Sunday, November 14, 2021

US Open 2021 Final, In Pursuit of History

The Plan

For the last seven years we've had a straightforward strategy for taking in the US Open: go up for the middle weekend to experience some amazing in person tennis and then watch the final comfortably from home.

This year, with Novak Djokovic looking like he may pull off a calendar grand slam, we decided to tweak our plans. We'd still go up for the middle weekend (we did, it was great), but if Novak made it to the finals, we decided we would hustle up to New York for the day to see him go for this historic title.

After a fairly extensive brainstorming session we came up with our strategy for taking in one day of tennis in New York: we'd fly from DCA to LaGuardia, pick up a rental car, drive the few miles to the stadium, park in a reserved spot, take in the women's doubles and men's finals and then hop in the car and drive 4+ hours back to DCA. We'd drop off the rental at DCA and then drive home. Easy, right?

We considered flying or taking the train home, but the unpredictability of the match duration made this not especially practical. Do you plan for a 5+ hour match and then spend hours waiting when it turns out to be a 1.5 hour blowout? Or, do you plan for 3 hours and leave early, knowing that you're missing an epic battle? Driving home it was.

The Execution

Getting to the stadium happened without any notable glitches. The flight from DCA to LGA was easy, and with no luggage to wait for, we were at the rental counter in no time. Incidentally, the rental cars are stashed near the old Marine Terminal. We only had time to appreciate the facade of this building, with its quirky flying fish motif. Hopefully we'll get back and I'll have a chance to head inside to see the 1940's era, 240 ft mural.

This is our first time driving in Queens, Koreatown and I have to say, wow. Shira's driven all over the world, including places where traffic laws seem optional, and this experience was still unique. We waited on a side street to turn right into a larger street, and absolutely nobody made space to let us in. It took a few minutes, but Shira cracked the code: she was just going to have to pull into traffic and assume that would be the signal to make space. It worked.

Hey Look, Tennis!

And so we found ourselves at Arthur Ashe stadium taking in the end of the doubles final between Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai against Coco Gauff and Caty McNally. Gauff and McNally are both Americans, so the crowd was naturally behind them. But we'd been watching Stosur and Zhang have an amazing run since the Western & Southern Open, so we couldn't help but cheer for them. We may have been the only fans in the stadium to do so.

It was a nice bonus for the day to see them take the title.

The Main Event

With the women's doubles champions crowned, it was time for the main event. Could Djokovic win one more match this year, thereby handing him a calendar gland slam and making him the first man in 52 years to pull off this feat? The stadium was absolutely packed with Novak fans, a first in US Open history.

Sure, there were fans of his opponent, Daniil Medvedev, in the crowd. And they cheered on their man when he'd hit a winner or make an amazing shot. But the stadium absolutely rocked every time Djokovic made forward progress towards winning.

Alas, Djokovic's win wasn't meant to be. Medvedev played the match of his life, managing to keep his A game going for all three sets. Djokovic had a few glimmers of success, but it looked like he kept waiting to wake up and alas, never did.

In hindsight, this loss wasn't really a surprise. For the last few matches, Djokovic had an extra slow start, and he only managed to beat his opponents because they dropped their level long enough for him to get into the match. Medvedev to his credit, never did this.

So he lost and history wasn't made. To avoid the crush of exiting fans, we watched Djokovic and Medvedev hug it out and then scooted from the stadium. We watched the medal ceremony on a big screen near court 17. It was eerie how we had the space to ourselves.

I have to admit, my first thought, after watching Djokovic limp through three sets of tennis and ultimately lose was: well, if I had known the outcome, I'd have skipped a full day of travel to see this spectacle. But, with a little time to take in the loss, now I'm not so sure.

In many respects, what makes a champion, and what makes a champion worth learning from, is how he or she deals with losses. Especially big losses. And being three sets away from one of the most impressive accomplishments in Tennis certainly falls in the big loss department. To get an up close view of how Djokovic responded to this crushing defeat is actually quite valuable.

During the medal ceremony, he was gracious and talked about how the crowd gave him a sense of connection he'd never had in New York. His post match press conference was even more impressive. He talked openly about the full range of emotions he experienced from his loss, and again stressed how the love from the crowd was so special. (Indeed, we have never seen a crowd embrace him so completely). He gave full credit to Medvedev, and tried to explain some of his own short comings. He even managed to step back and switch into tennis ambassador mode, talking about his hopes for the game itself and how he and others needs to do a better job supporting lower ranked players.

When I have massively disapponting moments in my life, I hope I can muster the perspective to have these kind of thoughts. Djokovic setting this kind of example is impressive and appreciated.

Homeward Bound

After the medal ceremony we found our rental car and got on the road. The ride was mostly uneventful, until Google told us it had a faster route. The catch: we'd be leaving the highway to take side roads.

Did Google know something we didn't? Was it trying to avoid an accident or construction that wasn't yet on the map? Or, was it a glitch in Google's logic that would add an extra 30 minutes to an hour taking side roads when the highway would do the trick?

Shira and I recounted times when we'd both listened to and skipped Google's recommendations, and how that'd had resulted in both wins and losses. Ultimately, we decided to follow Google's suggestion and got off the highway.

I'm not sure this saved us any time, but it did take us by a Friendly's where we got some delish ice cream and recharged.

16 hours after we left our house for the airport, we pulled into our driveway. The trip had been a success. History hadn't been made for Novak, but the day was anything but a loss. We'd exercised our logistics skills, watched Stosur and Zhang take the title, watched Medvedev make history winning his first grand slam title and watched a champion wrestle with a massive setback. Not bad for a day's work.

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