Natasha’s Pit: At the US Open

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – When this grand dame of a city got serious about tennis, she dreamed up Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The world’s largest open air tennis venue seats 22,457 and while thousands of sets of spectators’ eyes are riveted on the canary yellow ball as it alternately flies, floats and flutters through the sky above the blue canvas of a court, sometimes the game within the game and the details behind the strokes are even more engrossing than the flight path of the ball.

The feeling that one has walking onto the court into the photographers’ pit at the US Open is distinctly grand.

I have shot the Australian Open in Melbourne and felt the exhilaration and excitement in making my US Open debut earlier this week.

I stopped at the entrance for a minute, to take in the four walled human tsunami closing in on a wide patch of blue court — the Deco Turf playground that tests the limits of the human spirit, and a place where history is served.

In the coming days, I will share my thoughts and images of the US Open here. Hope you enjoy them.

Natasha Peterson is a photographer, video director and writer. Her work earned a 2009 National Geographic Award. Born in India, she grew up in Australia and has covered several tournaments for Tennis Now. Please check out her blog at Corleve.com

Nadal Shows Only Love for Gonzo

It was the tennis equivalent of No Mas. A day and a half following the rain, Rafael Nadal finished off Fernando Gonzalez in the continuation of their men’s quarterfinal.

The charismatic 23 year-old from Mallorca took back his No.2 ranking, barely breaking a sweat in a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-0 win advancing to a second consecutive U.S. Open semifinal where he’ll meet a well rested Juan Martin Del Potro tomorrow for a place in the final versus either Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic.

A competitive quarter which had Nadal in front 7-6, 3-2 in a second set tiebreaker Thursday night suddenly became a tuneup for Nadal, who allowed his wild opponent to wilt under the pressure. In fact, Gonzalez didn’t get another point in the tiebreak dropping both points on his serve with dreadful forehands before Rafa closed the set out.

“When you come back in one situation like today, anything can happen, because it’s a little bit of a lottery depending on the first two points,” Nadal accurately assessed. “The important thing is to be ready to accept everything, and try to arrive there knowing what to do.”

Unfortunately, Gonzalez’ biggest weapon let him down to the tune of more than half his 59 unforced errors. It only got worse as he unraveled in the third set disappointing the Session 23 Ashe spectators who returned hoping for a much better conclusion. After a double fault handed Nadal a break in the opening game, the flustered 29 year-old slammed his racket in disgust.

“I can’t tell you, because I don’t have the answer,” a dejected Gonzalez said.

It wouldn’t get any better as he committed 20 miscues in a set that saw him get bageled with even an injury timeout to remove tape from his ankles unable to stop the bleeding. By comparison, the much more consistent Nadal made only 13 errors all match. The problem for Gonzalez was that he kept going for too much with the ball flying on him in different conditions. So, Rafa was content to keep rallies going allowing his struggling opponent to come undone in an ugly set that had fans feeling sorry for Gonzo.

The lowlights included a sloppy forehand half volley way wide for another break and fittingly ended with another forehand into the net as Nadal got off the court in just 33 minutes.

“Fernando had a few more mistakes than the last day,” Nadal said after pulling within a win of a possible date against Federer with plenty of work still to be done for both. “That helped me a little more.”

That such a promising match turned into a worst nightmare for the poor 11th seeded Chilean who will still move up in the rankings was too bad. He just couldn’t deal with the elements breaking down in front of his Dad who by the end looked down, feeling for what his son experienced.

For Nadal who admitted to CBS’ Mary Joe Fernandez that the extra rest was the best thing for his abdominal strain, it was a best case scenario.

“It was important to have one day off to recover a little better,” he pointed out. “Today, I feel well.”

“I’m OK,” Nadal added. “I have only a little bit of a problem in the abdominal. That’s it.”

Though he’s nursing the injury and faces a tough opponent who beat him last month in Montreal 7-6 (1), 6-1, the feisty Spaniard who’s trying to complete a career grand slam might even be fresh for the rematch on the big stage. However, it should be a much harder test than how today finished.

“He’s [Del Potro] good. I think he’s a complete player, and it’s always the same thing,” Nadal said. “Try to be ready to put one more ball (back) than the rest.”

At the very least, the Open will have a first time finalist in the battle between Spain’s best and Argentina’s which may as well be a Davis Cup match.

Expect a fun atmosphere along with an entertaining brand of tennis.

Nadal/Gonzalez Suspended Along with Fans

A really good men’s quarter between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Gonzalez was suspended due to incoming rain. The entertaining match to take on previous winner Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis had already been stopped twice and apparently, reports of more rain made it impossible to complete before disappointed Ashe spectators who patiently waited it out.

What they did at least get were two high quality sets in which neither player broke with Nadal leading 7-6 (4), 3-2 in a second set tiebreaker. Despite a visit from the trainer along with a three-minute injury timeout to treat his strained abdominal muscle, the gritty No.3 seeded Spaniard was in front thanks to fighting off two set points in the 12th game of the opening set- getting a little help from Gonzalez who had a soft 92 mph second serve but misfired a return forehand.

The set went to a tiebreak where Nadal proved to be more consistent playing superb defense while Gonzalez self-destructed contributing a few of his 18 unforced errors including a wild forehand to give the six-time grand slam winner the set.

That’s when an ailing Rafa was visited by the trainer before action continued. Neither player changed their strategy much in a gunslinger second set where Gonzalez continued to pound away against the counter punching Nadal whose defense made it increasingly tough for the 11th seeded Chilean to find any momentum.

The first rain delay came at two all lasting exactly an hour. When they returned, it looked like they might get the rest of the set in which included three huge saves by Gonzalez to get out of trouble in the 10th game. He fought off three set points delivering with a pair of service winners and a monstrous forehand into an open court. Two more big forehands down the line allowed him to hold for five all.

Each then held to force another breaker. Unlike the first one which Gonzalez fell behind in 1-4, he and Nadal exchanged mini-breaks thanks to great defense forcing errors to make it 2-3. But with Gonzalez ready to serve, a few drops came making wild conditions which already included swirling winds impossible to continue.

The players first sat in their chairs hopeful it would pass but eventually went back to the locker room thanks to another rain delay.

As the clock struck midnight, returning fans clapped expecting the players to return to a dried court ready to do battle. Unfortunately, veteran chair umpire Pascal Maria delivered the bad news to some jeers and “Ohhhh’s and Awwww’s.”

Who could blame them? If only the USTA had enough common sense to plan ahead. Would it have really hurt to move the two doubles matches to Louis Armstrong?

What they could’ve done was keep the mixed doubles championship on Ashe while asking the Williams sisters to play on Armstrong due to the weather forecast. While that might not have been too popular a decision, at least it would’ve made sense with the popular Serena and Venus Williams playing a women’s doubles semifinal they prevailed in the old stadium so the men could at least get the final quarterfinal in.

Now, the winner will have to play consecutive days and potentially three which could really be a disadvantage the rest of the weekend. Had they been more prepared, it also wouldn’t have been such an inconvenience for fans who paid hard earned money to see a high quality match.

What happens now? They’re screwed because as Maria sadly announced, Session 22 was considered complete. On the official U.S. Open site, the following message reads:

We are currently planning to play the Friday day session # 23 as scheduled. Due to weather, we recommend you continue to check USOpen.org for weather and scheduling updates.

The big question is what does this do to the two women’s semis scheduled for later today with Caroline Wozniacki taking on Yanina Wickmayer while Serena battles Kim Clijsters. Originally, the first match between the ninth seeded Wozniacki and unseeded Wickmayer is supposed to go off at 12:30 today with the battle of champions to follow.

Why not move the ladies back allowing Gonzalez and Nadal to complete their match on Ashe? It all depends on the weather which while not expected to be as bad, could be sketchy with possible rain.

Complicating matters is that the men’s doubles final between fourth seeded Lukas Dlouhy/Leander Paes and third seeds Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles was supposed to be played on Ashe at approximately 3:30 PM.

If you go by the emergency schedule, they list Nadal-Gonzalez not before 2 PM with a possible relocation to Armstrong. Apparently, that option is also available for Wozniacki-Wickmayer and the doubles championship.

It wouldn’t be fair to move the ladies to Armstrong as each has earned their place on center stage at Ashe. Something they’d never consider for Williams-Clijsters.

Shouldn’t the guys get theirs in as early as possible due to having to go on Super Saturday against a more rested Del Potro? One would think so. But that’s the dilemma facing the USTA due to CBS. With three networks covering the final grand slam, this shouldn’t be such an issue. But thanks to CBS who has exclusive rights the rest of the event including the women’s semis and men’s doubles final slotted between 12:30-6 PM, it’s a dicey situation for viewers.

Unless you have high speed internet access, you’re likely to get the shaft in terms of missing either the Nadal-Gonzalez conclusion or Wozniacki-Wickmayer which definitely isn’t fair.

Oh. CBS will do the best job possible moving between venues to update. But it kinda sucks if you’re a hardcore tennis fan.

These two weeks have been kind to New York with last night the first rain interrupted session. You almost never can make it through one slam without at least one of these situations arising.

We just wish the USTA had done a better job planning with the biggest weekend ahead.

Match Notes:

Gonzalez drops first set in tiebreak to Nadal 7-6 (4).

-Gonzalez hit big striking more than double winners (16-7) while also serving 5 aces to keep serve during tight set.

-But Nadal saved 2 set points with one huge Gonzalez forehand return netted on a 92 MPH 2nd serve.

-In tiebreak, Rafa took a 4-1 lead thanks to more consistency. Gonzalez miscues including a wild forehand handed him the set. Nadal made just four errors while Fernando committed 18.

-At end of set, trainer visited Nadal treating his injured abdominal muscle.

2nd Set

-Nadal and Gonzalez on serve 2 all when rain suspends play for first time all tournament.

-1 hour rain delay

-No breaks of serve

-10th game gusts fly up blowing things around and Gonzo stops to watch trying to stay in set. Nadal then plays amazing D getting to possible winners drawing an errant overhead for 0-30. Double hands Nadal 2 set points. 2 service winners save them.

-3rd set point on long backhand in memorable 10th game. On set point after great Gonzo save, tennis ball blows onto court for let. Weird. On let, Gonzo shows heart with forehand winner into open court saving another pumping self up. Gonzalez then wins challenge for forehand winner on line. Another cross court forehand gives him big hold.

-Nadal holds at love for 6-5 putting pressure on Fernando, who holds easily for another breaker.

-Rafa plays great defense forcing long forehand to earn mini-break for 2-1.

-Gonzo comes back drawing Nadal backhand miss to earn mini back for 2-2.

-At 3-2 Nadal, rain drops suspend play again and players go to locker room after waiting to see if it would stop.

-Over an hour delay again as they ready court with tiebreak on serve with Gonzalez to serve 2-3.

-With reports of more rain as the court was dry and ready to go with fans who stayed excited, play is officially suspended ending Session No.22 to the dismay of those who stuck around, throwing a wrinkle into Friday’s Session 23 that includes both women’s semis and the men’s doubles final.