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Monday, August 28, 2006
Updated: August 29, 12:24 PM ET
The U.S. Open is the place to be

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

So you don't hate tennis. You've heard of Roger Federer. You're perfectly fine with seeing the same Maria Sharapova ad six times in an hour, twice in the same commercial break. You're busy with fantasy football, sure, but you've thought about watching the U.S. Open. Problem is, the whole thing seems so intimidating -- a two-week alphabet soup of Ljubicics and Vaidisovas, unapproachable as the chain-smoking lingerie model at the end of the bar, a tournament best left to tennis nuts and Bud Collins.

U.S. Open Coverage
Jackson: Roddick must step up
DeSimone: One final bow for Agassi
Scores and coverage

Not to worry. We're here to help.

Truth be told, the Open is, well, open, one of the most accessible big events in sports. It moves faster than the Ryder Cup. Hits harder than the World Series of Poker. Offers more drama than this season's AL East race. From prime-time night matches to the abundance of beer at the National Tennis Center, the Open is a people's tournament, catering to casual sports fans. And also anyone who appreciates blonde, leggy Russians in short skirts.

Can't distinguish topspin from slice, Rafael Nadal from a "Young Guns"-era Lou Diamond Phillips? You can still enjoy the show. Need something to spice up a desultory late-summer entertainment melange of preseason football, the WNBA playoffs and "Snakes on a Plane"? You've come to the right place.

Herein, eight reasons non-tennis junkies should tune in to the Open:

Roger Federer
Federer carries the white dinner jacket well.
The Tiger of Tennis
We've said it before and we'll say it again: You don't need an oversize racket in your closet to appreciate Roger Federer, any more than you need an art history degree to appreciate the Sistine Chapel. Like Tiger Woods -- the athlete he's most often compared to -- the Swiss star plays an aesthetically pleasing game that can be enjoyed by anyone with a passing interest in athletics; if Federer were a Radiohead album, he'd be "The Bends," not "Kid A."

Indeed, the game's top talent offers something for everyone: deft movement, powerful ground strokes, pinpoint serves, tactical brilliance, soft volleys and the sort of no way! shot-making that comes along once a generation. He can play from the baseline and at the net and can make your jaw drop on any given point. A few years ago, tennis cognoscenti fretted that modern, high-tech rackets had turned the sport into a tedious procession of bang-bang points; Federer has since shown that power and panache can happily coexist.

To put things another way: Before last year's Open, we joked that Federer should play points clad in a smoking jacket and holding a snifter of brandy. So what did he wear prior to his matches at Wimbledon? A monogrammed blazer. As is the case with great athletes in every sport, Federer makes the supremely difficult look easy.

Speaking of greatness, it's not every day that you get to watch an athlete chase Best Ever status. Woods offers that thrill. So does Federer. Consider their respective major tournament finishes over the last three years:

TIGER WOODS
YEAR Masters U.S. Open British Open PGA Champ.
2004 22nd 17th 9th 24th
2005 Won 2nd Won 4th
2006 3rd 82nd Won Won

ROGER FEDERER
YEAR Australian Open French Open Wimbledon U.S. Open
2004 Won Round of 32 Won Won
2005 Semifinal Semifinal Won Won
2006 Won Runner-up Won ?

Federer: the Woods of tennis? Maybe Woods is the Federer of golf.

Steroid Scandals are Few and Far Between
Unlike some other hit-a-rapidly-moving-ball-with-a-stick sports we could mention. And don't get us started on Floyd Landis. What now? Did he share a vengeful masseuse with Justin Gatlin?

Superwoman Returns
Federer-esque greatness inspires. But sorta-greatness can be more intriguing. In 2002 and 2003, Serena Williams appeared all but invincible, winning five of seven majors while opening a chasm between herself and the rest of the women's tour. Her inimitable skintight black catsuit just fit, in more ways than one.

That was then.

Today, the former world No. 1 enters the Open as an unseeded wild card, less a tennis superhero than Clark Kent pre-Fortress of Solitude in "Superman II." What happened? Try injury, heartache and a dollop of seeming disinterest.

Three years ago, Williams' half sister Yetunde Price was murdered, the unintended victim of a gang shooting. The loss affected Williams deeply; already hampered by a chronically injured left knee, she managed little more than a 2005 Australian Open title during two years of mostly uninspired play.

After showing up to this year's Aussie Open a tubby mockery of her former self -- and promptly plodding to a third-round loss -- Williams took six months off, tending to her wounded knee and psyche. As her ranking promptly dropped to No. 140, Chris Evert publicly lambasted her commitment to the game. Martina Navratilova ominously wondered if Williams would end up "a supernova," a player who "burst into the sport and then was gone."

Though Williams recently returned to WTA Tour play, reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati and Los Angeles, Navratilova's questions remain unanswered. Can the sport's biggest star find her old form? More importantly, will she ever fit into a catsuit again?

Bethanie Mattek
Mattek's Wimbledon outfit was ... interesting.
Sartorial Slipups
Speaking of catsuits, the Open is where tennis fashions come to die. In a good way. Leave the measuring of shorts length and policing of sock colors to the NBA and NFL; year in and year out, Flushing Meadows hosts some of the silliest styles this side of David Arquette's closet.

Some classics include: Andre Agassi's neon-green rock 'n' roll tennis duds from the early 1990s; Jennifer Capriati's sausage-casing Stars 'n' Stripes dress from 2003; Dominik Hrbaty's two-tone, shoulder-blade-baring shirt, seemingly inspired by Charlie Brown's Halloween sheet (last year's runaway winner in the fashion faux-pas department).

This year's odds-on favorite? Bethanie Mattek, who wore an argyle cowboy hat during last year's tournament and a roller derby-ish ensemble (knee-high socks, wide bandanna, hot pants, tube top) at Wimbledon. Tres chic!

It's the Next Best Thing to Preseason Football
Admit it: Exhibition football is lame. Scrub players, vanilla playbooks, the nagging fear that your fantasy stud is going to blow out a knee. So why do we watch? 'Cause we're starved for televised football, that indisputably entertaining spectacle of violence, technology and sex.

Know what? The Open offers all the above.

Violence: From the God's-eye view of a broadcast, tennis is a stately, geometric game; from courtside, it's a snarling, physical test, quicker and more brutal than it seems. Watch the fans in the pricey seats -- they track the ball with their eyes, not their heads, because it moves just that fast. Or watch a player like Nadal, who doesn't so much strike the ball as batter it into submission.

Technology: Cribbing from football, the Open is debuting instant replay challenges for line calls. Players get two challenges per set, and one more in a tiebreaker. Like the NFL's system, the challenges provide a hedge against human umpiring error; unlike the NFL system, the replays take about 10 seconds and are shown on the stadium Jumbotron. No deliberations. No referee hiding under a hooded screen. In or out. That's all there is to it.

Sex: The only other place you'll find this many fit, good-looking, skin-baring men and women grunting and sweating is in the back room of the video store. If you know what we mean.

Maria Sharapova
Most tennis fans are hoping Sharapova sticks around until the end of the tournament.
Maria Sharapova
Now that was an easy segue.

It's the Next Best Thing to Regular Season Football
Take away Federer, and tennis has more parity than the NFL, and maybe as much as the NCAA Tournament. Anyone can beat anyone, and players can get hot (or cold) in a hurry.

Eight different women have won the last 10 Slams. James Blake, the highest-seeded American man in this year's Open field, lost to someone named Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in last week's Pilot Pen warm-up tournament. A month ago, struggling former champ Andy Roddick looked less like the heir to Agassi and Pete Sampras than the next Jim Courier; after bringing on Jimmy Connors as a coach and rolling to an unexpected title in Cincinnati, he's brimming with confidence.

Oh, and as for the unbeatable Federer? He lost to up-and-comer Andy Murray at the same tournament. So anything's possible.

Andre Bids Us Adieu
He went from mullet to chrome dome, brash young punk to the Julio Franco of the ATP Tour. He once treated tennis like a punch line; entering his final tournament, he treats the sport like something sacred. Of everything written and said about Andre Agassi's transformational journey through the sport and life, all you really need to know is this: If he can change, then maybe we all can change.

(Cue "Rocky IV" music).

Forget the ad slogans. Therein lies the real key to Agassi's lasting appeal. For all his otherworldly talent -- give Agassi a baseball bat, and he'd be Ted Williams -- he's always been the sort of athlete the rest of us can relate to, a guy who makes mistakes but keeps moving forward. Which makes him well worth watching, one last time.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.