For Half the Field, the Opener Is the Closer
David Goffin, a young, rising Belgian who had never lost his first match in a Grand Slam event, lost to No. 6 Tomas Berdych in straight sets Tuesday.
By GREG BISHOP
Published: August 28, 2012
One by one they limped off courts at the United States Open, heads bowed, eyes downcast, shoulders slumped. They answered questions in small, interview rooms with concrete walls, away from the stadiums and big crowds.
They came to New York from all over the world, from Kazakhstan and Croatia, from Britain and Brazil, to compete at the only Grand Slam tournament in the United States. They came, all of them, to win, to advance, to pump fists and raise their arms in victory. The old and the young. The low- and high-ranked. The baseliners and the serve-and-volley specialists.
By the end of play Wednesday, all of them, 128 male and female singles players in the main draw, half the field, will hold one important and somewhat depressing thing in common.
They will have lost in the first round.
Each loser will pass through the tunnels underneath Arthur Ashe Stadium that lead to locker rooms. Those tunnels are lined with pictures of triumph — Maria Sharapova’s clenched fist, Serena Williams’s wide smile, Andre Agassi’s arms extended toward an adoring crowd.
Yet while the tournament will be remembered for its men’s and women’s singles champions, the Open, as with all Grand Slam tournaments, is defined as much by failure as success. This is most evident in the first round, played over three days, when players lose all day on all 15 courts.
Tuesday was no different.
In the afternoon, Anne Keothavong of Britain slumped in a chair in front of a handful of reporters. Her match, a lopsided 6-2, 6-0 thrashing delivered by Angelique Kerber, might have ended badly. But at least it ended quickly, too, in 54 minutes.
Someone asked Keothavong if it was worth it, all the travel and practice and, in recent months, none of the corresponding results.
“I’ve been around long enough, and I’m experienced enough to know that tennis can be so fickle,” Keothavong said. “Losing matches doesn’t get any easier. You just have to keep putting yourself out there.”
She continued, as if she felt it necessary to point out: “Over all, I’m a pretty happy person. I’m not crying myself to sleep at night because I lost a tennis match.”
The defeated do not leave the grounds at Flushing Meadows empty-handed. Each first-round loser in the singles main draws earns $23,000 (and a Citizen wristwatch), or $4,000 more than in 2011. Most players who lost Tuesday also planned to play doubles, in which men’s or women’s teams will make at least $11,000 for the tournament and each mixed doubles team will make $5,000.
For some, those earnings will not cover the cost of travel, coaching and other expenses. Others said that under the right circumstances, they could break even. None of them had planned to lose that early, anyway.
It happens to the best players. Tuesday marked the 28th anniversary of Steffi Graf’s losing in the first round here. Of course, she was 15 and just beginning a Hall of Fame career. On Aug. 28, 1990, Stefan Edberg became the first top-seeded player to fall in the first round in 19 years.
Such early losses accumulated quickly Tuesday. It took 54 minutes for Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland to wallop Nina Bratchikova of Russia. Shortly after that, Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan, the oldest player in the singles draw (42 next month), fell to Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden.
Date-Krumm made her United States Open debut in 1989, before 37 of this year’s qualifiers had been born. That year, she also lost in the first round.
So it went. Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic, seeded 24th, fell to her countrywoman Andrea Hlavackova. This marked Zakopalova’s ninth consecutive United States Open singles defeat. Afterward, she tried to explain how it felt to reporters, to show up at the same tournament and lose as early as possible for nine straight years.
She could not explain it. Nor is she alone.
On the men’s side, since 1968, 32 players have played in at least five first-round Grand Slam matches and won none. The retired Juan-Antonio Marín of Costa Rica went 0-17 in the first round at major tournaments.
On the flip side, David Goffin, a young, rising Belgian, had never lost his first match in a Grand Slam event — until Tuesday. In May at the French Open, Goffin charmed the tennis world when he sneaked into the singles draw as a so-called lucky loser, then advanced to the fourth round, where he won a set against Roger Federer.
On Tuesday, Goffin could not replicate that magic against Tomas Berdych, the sixth seed. Goffin became the 13th player to lose on Tuesday. “It was not easy,” he said.
Four hours into Tuesday’s action, 18 singles players had been defeated. While most planned to play doubles, they also hoped to go sightseeing in New York before they headed home. The flights, booked at the last minute, would be expensive.
Rhyne Williams, a 21-year-old American qualifier overwhelmed Tuesday by Andy Roddick, said he enjoyed the food in New York far more than Roddick’s serve. Williams, who comes from a tennis family and attended the University of Tennessee, played Roddick on Ashe, which meant his first first-round Grand Slam loss was memorable, if not ultimately a success.
For the defeated, the matches mostly ended the same way: a handshake with the opponent and the chair umpire, a short interview, a quick shower. Then most said they would watch the tournament, same as everybody else.
“It’s just the way it works,” Keothavong said, defeated. “Someone has to lose.”