As the players grew red in the face and called for the trainers on a muggy Tuesday at the U.S. Open, the thought of a night match sounded like relief.
Imagine the relative cool of a late-summer evening; floodlights instead of sunlight, ice in the bigwigs' drinks instead of ice bags on the changeover. (Complete coverage of US Open)
But there is a definite dark side to night tennis at Flushing Meadows, where it too often threatens to become morning tennis.
So it went on a Monday that gradually gave way to Tuesday as Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic played a generation-next contrast in styles, a match that concluded with the counterpunching Nishikori rallying to beat the huge-serving Raonic, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4.
It was 2:26 a.m. and the surprise to the uninitiated was that more than a thousand people were still in the stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium, most of them awake and neither relatives nor employees of either player.
Call it the tournament that never sleeps.
"Very happy to see a lot of people, even 2 o'clock at night," said Nishikori, who is seeded 10th. "I don't even know how they go back home."
After postmatch treatment and media commitments, Nishikori did not get back to his temporary home, a Manhattan hotel, until 4:15 a.m. The need for more stretching and recovery work meant that he did not make it to bed until about 5:30. (Also read: Murray's awesome fans from Down Under)
At least he beat the sunrise, even if he did not quite beat the record.
Improbable as it seems, 2:26 a.m. appears to be a force field at the Open that keeps players from extending themselves any further. In 1993, Mats Wilander finished off his fellow Swede Mikael Pernfors at that precise time in the second round. In 2012, Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany finished off John Isner at 2:26 a.m. in their now-annual match in the third round.
Now, Raonic and Nishikori are part of the sleep-deprived club.
"Glad I am still among the latest finished matches at the @usopen," Kohlschreiber tweeted later (much later) Tuesday. "#2:26 am zzZ."
Those who think pro tennis is a bed of roses might want to ponder those working hours. But Nishikori was surely feeling little pain. He left Japan at age 14 and moved to the tennis epicenter of Bradenton, Florida, to hone his considerable talent at the IMG Academy. A decade later he is finally into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open and the first Japanese man to get this far since Zenzo Shimidzu in 1922, at a time when the U.S. Open was the U.S. Championships and only for amateurs in long trousers.
At 5 feet and 10 inches, Nishikori is short for a modern-day tennis star. Although his serve lacks, and will always lack, the punch of taller men like Raonic, he does not lack for weapons.
His returns are among the best in the game, as are his groundstrokes, and although Raonic did his intimidating best to keep the exchanges short, pounding 35 aces, Nishikori's racket-head control and reflexes kept many points alive where lesser technicians and athletes would have failed.
It was, in that sense, a throwback match: back to a time when huge servers like Pete Sampras ruled and fast-twitch returners like Andre Agassi and Michael Chang hadÂ to come up with solutions.
There is a bit of Agassi in Nishikori in his ability to play for long stretches without rhythm and then suddenly find it when he needs it most. There is quite a bit of Chang, as well, in Nishikori's powerful lower body, excellent footwork and intensity.
Chang, hardly by coincidence, is now one of Nishikori's coaches, joining his team this year. He was leaning on the railing Monday (and Tuesday) watching intently, just as his brother and coach Carl used to do when he was watching Chang face a big server in Ashe Stadium on a late summer night.
Chang's latest match came in the second round in 1998, when he lost at 1:33 a.m. to Carlos Moya, the Spaniard who briefly reached No. 1 in the rankings.
"Well, I certainly had my fair share of late-night matches, though not quite as late as this one," Chang said after Nishikori's victory. "But at this point, it doesn't really matter how late it gets as long as you come out with a win like that. It feels pretty satisfying, and I think Kei's going to gain a lot of confidence from this one."
Tennis, as Nishikori's back story makes clear, is a global sport, and that is just as well because otherwise there would not be a great deal of sense in playing an important U.S. Open match deep into the night in a cavernous stadium that might have been surprisingly lively, yet was still no more than one-tenth full.
But an ungodly hour in New York translates to the heart of the business day in Tokyo, and when Nishikori finally walked down the corridor lined with former Open champions' photos and into his news conference at 3:18 a.m., 22 Japanese reporters, two photographers and three cameramen were waiting for him and working to Japan's evening deadlines.
"This is going to be a match he's going to remember for a long, long time, and I know the Japanese people and his fans will be pretty excited about this one," Chang said before turning his attention to Nishikori's quarterfinal against Stan Wawrinka. "But the job is not done yet. The tournament is not done yet, and we'll remind him of that tomorrow."
Chang actually meant "later today," which was when Nishikori returned to Flushing Meadows for a 3:15 p.m. practice session in the heat.
But then, in the time-warped, sleep-challenged world of U.S. Open night tennis, who could blame Chang for getting his days wrong?
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