US Open 2011: The big build-up at Flushing Meadows

Some sights and sounds from New York as the build-up to the final Grand Slam of the year gets under way

Imagine it’s the eve of your five-year-old’s birthday. The cake is made, the presents are bought, the fridge is overflowing with goodies for the big day””and the excitement is steaming and bubbling under the surface like a volcano about to erupt.

That same barely-contained excitement is beginning to infuse Flushing Meadows in this, the build-up week to the main event.

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Almost everything is in place: The seeds are set and the qualifiers are fighting for their chance to be in the game when the US Open takes off on Monday next.

There’s a buzz, though the crowds are still light. There’s activity in every direction, but without the frenetic atmosphere that makes the air hum when the grounds are filled to bursting.

For some, the biggest pleasure is found around the strings of green and blue courts, where glowing faces of tennis enthusiasts watch the ambitions of qualifiers fulfilled or dashed.

For others, the chief pleasure is found around the more palatial courts, watching the already-made-its go through their paces.

Here, conversations between old friends who have enjoyed these simple pleasures for 25 years mingle with gaggles of teenagers sharing stories of their own exploits with a racket.

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Wide-eyed kids, with arms barely long enough to embrace their giant yellow balls, bustle around the practising stars and are rewarded with long signing sessions: It’s not only the spectators who are chilled at this stage of the tournament.

Come Monday, with the gloves off, things may be rather different for those same players. They will be different for the kids, too, as their laughter turns to jaw-dropping amazement at the power and the fury of the real deal in the biggest and brightest, hottest and happiest Slam of all.

On Monday, then, the party will begin and presents will be unwrapped one exciting match at a time. Meanwhile, there are morsels aplenty to satisfy””just””the biggest appetite. Here are a few tasters”¦

The showman

The contrasting figures of a long and wiry Gael Monfils and a solid and strong Stan Wawrinka hit together on Grandstand court in front of the biggest crowd of the day.

One side of this arena enjoys the shade of an overhanging Louis Armstrong stadium and the shade was packed with fans of the ultimate showman. Monfils did not disappoint, trying out some nifty chip-and-charge moves finished by air-bound smashes. Practice done, he vanished in a sea of autograph hunters.

Stan the man, not yet done, worked through some fearsome forehand drills with coach Peter Lundgren. It’s clearly not enough to have one of the heaviest backhands in the business.

Unanswered questions

Why were two black office chairs sitting forlornly at courtside as Monfils and Wawrinka punched it out? More importantly, why were they tethered to one another?

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Just what was it that Vera Zvonareva’s coach said that had her bashing his ears in Russian at the end of her training session?

And who takes the prize for the most pleasing single-handed backhand on a sunny afternoon in Queens? Mikhail Youzhny was first up””a very stripped down and elegant shot. Wawrinka came next””a powerful weapon for sure. But for sweep and elegance, the afternoon belonged to Tommy Haas.

The German-American has endured one of the most injury-blighted tennis careers of the decade yet still he brings a style, a smile and the sweetest of backhands to the court.

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Those who blazed the trail

Qualifying week offers the time and space to explore the margins of this sprawling venue. Just inside the South Gate, bordered by flowerbeds, is the Court of Champions, a series of plaques that celebrate former great champions of the US Grand Slam.

Among them are Molla Mallory, winner of the most singles titles in the championship’s history, Helen Wills, who reached the singles finals every time she entered and won seven of them, and Margaret Court, who won five singles, five doubles and eight mixed doubles US titles.

It is worth a moment to stop and soak up their achievements and those of many more.

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