On a not quite sultry summer afternoon in Queens, the winds swirled and the planes roared overhead. Wimbledon champion Jimmy Connors stood behind the base line of the stadium court at the National Tennis Center, awaiting the serve of his practice partner, Jose-Luis Clerc.
Clerc served hard down the middle to Connors' forehand. Connors let the ball go. Wide. Clerc thought otherwise and glared. Connors pointed with his racket. He was headed to the spot, ready to show where the ball had landed when Clerc reluctantly agreed to serve again.
So much for practice. The U.S. Open begins Tuesday with John McEnroe, winner here the last three years, seeded No. 1 among the men and Martina Navratilova, loser of only one match all year, No. 1 among the women.
Tonight, Navratilova was feeling under the weather with what she said was food poisoning. But she is not scheduled to play her first match until Wednesday night. "I'm sure it's not serious," she said in a telephone interview. "I'm sure I'll be okay tomorrow. I'm ready."
Another top player in the women's field, defending champion Tracy Austin, was reported tonight to have tendinitis in her right shoulder, and her opening match, against Catherine Tanvier, was postponed until Wednesday. The Associated Press reported Dr. Irving Glick, the tournament physician, said she has tendinitis in the shoulder, but that "at the moment, it doesn't seem too serious."
Most other players are ready, and so is their hyperbole. "It's war," said Connors, the No. 2 men's seed. "When you play Wimbledon, it's war. The French, it's war. It's not because of Flushing Meadow and the planes. I don't mind that. It's war every place."
When the Open moved to this concrete palace five years ago, it quickly became fashionable to note how the players must cope with the unnatural elements -- the planes from LaGuardia Airport that obliterate the senses, the crowds, the subways, the dirt. The tournament, it is said, reflects the tough, demanding character of the city whose skyline hovers just over the horizon.
Today there were no crowds and no complaints. So what if there's a barbecue pit next to one of the courts that blows smoke in your eyes and makes you hungry, said Pam Shriver, of Lutherville, Md. So what if "after 10 days, you can get sick of the place," she says. She still likes it better than Wimbledon.
The money is better than Wimbledon, too. The singles champions will receive $90,000 each from the total purse of $1.5 million. Most everybody but Bjorn Borg is here. McEnroe, who has had a dismal time since beating Borg here last year, will try to make amends. Connors, the only man to win the Open on three different surfaces (grass in 1974, clay in 1976 and hard court in 1978), will try to make 1982 his endless summer. Ivan Lendl, the No. 3, has never won a Grand Slam title, although just about everything else in 1982; he will try to show he belongs with the big boys.
(Seedings are based on rankings off tournament results for the past 12 months.)
As Vitas Gerulaitis, seeded fifth, said, there are those three and "the rest. What do they say at the dog track? The rest of the field."
Gerulaitis declined to comment on recent newspaper reports that he was named in testimony by a prosecution witness in federal court as being willing to supply money to buy pharmaceutical cocaine. He has not been charged with any crime.
Surely, there must be an omen in that Sylvia Hanika, the only woman to beat Navratilova in 1982, withdrew from the tournament because of an injury. Few think Navratilova can be beaten, unless it is by herself.
Austin, who beat Navratilova in the final last year, has played in only five tournaments this year because of injuries. Evert also has had a somewhat disappointing year, losing to Navratilova at Wimbledon. Navratilova wants badly to win her first Open.
Can she be beaten, Shriver was asked. "If she plays well, the way she's been playing, no," said Shriver, her doubles partner. "If the pressure gets to her, yeah. There's going to be more pressure on here than at Wimbledon."