass versus artificial-turf fields and turf versus dirt racetracks: In no other sport is the playing surface as critical to the outcome as in tennis. But when 38% of the field from the game's second or third most prestigious event passes up (or isn't good enough to play in) the game's premier event three weeks later, then surface is too critical. In short, tennis has become two sports that are no more alike than Softball and baseball. One version is practiced by hard-charging serve-and-volleyers, who like to keep points as short as possible; the other is ruled by ground-stroke mavens, who engage in wars of attrition from the baseline. In both versions advances in racket technology—does anyone remember wood? — have allowed players to hit balls harder and with more spin than ever before.
Clay-court specialists have been around forever. However, until the early 1970s the more important titles were contested on grass, which meant that clay-courters had one of two options: Stick with their game and ply their trade in anonymity, or develop the necessary skills to play passably on the greensward. Most chose the latter. That's no longer the case, not when 27 of this year's 80 ATP Tour and Grand Slam events take place on clay-more than on any other surface-while the number of grass-court tournaments has dwindled to five, with Wimbledon being the only one of consequence.
What tennis has on its hands today is a slew of clay-court artists, primarily Europeans and South Americans, who have taken baseline tennis to unforeseen heights. Because they have no need to worry about other surfaces, these players are taught as youngsters to use extreme grips, on both the forehand and backhand, that are most effective on a slow court. Serve-and-volleyers, no matter how proficient, are usually no match for these human backboards on clay. Hence, the first-round defeats of Becker and Stefan Edberg at Roland Garros, the first time in history that the top two seeds lost in the opening round of a Grand Slam tournament. If these two upsets weren't predictable, they were hardly surprising. With one tournament victory in 23 attempts, Edberg's clay-court record is nearly as disappointing as Becker's.
One could argue that, just as third-down specialists make NFL defenses better, surface specialization makes for a higher caliber of tennis by discouraging players from entering tournaments held on courts on which they are not proficient. Too often, though, players with glaring weaknesses are winning those tournaments. Too often clay-courters look as if they're trying to catch a butterfly when they venture to the net, while many fast-court specialists (read: Americans and South Africans, most of whom grew up swinging for the fences on hard courts) don't have a clue as to how to win a match with patience, endurance and guile.
The most unfortunate consequence of this schism is that the all-court player is quickly becoming an endangered species. Think about it: How many players have the ability to win on grass and clay, the game's fastest and slowest surfaces? As the number of all-court players diminishes, so does the game's appeal, for matches involving players who can hit all the shots—who can crack an ace and feather a drop shot, slide a forehand approach into the corner and flick an offensive lob—are inevitably more engaging than those involving one-dimensional players.
Lest we be accused of sexism, it should be noted that the women—with the exception of Steffi Graf, who, despite her rocky summer, is the premier all-court player, man or woman, of the last 30 years—are moving in the same direction. Like Lendl, Martina Navratilova bypassed the French Open to prepare for Wimbledon. But her extra work on the grass paid off, unlike Lendl's; she won a record ninth All England singles title. The other Wimbledon finalist was Zina Garrison, a first-round loser at Roland Garros whose career tournament record on clay stands at 1-42. Monica Seles, this year's French champion, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon before falling to Garrison, but her unorthodox backcourt game is particularly ill-suited to grass. Ever see Seles try to hit a volley? It is not a pretty sight.
Bjorn Borg, winner of six French Opens, was no Lew Hoad at the net, either, but he volleyed well enough to win five Wimbledon crowns in a row—three in the same summers that he won at Roland Garros. Today, the notion of a male French Open winner prevailing at Wimbledon only four weeks later is almost laughable. Indeed, this year's champ, Andres Gomez, was routed in the first round at Wimbledon by Jim Grabb, a hard-hitting American who hadn't fared any better at Roland Garros.
Chances are, Gomez will fare better at the U.S. Open—he reached the quarters there in 1984. Baseliners have won Flushing Meadow (Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander), as have net rushers (McEnroe and Becker). The court is fast enough to keep the rallies from becoming tedious, and slow enough to make accuracy as vital as power. Sure, the tournament can be aggravating both to watch and to play, but it's also the place where two sports converge to produce the finest and most entertaining tennis found anywhere among the Grand Slam championships.
More top players like Agassi (who goes for Paris's clay but not Wimbledon's grass) enter the hard-court U.S. Open than any other major championship.
No one has won Paris and Wimbledon in the same year since Borg, in 1980.