The night session at the U.S. Open is a unique tennis-watching experience. Normally reserved tennis fans are transformed by some strange force into a raucous bunch, more akin to the infamous soccer hooligans in England. Maybe it is the different circadian rhythm associated with the last hours of the day. Or maybe it is the bright lights and the need to “let loose” after a long day at the office. The atmosphere is intense, electric and gladiatorial.
And it can be very unpredictable.
John Isner is the top-ranked American in the world at No. 17. He is a big, friendly giant standing at 6’10”. John is as polite as they come on and off the court. He is popular amongst his fellow players, and he is cordial to the crowds.
John is also America’s only legitimate hope to win the U.S. Open. In reaching the finals of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati two weeks ago, John defeated three players ranked in the Top 10. His serve is one of the biggest weapons in men’s professional tennis, and his recent strong performance is no fluke.
One would think that all of America would be behind this good ol' Southern boy from the University of Georgia. And yet, for some strange reason, on Thursday night during John’s second-round night match in Louis Armstrong against Gael Monfils, it felt like John was playing a Davis Cup match—in France.
Monfils, the eccentric 26-year-old Frenchman, plays to the crowd with his quirky personality and ridiculous athleticism. He makes funny faces, chats with the crowds, throws his racket 30 feet in the air to try to return an overhead smash and, in general, entertains. As a result, he draws loyal fans wherever he plays tennis.
On Thursday, however, Monfils had more than a few fans. Nearly three-quarters of the stadium was rabidly screaming “Mon-Fils” in unison, trying to rally Gael to come back from two sets down against Isner.
It is understandable that a night session crowd in New York would want to see more than just three sets of tennis, but after Monfils won the third set, the cheering only intensified. Isner looked bewildered as he walked over on changeovers. Certainly there were rival “U-S-A” chants as well, but it was nothing compared to the diehard “Monfils-ism.”
Sitting in the 10th row behind the umpire’s chair, I felt bad for John, and, if truth be told, a little angry. What happened to rooting for one’s countryman? Such a scenario would never, not in a million years, play out at Roland Garros in France. The French fans have been brutal to many American players over the years. Recall Serena Williams’ matches against Justine Henin on the red clay.
When Monfils held serve at 5-6 in the fourth set to force a decisive tiebreak, the roaring reached a fever pitch. Frankly, I do not know how either player managed to retain his focus and play a point. Somehow, Isner was able to stay calm enough to string together a few strong, well-played points and close out the tiebreak 7-4. On match point, he let all his frustrations and emotions out with a pent-up battle cry.
Hopefully John will have more support in his successive rounds playing on his home turf.
If anything can be said about Americans, I guess it is that we are the most open-minded people on the planet. Americans will welcome anyone and cheer for anyone regardless of who they are or where they come from. I don’t think that can be said for many other places.