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Loving U.S. Open and New York City ... there's nothing like it

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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NEW YORK -- The hottest show in town? It isn't "A Little Night Music," as popular as that Sondheim hit may be. It's a little day and night tennis at the U.S. Open, off Broadway and off the charts.

This place, the Billie Jean King Center, is a swirl of forehands and backslapping, oversized tennis balls to get autographed and oversized Carnegie Deli sandwiches to get munched.

There's the Wonderful Woz, Caroline Wozniacki, and the Fabulous Fed, Roger Federer. There's practically everything. Except tickets.

The idea that everyone flees New York over Labor Day weekend? As they would tell you here, "Fuggedaboutit." Just as you can forget trying to find an available ticket for Sunday. Even those that just permit you onto the grounds, never mind into Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"Sold out," said the lady at TicketMaster. That's the magic phrase for any New York production, and the Open, where there have been fights in the stands -- the three combatants from a Thursday night mini-brawl have been banned from the grounds for two years -- and figurative battles on the courts is a production of great consequence. And real joy.

The best place in the Big Apple throughout the two weeks of the Open might be below the big TV screen on the south end of Ashe, where Saturday fans packed around the fountains watched Federer and Maria Sharapova win. And No. 4 seed Jelena Jankovic lose.

The wind blew, gusts higher than 30 miles per hour, a leftover from Hurricane Earl. The shots flew. Expectations were met. Hopes were dashed, particularly in the case of 18-year-old amateur Beatrice Capra.

Friday, the South Plaza crowd winced and groaned as 18-year-old Ryan Harrison of Shreveport, La., let three match points slip away and lost. Saturday, another South Plaza crowd was less antic and vocal as Capra in her third-rounder was crushed by Sharapova, 6-0, 6-0.

Form may not always follow function, but in the case of a teenager who was given a wild-card entry into the tournament facing a three-time Grand Slam champion, it certainly followed logic.

"Before the match," Capra said of Sharapova, "she would just walk past me and kind of like give me a glare, which was intimidating. After the match, when we shook hands, she was really nice. She said, 'Great tournament. Keep up the good work.' She's really a nice person."

The fans certainly enjoyed Mardy Fish's victory over Arnaud Clement on Saturday, played at the Louis Armstrong Court. Another win by another American in what in effect is the championship of America.

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While tennis is an international game and the popularity of the great players goes beyond borders, as in any sport fans cheer for the home team, whether it's the Yankees or, in this case, the Yanks.

Not that they root against Federer of Switzerland, the frequent champion, or Wozniacki of Denmark, neither of whom has lost a set in three matches.

Woz, in fact, barely has lost a game. She defeated Yung-Jan Chan, 6-1, 6-0, Saturday and has dropped only three games in those three matches. "It says something about the level I've been playing on," said Wozniacki, the No. 1 women's seed.

Federer swept through Paul-Henri Mathieu, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in 1 hour, 39 minutes. The wind that baffled so many others, especially Jankovic in her loss, was used to advantage by Federer. "I felt comfortable out there," he said.

The question about Federer is whether -- after being eliminated in the last two majors, the French and Wimbledon, and having turned 29 last month -- he still has the quickness needed for victory. The question soon will be answered.

There's no question the U.S. Open, with its noise and excitement, with its sideshow attractions such as Ralph Lauren, Nike and Lacoste shops and its matches often past midnight, is one of a kind. It's all the energy and vivacity of the country wedged into a complex that is enormous but still too small for the demand.

"I love the atmosphere," said France's Gael Monfils of the Open. "I love the city also." On Saturday, Monfils ousted Janko Tipsarevic, who in the second round defeated Andy Roddick.

"I love the surface here," Monfils said of the hard courts. "I love the crowd. I love the Ashe Stadium."

He and thousands of others, both players and fans.

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