Court-speed conspiracy theory

Updated: September 3, 2009

NEW YORK -- There is a conspiracy theory floating around here on the grounds of the National Tennis Center:

The USTA, trying to improve the chances of its hard-hitting Americans, has speeded up the blue DecoTurf II hard courts.

A number of players and analysts queried on the subject report that the courts are fast, really fast. When he was coaching Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, Brad Gilbert spent a lot of time on these courts. Hitting the other day, he said, they seemed faster than they used to be.

"It seemed like they were less gritty," said Gilbert, who works for ESPN. "It felt like there was less sand mixed into the paint.

"On the faster surface, it's a fact. The big hitters, the ball goes through the court more quickly."

Beyond the anecdotal evidence, there are these bottom-line results: The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are through to today's third round and a near handful of American hammers was still in the mix as of Thursday afternoon -- Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey, James Blake and John Isner.

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

Considering his massive game, Andy Roddick would certainly benefit from faster courts.

"The USTA will never, ever admit it," Gilbert said. "It's like the NFL injury report."

Well, USTA, what about it? Is there some gamesmanship going on? Is the flagship of American tennis trying to create an unlevel field of play?

The answer, according to Chris Widmaier, managing director of communications for the USTA, is no.

"When Jim Curley became the tournament director in 2001, we tweaked the speed, making them slightly slower. After 2002, we did it again.

"Since 2003, we've been using the exact same formula. They have been designed to be played at the same speed for the last six years."

John Graham, managing director of DecoTurf in Andover, Mass., confirmed this position on Thursday. While his contract -- recently extended six more years by the USTA -- forbids him from discussing specifics, Graham was happy to provide a fascinating court-speed tutorial.

Pay attention; there will be a quiz later.

For starters, understand that this is an incredibly sophisticated operation. The plant outside Boston can mix batches of acrylic paint and silica -- we call it sand -- with surprising accuracy to produce the desired speed of play.

The International Tennis Federation has five official categories: slow, medium-slow, medium, medium-fast and fast. The amount of silica mixed with the paint determines the coefficient of friction, or the resistance the ball encounters when it meets the surface. DecoTurf uses 60-mesh silica mined from a quarry and sometimes, even 80-mesh, which is finer.

The U.S. Open courts are classified as "medium-fast" and consist of 10 different layers. The courts are resurfaced beginning in May and the process is completed a few weeks before the tournament begins.

Since the center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium handles five matches a day -- and the courts are washed when action ends -- the sand tends to wear down as the two weeks progress.

"At the business end of the tournament," Gilbert said, "when they've been played on for so many matches, they quicken up even more."

These subtleties would be lost on club players, but elite players are extremely sensitive to small variations in pace. Changes in temperature, humidity and wind can dramatically affect how the ball moves through the court. Tennis courts are like snowflakes; no two are alike.

But, conspiracy theorists, apparently these U.S. Open courts have been the same speed for seven years.

Five things we learned on Day 4

1. Well, there's always fashion to fall back on for James Blake: After he saved three set points in a third-set tiebreaker against Olivier Rochus and won the thing with a forehand winner -- on the line -- Blake leaped for joy. Then he leaped again, executed a scissors kick, pumped his fist and did a 360.

Blake is into the third round here, but he's struggled this summer and Sam Querrey has crept past him as the second-ranked American behind Andy Roddick. It's a good thing he's got a second job.

He and Fila have unveiled a line of clothing and accessories, Thomas Reynolds, the first and last names of his late father. At Kid's Day, comedian Will Ferrell donned an outfit identical to Blake's -- right down to the shiny dome and white headband.

2. The top 10 men's seeds have yet to drop a set: It used to be that women's tennis, particularly in the early rounds of the Grand Slam events, was too predictable.

Hard to believe, but going into Andy Roddick's night match, there hadn't been a single misstep by the titans of tennis.

3. Robin Soderling must be playing baseball: The French Open finalist won by the exceedingly rare score of … 2-0.

That's right, Marc Granollers retired with a injury and, with just 16 minutes of work, Soderling booked his spot in the third round against Sudden Sam Querrey. The way those guys hit the ball, that match could be over even sooner.

4. John Isner is at it again: He won his first two matches here in 2007 and then lost six straight Grand Slam matches. On Thursday, he returned to the third round with a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (1) win.

Unfortunately, his opponent would logically be Andy Roddick.

5. Sabine Lisicki finishes with style: More than two hours into her second-round match with qualifier Anastasia Rodionova, on the very last point, the No. 23-seeded German rolled her left ankle. She lost 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 and after more than 10 minutes on the ground, left the court in a wheelchair.

Lisicki was treated at a local hospital and diagnosed with a sprained ankle. While she was being attended to five feet behind the baseline, Soderling and Granollers sat in the changeover chairs, impatient to start the next match.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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Sad Day

Jankovic

When No. 4 Elena Dementieva got bounced from the tournament on Thursday, she had a good excuse -- 17-year-old Melanie Oudin.

Awhile later the No. 5 seed, Jelena Jankovic, followed, losing to Yaroslava Shvedova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6). She, too, had a valid reason for losing.

Her grandmother, with whom she had a very close relationship, died Wednesday night.

"I was very sad and emotionally I was really not on court," Jankovic. "I was really tired and tight. I moved really badly today. I guess when you are mentally affected by this kind of thing, I guess that all goes together.

"When you are sad, when you are down, you're not the same person. My head wasn't really there. I just was so -- it was like a shadow of myself."

That's how it's looked for much of the time since Jankovic became the No. 1-ranked player in the world a year ago. She put on too much muscle in the offseason and has looked sluggish in trying to regain her form. When she won the event in Cincinnati several weeks ago -- beating Dementieva and No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina -- it looked as though she might be on her way.

Shvedova, for her part, played well in the match that went 2 hours, 40 minutes. The 21-year-old Russian scored her biggest win of the year and matched her best effort in a major by reaching the third round. She said she was inspired by Oudin's victory, which she watched while she was waiting to go on.

"I said, 'Thanks, you inspire me,'" Shvedova said. "We are good girls today."

Jankovic did not address the media in a formal news conference. Quotes were distributed by the USTA communications staff. She will fly home to Serbia on Friday.

"What can you do?" she said. "Life goes on. I have to try to stay, hopefully, positive as much as I can and get through this."

Jesse (YouTube) Witten

Witten

The YouTube video is riveting:

Facing match point in a January 2008 Challenger in Dallas against Jesse Witten, Bruno Echagaray is serving. After he misses the first, the linesman -- incredibly -- calls a foot fault on the second.

Echagaray stands on the baseline, incredulous. And then he starts whacking his racket on the court. When it is completely shattered, he hurls it across the net. And then he starts attacking the changeover chairs.

On Thursday, Witten, the 26-year-old from Naples, Fla., found himself descending into a similarly bad mood. He was in a battle with Maximo Gonzalez and the cumulative effect of winning three qualifying matches and upsetting No. 29 seed Igor Andreev in the first round was starting to bring him down.

"I was just getting grumpy," Witten said. "I was hot, it was long and I was getting tired. I was playing a guy that wasn't a seed. It's a guy you think maybe you have a chance against."

Witten, inexplicably, advanced to the second round with a grinding 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory over the Argentine and, we are happy to report, no rackets or chairs were injured in the making of this match.

Ranked No. 276, Witten is the first player ranked outside the top 250 to reach the third round since Marco Chiudinelli (No. 306) in 2006 and, prior to that, Sargis Sargsian (No. 392) in 1995.

Tweets of the day

Spadea

Vince Spadea: Too many people in New York City. They should hit the capacity button like the nightclubs and only allow more when one leaves.

Jim Courier: Hey bandwagon jumpers … the "Melanie Oudin express" has a few seats left but you better hurry … I just secured mine. Love her feistiness.

Amer Delic: Wow -- Forbes woman on "Today" show just tried to list Chicago as the most stressful city in U.S. (Has she ever been to NYC?)

Critic's choice

Del Potro

Juan Martin del Potro versus Jurgen Melzer: The long, tall Argentine has crafted a nice little summer for himself, winning nine of 10 matches on the hard courts of North America. The Austrian, though, is usually a tough out.

ESPN.com prediction: Del Potro in four.