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Steve Flink: US Open Preview

8/27/2007 1:18:00 AM

As another summer draws to a conclusion, the last major tennis tournament of 2007 is underway. The U.S. Open is in many ways the toughest test of all the Grand Slam championships. The players are in New York taking on the heat and humidity, the sun and the wind, the noise and the hard courts, and surely there will be some rainy days thrown into the mix. They can start competing early in the day or finish deep into the night. And all of the leading competitors play this tournament with a greater sense of urgency because they are well aware that another "Big Four” event will not take place until the Australian Open commences in January.

This will be a celebratory time in New York at the 40th U.S. Open. I have had the good fortune to be there for all but one of those championships, collecting a treasure chest of memories. I saw Arthur Ashe capture the first Open back in 1968. As a 16-year-old, I had not yet broken into the business of being a tennis reporter when I watched Ashe topple Tom Okker in a five set final at Forest Hills. So, under those circumstances, I was merely a fan, free to cheer unabashedly for Ashe. At one stage of that final, another aficionado gently lectured me after I achingly reacted to a mistake made by Ashe. "There is nothing wrong with rooting for Ashe,” he pointed out, "but give Okker some credit. This guy is a heck of a player, too.” And that fellow was absolutely right. But, in the end, the quietly charismatic Ashe carried the day.

A year later, I was present when the estimable left-hander Rod Laver completed his second Grand Slam with a come from behind four set, final round triumph over countryman Tony Roche. I remember marveling at the cavalcade of winners springing off Laver's racket. He was such a humble man and dazzling player that I was determined to see him prevail that day. The grass courts were damp from heavy rains and Laver was allowed to wear spikes as he completed his win over Roche. To be there for that chunk of history was an honor.

And yet, there are so many moments and events to recollect. Chris Evert, an essential Open performer for nearly two decades who would win the tournament six times, announced her arrival as a champion in the making as a 16-year-old at the 1971 Open when she reached the penultimate round. But it was in 1980 that she came through to win one of the crucial battles in her entire career, eclipsing Tracy Austin 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals. She had lost her previous five appointments with Austin, including a bruising defeat in the 1979 Open final. She could not afford another setback. So this win meant the world to her. When it was over, she left the court and, as was her post-match custom, picked up the phone and called her father and coach, Jimmy Evert.

The only words she could release before she burst into tears were, "Dad, I won.” She handed the phone to her mother, Collette, requesting that her father come to New York the next day for the final. And he was there to see her oust Hana Mandlikova in the championship match for her fifth Open crown. Never before had Jimmy Evert seen his child win a major championship in person.

On to some more powerful U.S. Open memories. When Billie Jean King defeated Evonne Goolagong in a stirring three set 1974 final, and again when Martina Navratilova saved three match points and upended a rapidly rising 16-year-old named Steffi Graf in the 1986 semifinals, the crowds were euphoric. The King-Goolagong contest had the fans on their feet over and over again; it was exhilarating stuff and the tennis on the Forest Hills lawns at times defied belief. I'll always remember watching that one from my usual vantage point in Portal 7. During the Graf-Navratilova showdown on the hard courts at Flushing Meadows, I sat high in the stands, moving out of the press section to get a better feel for the atmospherics. Down the stretch of that battle, teenaged kids- boys and girls- constantly exchanged "High Five's” in front of me while the two women played one gripping point after another.

Along with Evert- who made it to the quarterfinals or better all 19 times she played the tournament- Jimmy Connors, who won five Opens on three different surfaces, was the most enduring figure of all the champions. My favorite Connors moment was his 1976 triumph at Forest Hills. The tournament had changed surfaces the year before from grass to clay, leaving Connors at a slight disadvantage in his final round meeting with Sweden's imperturbable Bjorn Borg. But the highly charged American overcame Borg in a pulsating four set championship match, prevailing 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 6-4 after saving four set points in the pivotal third set tie-break. Connors had not won a major since the 1974 U.S. Open.

He knew the press was going to ask him about that after his win over Borg, and Connors was ready to respond. "If the sun rose and set only on Wimbledon and the U.S. Open,” he said, "there would be a lot of guys without tans.”

Moving on to the 1980's, Ivan Lendl achieved a remarkable feat by reaching eight consecutive finals, winning the title three times in that span stretching from 1982-89. All through that period, I developed immense respect for the man. The crowds never embraced him and Lendl was not a showman. He was simply an earnest craftsman doing his job to the best of his ability. Compounding his problems was the fact that Lendl often played against Connors and John McEnroe, who frequently disparaged Ivan in the media. To me, Lendl was admirable, and he deserved much more recognition than he got from the Open audiences. And yet, he had the right set of priorities.

In some ways, Pete Sampras resembled Lendl. He did not play to the crowds; he played all out to win. He is tied with Connors for the most men's singles titles garnered with five, but the last one was the most consequential. Sampras had endured a 33 tournament losing streak and had not won a tournament since his record-breaking 13th major tournament triumph at Wimbledon two years earlier. And so his four set victory over Andre Agassi in the 2002 Open final was monumental for Sampras, who made that match the last of his career and left the game entirely on his own terms.

In all my years of watching Sampras, I had never seen him so relieved, proud, and overjoyed. I recall him leaving the trainer's room about an hour after the match, walking across the hall into the locker room shortly before conducting his press conference. Only one other reporter-- S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated- and me followed him into that locker room. It was largely empty as Sampras gazed around the room for a long moment, clearly filled with the deepest kind of emotional contentment. But, in retrospect, it was as if he somehow knew he would never be coming back there to perform again.

In any event, the Open has changed more than any other major over these 40 years. The first seven championships from 1968-74 were held on the grass at Forest Hills. From 1975-77, still at Forest Hills, the tournament shifted to clay. And since 1978, when the Open moved to Flushing Meadows, it has been a hard court showcase. Through it all, the U.S. Open has been compelling.

This time around, more history could be made. Roger Federer attempts to become the first man to win four U.S. Open singles titles in a row. The women's draw is wide open. But this much is certain: it is going to be a captivating fortnight for all of us.

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