Behind-The-Scenes at the U.S. Open Media Center

On the Baseline Tennis News
August 29, 2008

FLUSHING MEADOWS, New York—Nothing makes you feel more like a US Open “insider” than having a press pass dangling around your neck.

I’m thrilled to be one of 1,655 journalists from around the globe who has such an all-access pass, covering the largest international tennis event of the year.

To be honest, I’ve always wondered what the US Open Media Center would look like…not to mention who would be there, and which players I would meet.

Let me tell you, the action in the Media Center is almost as exciting as the action on the courts, except tennis racquets are replaced by laptops and cameras. It’s sort of like rush hour, 14 hours a day, or sometimes even longer, if a night match goes on into the wee hours of the morning (Thank you, James Blake).

The heart of the Media Center is located on the ground floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium, and is divided into two sections: West Media (for print journalists) and East Media (mostly photographers and radio). The USTA Public Relations Office and Media Information Services are also located here. Basically, anything related to print, TV, radio or online media can be found underneath Arthur Ashe stadium.

At first glance, the US Open’s Media Center is what you’d expect to see: an enormous nerve center filled with journalists scrambling to meet deadlines.

The thing that catches your eye upon entering the Media Work Room is row after row of work stations (much like small cubicles), with each station equipped with a TV monitor, an outlet to plug in a laptop, and free wi-fi.

The TV monitors have about 20 stations that display tennis action on EVERY court, including all outside courts. So, when the press want to know who’s playing who, or where, or what the score is, they just change the channel on their TV. One channel includes a list of ALL current matches with up to the minute scores (like a mini-scoreboard).

Flip to the next channel and you’ll see stats for the match in progress on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Another channel offers a static page that tells you the schedule of press conferences for players and what room they’ll be in. There’s also a dedicated channel for the USA Network, so you can tune in to watch nightly commentary for matches in Ashe stadium.

Also televised exclusively for the media: press conferences in Interview Room 1 (the BIG press conference room), usually reserved for top-seeded players like Anna Ivanovic or Dinara Safina. Basically, journalists never have to leave their work stations, although it’s always nicer to be sitting courtside in Arthur Ashe Stadium to see the action live.

Journalists at the US Open have a grueling schedule, working side-by-side, 7-days/week with very little time for things like bathroom breaks, food, or sleep.

Since this is only the first week of the US Open, most journalists are showered, well fed and well-rested. But I can only imagine what week two will bring, once the clean laundry is gone, the days of the week start running together, and things like lunch become optional.

An important thing to note about journalists at the US Open—there is a massive international press corp in attendance, representing over 45 countries.

I’ve actually tried to strike up a conversation with a few different people, not knowing where they were from–once in the media dining area, and another occasion standing by the lockers helping a Russian journalist try to unsuccessfully open his locker. Both of them just looked at me like I had three heads when I tried to talk to them in English.

A good reminder that even though this tournament takes place in the United States, it really isn’t all that American.

Speaking of food, the media dining area is located just inside the main entrance to the Media Center, directly across the hall from the entrance to the main Media Work Room. The food is actually pretty good, and credentialed media get a daily allotment of $20 for meals. The dining room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Unfortunately, my lunches tend to be in the $18 range, so sometimes dinner is just a cookie.

The hallway in between the dining area and the Media Work Room is where the players filter in and out as they head back to the locker rooms after practice, or after a match. So far, I’ve had a few encounters with the BIG players, including Roger Federer, who held the door for me (nice guy).

Other players that I’ve seen walking in and out are Alize Cornet from France, Lindsay Davenport and recent Pilot Pen winner, Caroline Wozniacki from Denmark.

Player press conferences are an essential part of the media mix. After their match players are escorted at designated times to one of the three interview rooms located down the hall from the Media Work Rooms.

I learned the hard way that you have to submit player interview requests at the Player Information Desk before the start of play each day, or at least before the player’s match has ended. Otherwise, the player has most likely left the grounds, or is unavailable. Not a fun situation when you have a deadline.

On the plus side, there are occasions when you can catch a player on a practice court, and ask for an informal interview on the spot. Getting a copy of the player practice schedule each day is key to increase your odds of getting what you need to write an article.

With so much tennis action going on, you’d assume that you can’t be everywhere, all the time, right? Well, the Media Center makes sure that you can be everywhere (at least virtually) and still get the information you need.

Within minutes after a press conference ends, you can get a printed transcript of the interview. Not bad, eh? So far, I’ve been able to sit in on press conferences for Marat Safin, Anna Ivanovic, and Amelie Mauresmo, and collect printed transcripts from all other press conferences.

Who have I met, you ask? Well, not as many players as I would like to (yet), but I’ve met Bud Collins, the man who invented tennis journalism. I’ve even spotted a few celebs in Arthur Ashe stadium, such as Alec Baldwin, and Aretha Franklin.

An unexpected, yet fabulous sighting came just before Thursday’s evening’s session while sitting courtside (media seating). Aaron Piersol, Olympic Gold Medalist, and a bonified “Athlebrity” came onto the court, proudly displaying his gold medal, and was greeted by a standing ovation.

It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Bud Collins: The Man With the Traveling Pants

On the Baseline Tennis News
Aug. 27, 2008

FLUSHING MEADOWS, New York—If you see a man at the US Open wearing pink pants, striped socks and pink sneakers, you can bet it’s Bud Collins.

For decades, his colorful, trademark trousers have brought international attention to–not only himself–but to a game that he loves.

Despite being away from tennis after having surgery on his ankle earlier in the summer, he can be seen hobbling around the US Open press room on crutches, analyzing, commentating, and writing his way through another Grand Slam.

Pants included.

When asking Bud to reflect on some of his most memorable moments in tennis history, he is always eager to talk about his favorite tennis legend: Billie Jean King.

At the time of their meeting in 1961, Bud was working in London as a sports writer, covering a boxing match, when he saw a teenager named Billie Jean Moffett win the Wimbledon doubles final for the first time with Karen Hantze. “I was very pleased to be there with these two young Americans,” he said. “So I asked somebody how I could meet the players. I had only been to Wimbledon once, but I didn’t know my way around.”

He was directed to the club-house door, where he met Billie Jean and Karen. He congratulated them, and said, “I don’t want to hold you up. I know you’re eager to get to the [Wimbledon] Ball. They looked at him and said, “What Ball? We’re not going to any Ball. We don’t have any clothes for a Ball. We’re broke,” they said. “We’re living in a rooming house.”

When Bud realized how little money they really had, he said to them, ‘Could I take you to dinner?’ “I never had two women say yes so fast in my life.” Bud and Billie Jean have been fast friends ever since. “I love women’s tennis, and have always kept them high in my mind, he says. “I probably was writing about it when no one else was.”

Two of Bud’s favorite moments from the U.S. Open come from the women’s tour.

1974 — “When Billie Jean King played against Yvonne Goolagong in the final at Forest Hills on grass. They were both attacking each other, which was exciting, because they both knew how to do it. I’ve never heard a crowd so rapturous, as they kept playing “whatever you can do, I can do better.”

1997 — “When Venus was coming along, getting to the final (unseeded) – nobody had done that before, she was ranked No. 66 (or something like that) and she’s playing in the semifinals against this big Romanian kid (Irina SpĂ®rlea), and she had to save two match points to do it, and they were tremendous backhand shots down the line.”

When asked about his picks for this year’s U.S. Open final, he said, “This is a tournament that (a) nobody can win,” although he does think Dinara Safina will be one of the finalists.

Bud also weighed in on some of the young new-comers, like Caroline Wozniacki, who just won the Pilot Pen. “It’s funny when you say ‘young new-comers’ – they’re all young!”

“But I think it’s wonderful for women’s tennis.”

Bud also sighted Asia Muhammed as having a promising future on the WTA tour. “I met her. She played well yesterday. I would love to see some of our young Americans do well, but I’m delighted by the way the game is more international – more international than when I started covering it.”

He also noted a power shift that is undeniable the tennis world. With so many Russian players competing at such high levels, Bud says, “I don’t’ know if it’s a new cold war, but it looks like the Russians are going to take over. They see the brass ring and they’re going for it.”

Just in time for the US Open’s 40th anniversary of open era tennis, Bud has crafted a new book entitled, The Bud Collins History of Tennis: An Authoritative Encyclopedia and Record Book. How much does a book like that cost, you ask? Bud says, “It’s very reasonable – only 4 cents a page.” But consider yourself forewarned—it’s heavy. But then again, it should be.

The always charismatic Bud Collins is never alone in his travels. He and his constant companion, Anita (a.k.a., his room-mate, personal assistant and always his wife) have been married for 14 years, after meeting on a blind date.

Anita, a photographer who didn’t follow tennis before they met and didn’t even know who Bud Collins was, simply glows when talking about the man who she calls “the nicest person I’ve ever met.” Bud says of his 14-year marriage: “It looks like it will stick.”

You have to admire a man who’s not afraid to wear pink.


From Ice Cream to the Pilot Pen: Caroline Wozniacki Wins New Haven

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut—Call her the “Great Dane,” or simply an 18-year-old who took on the Pilot Pen and won BIG.

Denmark’s own Caroline Wozniacki is now $600,000 richer, winning her second Sony Ericsson WTA title.

Although the match wasn’t a walk in the park for her (losing the first set 6-3 to Russia’s Anna Chakvetadze), she showed later in the match what a fighter she can be.

When asked about what went wrong in the first set, Wozniacki replied, “I was returning really well, but she replied back with a better return. And then my second serve was easier for her. She just stepped in and smashed it down the line cross-court, so I knew that I had to have my first serve percentage up.”

Chakvetadze later commented on Wozniacki’s game. “Caroline is a good player. She doesn’t hit that hard, but she plays quite consistent, so against her I should play aggressive.”

Wozniacki was up 2-1 in the second set and fell, hurting her hand, but it didn’t seem to impact her game at all. She seemed to lose some of her momentum at 4-4 in the second set, but she fought hard to stay in the match, using long, baseline/cross-court volleys. Her strategy paid off, taking a 5-4 lead. Chakvetadze also began to show signs of fatigue, double faulting on the final game of the second set, giving Wozniacki the set 6-4 and an opportunity to take home the trophy.

Chakvetadze hit a lot of unforced errors during the match and later admitted to not recovering well from Friday night’s semifinal match against Amelie Mauresmo. Unfortunately, Chakvetadze simply ran out of gas, losing the match 6-3, 4-6, 1-6.

Despite being so young, Wozniacki appears to be wise beyond her years. When asked about her sudden success on the tour, she takes it all in stride. “I am having fun. I enjoy playing for a big crowd. When you’re in the finals, you don’t have anything to lose. You can just win,” she said. “It’s about enjoying every second.”

Wozniacki comes from a very competitive family and admits that she hates losing, especially to her brother Patrik, a pro soccer player. Born in Denmark, both of her parents are Polish. Her parents moved to Denmark because her father was a professional soccer player and relocated to play for the team in Denmark.

Wozniacki is not a product of a tennis academy, a route that works for some, but she is grateful to have had a very normal childhood, and simply wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, as a kid, she and her friends used to play tennis for ice cream.

Caroline Wozniacki is a player to watch at the US Open and plans on coming back to the Pilot Pen next year to defend her title.

In other news–the doubles final, scheduled for Saturday night, will be a battle between seeded players Kveta Peschke and Lisa Raymond and the unseeded Romanian pair of Sorana Cirstea and Monica Niculescu.

Pilot Pen Live Blog: Caroline Wozniacki Advances to Saturday’s Final

On the Baseline Tennis News

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut—Friday afternoon’s semifinal match-up on Stadium Court played out in front of 5,162 fans, and proved to be a tough battle for 18-year-old Alize Cornet of France as she fought to keep up with Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

The two first met on a tennis court at age 11, and have grown to have similar playing styles. As the two baseliners engaged in a series of long rallies, Wozniacki seemed to push Cornet deeper into a losing position. Playing with an injured quad muscle, Cornet was trailing in the first set, and by 5-4, frustration had set in.

She tried to establish a rhythm, but it was clear that Wozniacki was in control of the ball. “I was just fighting today,” said Wozniacki. “I was serving pretty well, especially in the first set. I just took one ball at a time, and it just paid off.” Wozniacki went on to take the 1st set 7-5.

Cornet clawed her way back in the 2nd set to 3-0, but couldn’t hold onto the lead. She was serving at 4-5 and failed to win any points in the final game of the 2nd set, handing over the match to Wozniacki 7-5, 6-4. “If you want to win against Caroline, you have to play at 100%,” said Cornet.

Her quad injury was not a factor in today’s loss, but admitted to feeling jetlagged and exhausted from the Beijing Olympics.

Wozniacki is thrilled to be playing in tomorrow’s final, which could earn her a 2nd WTA title and push her into the top 20. “It’s been a really good month for me. I won my first WTA tournament in Stockholm and I went over to the Olympics and lost in the 3rd round to Dementieva. It was a great experience for me at the Olympics,” said Wozniacki. “Now, I’m in the finals again.”

Going forward, Wozniacki says “I feel confident and comfortable. I’m playing Ahsha Rolle in the first round of the US Open. She had a good US Open last year, and I know that people will support her there. She’s a tough player. She has a really good forehand and a good serve, so for me it’s about erasing her weapons and trying to play my game.”

Cornet is looking forward to taking a few days off to rest before facing another French woman (Camille Pin) in the first round of the US Open.

In doubles news, Kveta Peschke and Lisa Raymond defeated Russian duo Anastasia Rodionova and Galina Voskoboeva 6-1, 6-0 on Stadium Court. They will play Sorana Cirstea/Monica Niculescu in the final on Saturday.

In Friday evening’s semifinal match, Anna Chakvetadze defeated 29 year old Amelie Mauresmo 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, squashing Mauresmo’s hope for a chance at the title. Chakvetadze will take on Wozniacki in a much-anticipated Saturday afternoon final.

Pilot Pen Live Blog: Davenport/Hantuchova Fall in Quarterfinals

On The Baseline Tennis News
Friday, 8.22.08

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut—Things are really starting to heat up here in New Haven…some of the buzz comes from a new crop of young players making their way into the tennis spotlight.

But on Thursday, all eyes were on the veterans, Lindsay Davenport and Daniela Hantuchova, as they came painfully close to winning their quarterfinal match, only to succumb to the Russian team of Anastasia Rodionova and Galina Voskoboeva in a tight 3-set match.

Playing in front of a packed crowd on the Grandstand court, the Russians got right down to business, winning the first set easily (6-3). But Davenport and Hantuchova rebounded in the 2nd set to take it 6-1. In the midst of the 2nd set, their games proved to be a little bit too in sync, as Hantuchova setup to hit an overhead lob, while Davenport ran behind her to hit the same shot, hitting Hantuchova’s racquet in the process. One person from the crowd yelled, “Now that’s team-work!”

The 3rd set was decided in a 10-point tiebreak. After trailing for most of the set, Davenport and Hantuchova finally gained the lead at 7-6, but in the end, they were simply outplayed, losing 9-11.

One possible factor that contributed to Thursday’s loss was Hantuchova’s schedule: back-to-back matches, losing first in singles to Alize Cornet in the quarterfinals. Although she didn’t appear fatigued, coming directly from a 3-set loss with only 15 minutes to spare before her next match would be grueling for any player, both physically and mentally.

“Obviously a little bit more rest would have helped,” she said. “I really didn’t want to wake up this morning.” For Davenport, the Pilot Pen comes right on the heels of her quarterfinal finish in doubles at the Olympics. Her right knee, which has been nagging her in recent months, seems to be ok for the first time. Despite the disappointing loss here in New Haven, Davenport and Hantuchova plan on teaming up again at the US Open.

Regarding her post-U.S. Open plans, officials at the Pilot Pen say that Davenport hasn’t made any formal announcements yet.

In other matches on Thursday, Alize Cornet of France, one of the “up-and-comers” on the WTA tour, advanced to the semifinals 7-6(3) 4-6 6-2, despite an injury to her left thigh. She struggled with her serve in the 2nd set, but managed to keep her momentum going. “I couldn’t push with my leg, so it didn’t help me with my serve,” she said.

Cornet will face Caroline Wozniaki of Denmark in the semis. “She wants to be in the final for sure, and I want to be in the final, and we are the same age [18], so there is a bit of rivalry,” said Cornet. Wozniaki, the only Danish player currently ranked in the top 400 on the WTA tour (at No. 22), beat out Marion Bartoli in the 3rd round of the Pilot Pen.

If Cornet wins the semis, she could potentially face fellow French player Amelie Mauresmo in the final on Saturday. She played against Mauresmo for the first time as a 15 year old on Centre Court at Roland Garros. Cornet has had most of her success on clay-courts but is slowly adding hard courts to her skill-set.

In Thursday night’s quarterfinal, Mauresmo won a close match against last year’s finalist, Agnes Szavay 6-4, 7-5. Mauresmo will play Anna Chakvetadze in the semifinals.


Breathing in Beijing: Heat, air quality concerns linger

Even with night falling, 90°F temperatures and nearly 90% humidity made Friday’s opening ceremonies in Beijing almost as much of an endurance test for the athletes as some of the events they’ll be taking part over the next two weeks.

Hitting the courts earlier in the week, tennis players reported that the conditions were some of the toughest they’ve ever faced.

But weather itself isn’t the lone concern. For years, experts have pointed to Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality as a potentially significant health risk to the athletes, prompting the Chinese government to spend billions on a clean-up effort ahead of the Games. That’s included ordering 1 million cars off the road from July 20 onwards, shutting down nearby coal-burning plants and suspending construction projects.

Despite these efforts, no one knows exactly what to expect when the Olympic tennis event begins on Saturday. Substantial improvements have been reported, but Friday’s air-quality readings were still below World Health Organization recommendations. It’s difficult to predict whether the pollution will be bad enough to have a noticeable effect on players during matches.

”I don’t know if it was because of the humidity and everything, but it was very warm. That’s always going to make competition tougher,” reported Roger Federer on Thursday, after he had practiced in the stadium the previous day. “Now, I don’t know if I struggled maybe because of the heat or it was because of the pollution. But I don’t think it’s going to play a role in who’s going to win or how you’re going to be able to play. So I’m not scared about it in any way.

Lindsay Davenport, who has played the WTA event at Beijing in the past, recently spoke about her previous experiences competing in the city. “The couple of times I've been there it was September,” she said. “You can see how in the beginning of the day until the end of the day the dirt that kind of piles up on the hard court. All of a sudden you're getting ball marks as the day goes on.

That will represent some challenges for athletes competing outdoors. It was extremely tough to breathe when I've been there in the past. I've heard that they've tried it clean it up. We'll see.”

The Olympic Green Tennis Centre, located on the south side of the N. 5th Ring Road (northern section of the Olympic Green) is potentially at a higher risk for air pollutants from car exhaust than other sports venues.

However, Chris Nielsen, Executive Director of the China Project at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard University Center for the Environment, cautioned that “the degree of risk is simply too hard to predict without knowing the effectiveness of the various traffic restrictions. A bigger concern may be stagnant episodes trapping pollution against the hills and mountains to the west and north of the city."

But, he said, hot conditions will magnify the situation. “API [the air pollution index] is directly affected by heat, which tends to make pollutant concentrations worse, and thus will raise API levels.”

Heat and humidity are common challenges at most outdoor tennis tournaments, but air pollution is not. Beijing's air quality numbers in August are traditionally on the high side (100-150 API for 2007) and can spike even higher on any given day. Throw in temperatures in the high 80s and high humidity, and the air quality can be downright unbearable.

Unlike Beijing, the air quality conditions players usually face at other tournaments during this time of year are more tolerable. The Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles has average daytime temperatures in the mid 80s in August and air quality averages remain in the moderate 51-100 range. In addition, the dry heat eliminates oppressive humidity from the equation.

Players competing in the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. and the Pilot Pen in New Haven do have humidity to contend with, but the air quality is again tolerable (51-100 range) with temperatures averaging in the 80s.

It is worth noting that an API of 100 is considered "slightly polluted" by Chinese standards while seen as "unhealthy for sensitive groups" in the U.S.

Respiratory problems or even vision problems could pose a serious challenge for players on either side of the court.

In the event that Beijing’s air quality conditions are unfavorable for competition, Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, has announced a backup plan for those events involving outdoor endurance sports. If the air pollution on competition days poses a risk to athletes, those events will be postponed if necessary. Tennis was not mentioned in this plan.

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s web site will be providing daily updates during the Olympics using the Air Pollution Index (API). The I.O.C.’s Medical Commission will also be evaluating air quality on a daily and hourly basis during the Olympic Games.

Ironically, the best hope for clean air may in the end be rain—not usually a welcome interruption at tennis events.