They wanted to start the U.S. Open tennis tournament with a bang Monday night. Instead, they got the Clunker in Queens.
Josh Groban sang. That was great. Billie Jean King warmed up the crowd. That was special, too.
The music filled the warm and still night. Vanessa Williams was the ideal star to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Everything was perfect. Serena Williams would open the competition with her first match win of the hoped-for seven that would take her, for certain, to the sport’s top echelon of history-makers.
But then they started playing. Nobody expected Williams’ first-round opponent to be exceptionally good, but the assumption of at least some competitiveness was fair. This is, after all, pro tennis. The ticket prices to plunk yourself down in Arthur Ashe Stadium are not exactly chump change. People have decisions to make: Buy a new refrigerator or go to the Open.
Suffice to say, Vitalia Diatchenko was not worth the price of admission, unless you were into double faults, baseline-sailing returns of service and stoppage of play for injury.
In brief summary, Williams won, 6-0, 2-0 (retired). The match took 30 minutes, 21 of them actual action — using that word liberally in this case. The closest Williams came to breaking a sweat was when she tried to stay loose during the injury stoppages and Diatchenko’s trip to the locker room.
The farce wasn’t Williams’ fault. Maybe not Diatchenko’s, either. She was just in way over her head, injury or not. Basically, she simply couldn’t play. Williams gave her a long, motherly hug at the net after the Russian finally decided that it would be less embarrassing to default than to continue on.
The match totaled 37 points. Diatchenko won five. She had one more double fault than points won. She is ranked 86th in the world. If there are only 85 female tennis players on the planet who are better, the WTA Tour is in serious trouble.
Perhaps the injury to her ankle was so severe that it really masked her talents. That No. 85 ranking seems to speak to that. But there were signs that, even had she been 100% fit, it still wouldn’t have mattered.
She served by holding her right arm up first and then making her toss, and that had nothing to do with a sore ankle. It was reminiscent of the days of U.S. player Jay Berger, who had the same service motion and earned a nice living with it. But nobody every talked about Berger’s serve, or game, in the same sentence as Pete Sampras’.
The main contention here is probably money. As in so many pro sports, there is so much of it at stake in tennis that it skews judgment. For playing in the match — not winning, just playing — Diatchenko got a check for $39,500. For her part in this embarrassing hit-and-giggle, Williams got $65,000.
If you don’t play, you don’t get paid, and Williams said afterward that that is like going to work.
“Like any job, you have to play to get compensated,” she said. “Although, I guess, in jobs, you have sick days and still get paid.”
The difference is, there aren’t 20,000-plus people paying to watch you put a hot pack on your chest.
Diatchenko arrived for her post-match interview with her left ankle in a walking cast. She said afterward that she had hurt it doing warmup sprints half an hour before the match. Then she said she didn’t see a trainer before the match because “I didn’t need to.”
She also said that she had no pain in the warmups, but then during the match, when she had to run, she had pain. Also when she was serving.
She said she finally decided to call it quits — after a long conversation with the trainer — because “it was just so painful.” It wasn’t clear whether she meant the ankle or the decision.
At least the poor paying customers had pleasant temperatures in which to sit and watch this U.S. Open evening of embarrassment. And there were also those ever-present big-screen pictures of celebrity types in attendance. Hard to top the goose bumps when they flash a picture of Anna Wintour on the big screen.
In the end, it rested with Rafa. All that remained for the fans and their ticket purchases, other than a five-second glimpse of Wintour, was Rafael Nadal, still among the best players in the world and always worth the price of admission.
Nadal did the best he could. He gave them a couple of hours of nice backhands and forehands, even lost a set, and eventually beat Borna Coric of Croatia in a compelling battle, 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
After the opening-match farce, the crowd deserved Borg-McEnroe, but life is not always fair. The good news is, there are still 13 days left and you can bet tickets are still available.