U.S. Open winners embrace the chaos

Rafael Nadal of Spain returns the ball to

Rafael Nadal of Spain returns the ball to Andrey Golubev of KAZ during the first round of play at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills. (Aug. 30, 2011) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

What separates the U.S. Open from the three other Grand Slam tournaments is the rumpus. There is a hubbub so unlike most of the tennis world that 1985 Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Curren once suggested it could only be improved by "dropping an A-bomb on it.'' There is a milieu so incongruous that 1989 Open champ Boris Becker suggested he "could play a saxophone in the stands here and it would be OK.''

But what appears to separate the Open winners from the also-rans is the ability to develop a New York toughness, to embrace that cross-against-the-light attitude.

"I guess,'' said five-time U.S. Open champion Roger Federer, "when you have some success, you actually start enjoying different types of atmospheres. Loud, you know, crazy, compared to very proper and never applauding on a mistake like you have [other places].''

In the first sentence of his just-released book, "Rafa,'' Flushing Meadows' defending champ Rafael Nadal rhapsodizes about "the silence [that] strikes you when you play on Wimbledon's Centre Court . . . the cathedral hush that is good for my game . . . "

But by Chapter Seven, in recounting his euphoria upon winning his first U.S. title, Nadal writes of "the energy, the irreverence and the relentless din [that] sets the U.S. Open apart, as a spectacle, from the other three Grand Slam tournaments.

"The noise and the general frenzy test my powers of concentration, certainly,'' Nadal concludes in his book, "but I'm good at it.''

Champs like Jimmy Connors, who considered himself a working-class hero, thrived in the Open's cauldron of sizzle similar to novelist Christopher Morley's description of New York as "the nation's thyroid gland.''

To Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 Open champ just returning after a year of rehabilitating a surgically repaired wrist, to be back here with what he called the "crazy, very excited'' fans is a blessing. "Every match, the crowds are full,'' he said. "I really enjoy that. For me, that helps me to fight.''

Federer, who has said that adjusting to the Open took some time, has come to "like the difference we have here. Music played on the change of ends. They're showing all sorts of stuff on the big screens, whereas in other places, it's just the opposite: Silence.''

Stefan Edberg, who played the Open nine times before he finally won the first of consecutive titles here in the early 1990s, went from thinking of the joint as "just a big concrete place'' to "a fascinating place.''

A championship trophy will do that. In his book, Nadal notes that, during changeovers, "usually times for quiet pause . . . hard, pumping music blasts the eardrums, prizes are drawn -- with breathless suspense -- over the loudspeaker system and JumboTron. TV screens carry replays of the latest exchanges on court or, to even greater excitement, capture scenes from the crowd: couples kissing, cute kids smiling, celebrities posing, prizewinners celebrating and, every now and then, New Yorkers fighting.''

Yet he concludes that last year's title here left him on top of the world. Furthermore, he willingly has eschewed finding a quiet room near the tennis center, as he does at Wimbledon, because "to compete in the U.S. Open and not stay in Manhattan was to miss out on too much fun.''

He has seized the vividness.