Neil Schlecht, one of USOpen.org’s longtime writers, experiences the Nadal-Thiem quarterfinal classic not as a reporter, but purely as a fan.
noun: a vacation or form of recreation that involves doing the same thing that one does at work.
It was well past midnight, and I was still stuck at the office – which for two weeks every year for me is the media section at Arthur Ashe Stadium and other courts on the expansive grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
I wasn’t working, though. I was still at Ashe by choice, watching Rafael Nadal take on Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals.
After another long and punishingly hot and humid day of writing about tennis – it was Day 9, and I’d already spent more than 90 hours on the grounds since the start of the tournament – I could have been home, chilling on the sofa with my wife and dog and the match on a big-screen TV.
Approaching 2 a.m., I was still courtside, glued to the action. I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.
For me, staying late on Tuesday night was a chance to be, purely, a tennis fan. No need to take notes. No need to analyze backhands or keep track of break points or winners or crucial momentum swings. It was an opportunity just to take it all in: the atmosphere but, most of all, the most thrilling display of athleticism, artistry and competition I have ever laid eyes on in a live setting.
It was a "busman’s holiday" – a term coined to describe bus drivers who, on their day off with nothing else to do and needing the comfort of familiar surroundings, would ride the buses. But maybe they weren’t so crazy: perhaps it was a chance to see the city without worrying about traffic or stoplights, a possibility to observe their passengers as people and not just as fares.
I have seen a lot of tennis. I have been covering the US Open for USOpen.org since 2003, and before that even I was an inveterate tennis fan. My days in Flushing Meadows go back to 1990, when I saw a 19-year-old Pete Sampras defeat John McEnroe in the semis.
But this encounter – Nadal vs. Thiem – was something special. Over the course of four hours and 49 minutes, it was a jaw-dropping spectacle of sustained brilliance from both players.
I took my seat for the Serena Williams opener, as customary, in the media section, along with two journalist friends who’d also worked the day session. After Serena rolled, they weren’t sure how long they’d stay, but they wanted to see some of Nadal-Thiem.
The three of us had media credentials around our necks, but we were there as fans. We were even featured on the JumboTron on a changeover – unheard of for media folk. I’m sure we just looked stunned. It was only after the fact that I thought, “Jeez, I should have showed off my Floss Dance.” I was clearly ill-prepared for my 15 seconds of fame.
A redlining Thiem trounced Nadal in the first set, a shocking 6-0 bagel. Nadal dug in, as we knew he would. Those two numbskulls I’d come with left after the third set, with Nadal up two sets to one.
I stayed. No way I was missing the next chapters of this thriller.
I struck up a conversation with a guy in the next row. Turns out he was a New York Times reporter, doing the same thing I was: basking in this as a fan. Past midnight, when people from the upper decks started moving down courtside, he suggested we do the same.
Media seats in the lower section on Ashe are nothing to sneeze at. But we moved down to the fourth row, right on the baseline. Close enough to hear the squeak of Nadal’s shoes above the din of the night crowd, and within earshot of Thiem’s grunt as he wailed on yet another baroque topspin backhand. Close enough to see the sweat drip from these warriors’ wrists in the oppressive conditions.
The tennis was even hotter than the temperature. My new tennis buddy and I spent the last two sets looking bug-eyed at each other after virtually every point. We searched our vocabularies and facial expressions for new ways to convey: “Holy ****!!”
The tennis was that incredible.
We watched Nadal scramble side to side, desperately tossing up lobs from 15 feet behind the baseline and then ripping a two-handed backhand off an overhead from around his ears – which Thiem promptly stabbed for a volley winner. We gasped as the Austrian belted seven, eight, nine mighty topspin forehands in a row, each one a blast more sonic than the last, each one impossibly returned by Nadal.
My New York Times companion asked me: “The two guys who left, you think they’re happy to be home in bed?”
“I imagine they’re sick to their stomachs,” I said.
Deep in the fifth set, Nadal squandered a 0-40 advantage on Thiem’s serve. Three chances to break, three opportunities miraculously saved by the valiant Austrian.
Nearly five hours in, the match went to a decisive fifth-set tiebreak. Neither player seemed to have a discernible advantage.
The atmosphere was tense, electric. Just across court, in the corner, we could see Nadal’s player’s box filled with family, friends and coaches. They were on pins and needles. How many times had they been through this kind of drama?
At 5-6 in the tiebreak – match point – Thiem kicked a hard serve wide that pulled Nadal off the court. The Mallorcan got his racquet on it, producing a forehand that landed short in the court. Thiem smacked a wicked topspin forehand deep into the opposite corner. Nadal raced to his right and lunged, sliding on the hard court. His racquet just inches from the ground, Nadal lofted a one-handed backhand skyward.
Photos: Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem
Thiem backpedaled, looking up into the lights. He took the overhead in the air, swinging powerfully.
When Thiem’s final overhead soared beyond the baseline, Nadal didn’t celebrate. He methodically removed his dripping headband, strode calmly to the net and stepped over it to embrace Thiem, his combatant and friend.
The players wrapped their arms around each other’s sweat-drenched bodies in an intimate appreciation of the epic slugfest they’d just produced – what they’d given of themselves, really – on that court.
The crowd, still some 8,000 strong, roared its approval. In the player’s box, Nadal’s parents hugged. His coaches jumped up and down. Rafa’s sister María Isabel wept.
I made it home after 3 a.m., still processing what I’d just experienced. I woke to texts and messages on Instagram from friends and strangers. “OMG! Were you there? Was that the best you’ve ever seen?”
I. Was. There. And it was.
I told a novelist friend (also a huge tennis fan) that the match had felt like being immersed in a great book you just couldn’t put down, a story you hoped would never end. With two real-life superheroes as protagonists.
Like a plot-twisting thriller, the outcome wasn’t determined until the last line on the final page.
On this night – and, by that, I mean wee hours of the early morning – the last line belonged to Rafael Nadal.
But it also belonged to us. The many, the fortunate. The fans.