The U.S. Open — tennis on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Put a big event in the Big Apple and you get a really big deal. Like the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It began here Monday, the granddaddy of tennis torture chambers. Win here and you either get a spot in heaven or on “Survivor.”

The first of the four majors, the Australian Open, is celebrated in summer heat Down Under by mellow people who tackle most situations with beer in hand. It is early in the year and the pro players aren’t angry yet. They are the toast of the town, in a town that toasts a lot.

The French Open is in Paris and that’s all you need to know. Players can drown defeats in fine wines.

Wimbledon is in London and that’s also all you need to know. Keep a stiff upper lip, bow and curtsy at the proper times and realize that tradition really matters and royalty doesn’t whine.

And so, when the U.S. Open comes, in the city that never sleeps and never stops yelling, the inhibitions are gone, the welled-up anger is ready to be unleashed, and when push comes to shove, it will.

Remember Serena Williams’ meltdown last year. Remember where that took place? Coincidence?

Sure, John McEnroe had one of his biggest implosions in Australia, and Jeff Tarango had his nasty words with a chair umpire at Wimbledon. But those two are exceptions to all the short-fuse rules. Normal temperaments won’t usually blow until New York. Last year, Roger Federer actually cussed out a chair umpire, twice. Yes, that Roger Federer.

So stay tuned. Click on the Internet a lot. Keep your police scanner nearby.

For the fans, the smell of blood was not yet in the air Monday. Give it a day or two.

There were blue skies, temperatures in the 90s, a perfect day to stroll the grounds. People sat around the fountains, watching the big screen on the side of Arthur Ashe Stadium. There were little cocktail bars, string quartets setting a nice mood, some shade trees nearby.

A leisurely walk took you from Ashe to the former main court, Louis Armstrong Stadium, where they shaved off the top deck, made it more intimate and now play the second-best matches of the day. The walkway is lined by large posters of past champions. Federer won so often they ran out of poses. Chris Evert won one year. Another year, it was somebody named Chris Evert Lloyd.

The grounds are packed. The beer is especially cold and the ice cream tastes great. A band calling itself Tin Pan is entertaining the strollers, who aren’t sure they want to be entertained.

“Our next song is ‘Drunk Driver Blues,’” says the band leader. “Do not try this song driving home.”

The song is as bad as the attempt at humor.

It is early afternoon of the first day and just about everybody is still unbeaten. Melanie Oudin, who made such an impressive splash here last year, wins an opening round in Ashe Stadium. She meets the press, facing perhaps a thousand years of collective journalistic savvy, and fields questions about the new word on her shoe. Last year, it was “Believe.” This year, it is “Courage.” She is asked whether she was inspired to that by any example of courage. She has none, which is understandable for somebody who has spent much of her 18 years hitting tennis balls.

Defending champion Kim Clijsters wins and is asked what she knows about her next opponent, whom the questioner identifies as a 19-year-old Australian. “That she’s a 19-year-old Australian,” says Clijsters, a veteran now at the playing and the interviewing.

Out on Armstrong, the agony has begun. Russia’s Dinara Safina, a former No. 1 player who tried to play through a serious injury and is now trying to play her way back up from No. 50, is losing to a very good No. 24, Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia. Safina has a chance to get back into the first set, but misses on a break point and screams into her hand.

Her brother, the now-retired Marat Safin, might have been the most talented player in the world at one time. But even as he won two majors, he had composure problems. His sister shows that DNA doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The day floats by quickly. The night session will bring a tidal wave of noise and beer breath on the 7 Train from the city. They will come to watch Venus Williams and Roger Federer battle age and two opponents who should have no chance.

It has only just begun. In a few days, check the Richter scale. There will be rumbling. It is the U.S. Open.