NEW YORK -- The endless summer, tennis in the heat of the day and night, matches with athletes looking for shelter and service breaks, a U.S. Open that on the second day seemed destined never to close.
"Somebody in the stands over there kept saying, 'Hang on, hang in there,'" remembered Novak Djokovic. "So that's exactly what I did."
|Stars like Novak Djokovic battle the elements as well as their opponents. (Getty Images)|
Court temperatures Tuesday were as high as 109 degrees before the sun went down. "It was very hot," said Djokovic. "It was difficult for all those people even to sit in that heat."
It was no less difficult to play. The third-seeded Djokovic needed 3 hours, 20 minutes to come back after being down two sets to one and defeat Viktor Troicki, his fellow Serb.
They played in the big house, on Arthur Ashe Court, and they didn't finish until 5:40 p.m. Then on came Sharapova and Jarmila Groth, and Maria, the 2006 women's champion, needed 1 hour, 57 minutes to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.
Then the stands were cleared for the night session, which, with No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal meeting Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili, didn't even start until almost 9 p.m. and that match didn't conclude until 11:33. Nadal struggled to a 7-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory in 2 hours, 57 minutes.
"It was a very tough match," said Nadal, dressed all in black. Then, acknowledging the sellout crowd, he added, "It makes me feel unbelievable every time I come here."
What the top-seeded woman, last year's runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, might have felt was that fate was conspiring against her. She didn't get on court even to warm up for her match against Chelsey Gullickson until just before midnight.
As if the spectators cared. Indeed, this is the city that never sleeps. And where, in America's national championship, the last of the year's Grand Slams, seemingly no one ever plays short matches.
David Nalbandian defeated Rik De Voest in 3 hours, 59 minutes, and No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco held off Fabio Fognini in 3:20. Fish, by comparison, was speedy, needing only 2:36 to outlast Jan Hajek in five sets.
There was something in the water, and gallons were consumed. Or in the Gatorade.
"The weather is the weather," said Djokovic. And the Open is the Open, tennis until the wee small hours, tennis as alive and boisterous and edgy as New York itself. Big Apple. Big-time sports.
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"Days like this," said Sharapova, calling upon both skill and memories, "where your opponent is playing really well, you really have to find ways to hang in there. You just hope you give yourself another opportunity."
During the first changeover, Sharapova sat in her sideline chair and took deep breaths. Then she took control. "It's still Sharapova," reminded Groth, an Australian who is No. 60 in the rankings, "so it's not like she's going to go, 'There you go.'"
There she went, into the second round. And officials and the television people couldn't have been more satisfied. Serena Williams isn't around because of that cut foot. So it's Sharapova, Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters, all three former winners -- Clijsters a year ago -- who are the big attention getters.
"It's always good to come to a place where you lifted the trophy," said Sharapova. "Even though the past couple of years I haven't had the best results, all that is past."
Nadal has won the other three Slams, the Australian, the French -- he owns the French -- and Wimbledon. It's here at the Billie Jean King complex in Queens, literally across the tracks from the Mets' Citi Field, where Rafael hasn't triumphed.
He comes in weary or wobbly, feeling the effects of his slashing, physical play. But the tendinitis in his knees, which caused him to miss Wimbledon in 2009, preventing him from defending his crown, has eased.
The victory over the stubborn Gabashvili was Nadal's 27th in 30 matches. A win here and he would be the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to take the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in succession.
A win here and he also would become the seventh to attain the career Grand Slam, a year behind Roger Federer, who in 2009 finally broke through in the French.
But there's a long way to go. There will be a week of scorching afternoons and very warm nights and maybe matches as extended as those involving Djokovic, who is on the other side of the draw.
"I've been in those situations before," Djokovic said of the conditions and the competition, "feeling very exhausted. You kind of start panicking a little when you don't feel great physically. Those moments are very challenging for an athlete. But I overcame it once again, and this is what matters most to me."