On the spacious grounds at Flushing Meadows, much more is at stake for the stars than just a first-round loss. The U.S. Open being the world's second most prestigious event (Wimbledon is first) and by far the most important in the United States, contractual and endorsement considerations loom large in the minds of the world's top 50 players, both men and women.
A win over a Vitas Gerulaitis or an Evonne Goolagong Cawley here is worth much more than the same win any place else in America. Conversely, a loss by a ranked player like Eddie Dibbs to a lesser light in the early rounds adds up to:
Losing a little confidence.
Losing a contractually agreed-upon bonus he might have gotten had he made the semis, finals or won.
Dropping a notch or two in the ATP rankings.
Losing valuable TV exposure by not making it to the weekend matches which are aired nationally and live over CBS, and,
For a player like Dibbs, who has yet to win one of the "Big Four" tournaments, it's losing one more of a limited number of chances to win a Grand Slam event.
Players freely admit their nervousness because it happens to everybody. I talked to 14-year-old Kathy Horvath after her loss to Dianne Fromholtz in the first round this week. Kathy led, 5-3, in the first set and even at 14 years of age she afterward sounded like a seasoned trouper when she said, "I could tell Dianne was choking a little."
I'd heard that only once before, at Wimbledon's 1977 meeting of Chris Evert and a promising young player named Tracy Austin. Was Chrissie nervous?Can Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dunk a basketball? Of course, when Kathy is 17 and in the top 10 she'll be the one to choke.
Not everybody approaches the first or second round the same way.
David Schneider, ranked No. 58 by the ATP computer, is not a star or a name. His outlook is much different.
"Being a lower middle player, I usually play my matches at 10 in the morning," he said. "I sometimes find myself out of a tournament before Bjorn Borg even arrives in the city."
That comment drew gales of laughter from eavesdroppers among his colleagues who share the same fate from time to time. After all, our tournaments are single-elimination, which means that after the first round, half the players are out; after the second round, three-quarters of the players are out, etc. Schneider can console himself with the fact that 63 men and 47 women commiserate with him.
Victor Amaya is one of the top men players, ranked about 35th by the ATP. He is somewhere between a Schneider and a Dibbs. Neither a top tenner nor a qualifier, he said first-and second-round matches "make me nervous as hell. If I lose a first-round match I feel like a horse that didn't get to the post."
For the women, the early rounds in general are not so much a test of nerves for the top players as a barometer of the depths of women's tennis in general. The top women win nearly all the time, whereas any ony of 60 or so men can win during any given week.
Of all the first-round matches for women in the first two days here, only five matches went three sets. Chris Evert won, 6-0, 6-0. Five of the sets in the first round were 6-love. Only three sets went to tie breakers in the entire first round and this on a cement surface that greatly favors the server.
Is this an indictmnet of women's tennis?Not at all. It only shows that women's tennis at present is top-heavy whereas men's tennis is showing signs "middle-aged spread."
Kerry Reid, ranked No. 8 in the world on the Women's Tennis Association rankings, said, "The first round is the one I hate the most. I'm always happy when it's over."
I then asked her when she last lost in the first round and she replied, "I can't remember."