U.S. Open Characters

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U.S. Open Characters

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

I can't think of a sport that embraces a wider variety of cultures, showcased in a more colorful dimension, than tennis.

This past Sunday, at the end of the first week of the U.S. Open, an Italian named Davide Sanguinetti faced a Thai named Paradorn Srichaphan. It was a classic. Not only did it last nearly 4 1/2 hours, with each man giving more than he had. Sanguinetti didn't even sit in his chair over the last 45 minutes during the change-overs because his legs knew very well that if he sat down, he would not be able to get up. Late in the fifth set, after a rally of 30 incredibly precise shots, paired with 30 taxing retrievals, Srichaphan collapsed. Face down on the hard court, his body heaved with sobs, overwhelmed by an equally measured combination of desire and exhaustion. Desire won him over and he was on his feet, legs trembling, in time for the next return of serve. It was wonderfully inspiring, passionate drama. And the story line played out between them was further elevated by their cultural differences. Sanguinetti a handsome, silver-haired elder statesman, at age 35 so very Italian as he smiled throughout the match when long points would drive them both off the court to retrieve masterful angles, when they would screech up to the net to scoop a finessed touch drop shot, or scramble back to the base line to desperately chase a perfectly arced lob. Sanguinetti would smile a broad, thankful smile of recognition that he was experiencing a rare moment in sport, regardless of the point's outcome. You will rarely see an American player smile in the midst of a meaningful Grand Slam match. You could palpably feel Sanguinetti savoring the moment, as if he were tasting a fine wine and a delicious pesto sauce. He would kiss his racquet as if it were the love of his life. And Srichapan, the Thai, displayed those rituals of respect for the game, his opponent, and the officials that we often connect with an Asian sensibility. Unlike a Westerner who often questions a line call with impish outrage and even verbal abuse, Srichapan would look meekly at the chair umpire, nod his head and almost make a slight bow to signal that he was graced by a state of acceptance of things larger than himself. Sanguinetti did win in the end but the crowd didn't care which way it went. When the players embraced at the net, they hung onto each other as do boxers in desperate, limp fatigue. Their mutual effort, and mutual respect, were an unspoken moment of corners of the globe reaching out to each other. Just what we could use at this time in our history.

Many stylish Spaniards play at the top of the current game, led by a teenager named Rafael Nadal who takes to the court looking the part of dashing matador. A brash Australian, Lleyton Hewitt, could win the whole thing, his posse of Aussies in green and yellow sawed-off t-shirts chanting his name in collective chorus. A charismatic Belgian woman named Kim Clijsters, who climbs into the referees' chair to be funny and is the prankster of the locker room, could well win the women's title.

If you walk the grounds at Flushing Meadows, especially the first week of the two week Open, you can take in entertaining matches between players from virtually spot on the world map--Slovakia, Finland, China, Argentina, Israel, India. As a matter of fact, the most famous player in this year's Open is an Indian woman named Sania Mirza. Mirza is the most recognized woman athlete ever to come out of India. The press in her home country treat her with the regard once given to Mother Theresa. Even at the Open in New York, where players such as Andre Agassi are living legends, Mirza is the only player who needs a small army of body guards to protect her from zealously admiring Indian fans.

The U.S. Open is much more expansive an event than just world-class tennis. It's world-class, period.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad