Something about time zones in tennis adds to its global appeal. For anyone who lives in India or other nations in that part of the world, the night session at the U.S. Open means watching tennis in pre-dawn hours.
The year was 1992 and cable had arrived in India (almost exactly a year ago), which meant one full channel: Prime sports would be dedicated to my favorite sport and its tournaments. U.S. Open matches started when schoolkids were expected to be in bed — summer vacation in India usually ended on the day Wimbledon did. The school semester was in full flow during each U.S. Open, but watching tennis at the year’s final major tournament was too compelling to ignore. I did not drink coffee back then, but still would function with little or no sleep during the U.S. Open fortnight. The 1992 edition would remain one of my all- time favorite U.S. Open championships. My two favorite players did not come close to winning, but the tennis played during the two weeks produced epic encounters, one after another.
Men’s matches were predominantly played second in the night session after a women’s match. I was hoping to see a women’s match when I woke up on the morning of the second night session of the 1992 Open. Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker were my favorites. While getting ready for school i was glued to the TV in a shocked state of mind. Jamie Yzaga of Peru had stretched the three-time champion Lendl to a fifth set. This was the last match of the day session but had carried into the evening hours in New York — that meant early morning in New Delhi.
Yzaga was a unique player who had a gorgeous one-handed backhand and could delight crowds with his shot making. Top players then were not as tall as some of the men today, like Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro or Alexander Zverev. But even by those standards Yzaga was pretty short. That added to his appeal. I guess 5-foot-7 is never tall enough in men’s tennis.
Early in the fifth set I had to leave the house to catch my school bus. Mind you these are ancient times — there were no cell phones and internet in 1992, which meant I did not know Lendl’s fate until late that afternoon when I came back home. Imagine the feeling which is so foreign in today’s world where you have no access to a score of a sporting event for almost NINE hours!
No one in school knew the result either. The suffering was normal, but it made for great theater when I came back home to watch the tape delayed recording. Lendl won the decider 6-3, and it set the tone for one roller coaster of a tournament. The event produced 26 five-setters. I’m not sure if this is a record, but it made the two weeks a very compelling watch on the tube. Night matches, final sets decided by tiebreaks, and more importantly big names clashing with each other made this my favorite U.S. Open for a very long time. There were moments of fan angst when Becker — who was my favorite player — was not part of the TV coverage very late in the event. There was no choice but to keep watching and hope the network would cover his match eventually. He was playing fellow German Carl-Uwe Steeb in the third round. The match was tricky for both because they were good friends. Becker eventually prevailed in four sets, which set his fourth-round meeting with Lendl in a night match in Louis Armstrong Stadium, which was the main stadium court in 1992, five years before the larger Arthur Ashe Stadium opened its doors. The good part was that this match would be televised. The bad part was that one of these guys would be out before the quarterfinals.
My mom was not happy when my dad let me skip school that day; of course that is a different conversation and a very dated one now! The day session earlier had featured Stefan Edberg crawling back after being down a break in the fifth set to overcome newcomer Richard Krajicek. This section of the draw was loaded. Edberg would play the winner of Lendl-Becker in the quarters. The night match was the earliest Becker and Lendl had met in a major or any tournament I could recall. Their matches were quite intense and this one turned out to be a classic.
Lendl had never beaten Becker in a major and he played with great calm that night. Missing school seemed the right move — this classic lasted a record five hours and one minute when Lendl hit a passing shot winner to seal his first win over the German. What a match! In school we talked about this match the next day. You were either in Lendl’s camp or Becker’s camp. I was the odd guy out because I rooted for both.
The tournament was heating up, though — Michael Chang joined the party and played a great five-setter to beat the upcoming South African Wayne Ferreira in the quarters, which set up the classic Lendl-Edberg clash in the night session.
Edberg was a guy I appreciated but never rooted for. He was playing like the defending champion he in fact was. His serve and volley got the better of Lendl for most of the night. It seemed like he would beat Lendl two years in a row and destroy him in straight sets. Of course this was during our school time and I was supposed to be in school, but I ended up watching this one at a friend’s place. The environment became hostile: My buddy was a die-hard Edberg fan and a number of Becker fans wanted Edberg to lose. Breakfast was being served when Lendl leveled the proceedings. It was turning out to be a great match and the two went the distance to the deciding set tiebreak. Edberg prevailed 7-3 in the breaker.
With a heavy heart I went back to school. I was 15 and did not care about the quality of matches if my favorites were not winning. I vowed to my friends that I would not watch the remainder of the Open.
Of course I lied — I could not stay away from the tennis and watched the remaining last few days. The tennis kept getting better and Edberg kept breaking my heart. He played Michael Chang in the semis, which became a marathon match. This match had more service breaks in it then I could recall ever in a match. The Herculean effort from the Swede was there on full display, again. He came back to beat Chang in the fifth after being down a break — again. This match, at five hours and 26 minutes, broke the record of the longest U.S. Open match — a record that Becker-Lendl had set only a few days earlier.
I had a very hard time believing that Edberg would successfully defend this title in New York. In the past he had struggled with the heat, the crowds, the noise pollution at the Open and the night lights. It seemed nothing would stop him now. Something had clicked for him and his worst slam became his best slam that fortnight. He eventually won the event by beating Pete Sampras in a four-set final. Sampras later on called this loss one of the defining moments of his illustrious career and said it provided him enough motivation to avoid being on the losing side of a major final. Now I love Edberg and respect his effort as truly one of the best two-week performances I have EVER watched in tennis. There were so many other matches — such as Brad Gilbert beating Michael Stich in five or the Sanchez brothers going the distance against each other — which captured the imagination.
Exactly 25 years later we are back watching the U.S. Open. This year’s edition is going through an identity crisis because lot of top players have been injured and marquee matchups are not taking place. This is a marked contrast with the 1992 edition, where tons of big matches happened and usually lived up to the hype.
The tournament needs the spark. Yes, del Potro played a remarkable match to beat Dominic Thiem, and of course it still has the legends Federer and Nadal, but the matches have not come close to the usual quality one expects at a major. This edition on the contrary is producing more one-sided matches than I can think of. Maybe the tournament, by reaching the last eight stage, can witness some U.S. Open night magic.
Not to echo the beaten-down cliche that old is gold, but the 1992 U.S. Open stands alone for me in terms of the sheer quality of numerous battles throughout the draw. I rooted my lungs out against the man who won that fortnight, but years have passed and I marvel at the tennis played back then. I salute Stefan Edberg for coming out on top.
Imagine if Federer and Nadal have a semifinal as long as Chang-Edberg 1992.
Tennis will create another unforgettable memory, something which happened virtually every day for me as a 15-year-old kid a quarter of a century ago.