NEW YORK -- As a Grand Slam unfurls, it helps to make an expedition. I went looking for a volley, just one volley, just one little, measly volley.
For four arduous hours I roamed the back alleys of the USTA National Tennis Center, combed through the Flushing Meadows wilds, seeking a glimpse of this volley, this phenomenon teetering near extinction. It was like going out to spot an ivory-billed woodpecker, a yellow-eared parrot, a cherry-throated tanager or a Peruvian plantcutter.
Through courts 15, 14, 13, 10, 8, 6, 7, 4, Louis Armstrong, 11, 12 and 17, I wandered, wondering if I should have brought night-vision binoculars, a pith helmet and a field guide that I could show to some unsuspecting kid, point to a photo of Stefan Edberg in the early 1990s and say, "Now, this was a volley," whereupon the kid would tell me to get lost.
Nobody volleys anymore, of course, a condition aptly traced through Roger Federer alone. In his stirring fourth-round, five-set win over Pete Sampras at the 2001 Wimbledon, the grass near the net went trampled by the 19-year-old Federer (as well as the 29-year-old Sampras). Long since regrown by now, you can sense that the grass gazes back at the 31-year-old Federer, grins and luxuriates in safety.
"You wonder, how in the world has this happened?" Federer said in 2010 at Wimbledon. "Have we become such incredible return players, or can we not volley anymore, or is it just a combination of slower balls, slower courts? I think it's definitely a bit of a combination of many things," including, of course, racquet strings, those oft-implicated scoundrels.
So in the hard-court ghettoes of the U.S. Open, I saw players from Slovenia, Slovakia, Italy, Australia, Japan, France, Russia, Belgium, Germany, Israel, Great Britain, China, Colombia, Croatia and the United States. I saw men and women ranked from No. 13 to No. 393. I stood amid Colombian fans, sat in a section adjacent Chinese fans, stood opposite Laura Robson fans in multicolored wigs.
In the sweeping semi-anonymity of it all, I saw Alejandro Falla, who once took Federer to five sets at a Wimbledon, and Igor Andreev, who once took Federer to five sets at a U.S. Open. I saw Yanina Wickmayer, who reached a Grand-Slam semifinal, and Zheng Jie, who reached two of them. I saw Virginie Razzano, who handed Serena Williams her only first-round Grand-Slam defeat, and the Americans Julia Cohen (born 1989), Nicole Gibbs (born 1993) and Samantha Crawford (born, oh please help me, 1995). I saw one male Belgian player named Maxime (credit to parents for excellent turn of naming), two Japanese male players (half the record four in the men's draw) and one exquisite Chinese backhand always worth the trip (that of Jie).
In the hard-court ghettoes where the chair umpires have no microphones and the courts unspeakably have no video screens (thus no Hawk-Eye technology), I got a fresh sense of the distractions that make the U.S. Open the U.S. Open.
Distraction: Between courts 14 and 15, during and between points, one of the most undervalued members of any society, a trash collector, stopped by to work. Maybe 10 paces from two U.S. Open matches, he dutifully replaced a bag and made some sort of clanging noise, perhaps with a lid. Nobody flinched.
Distraction: At one point between courts 11 and 12, a ball flew off Court 11 and into the walkway beneath the trees, where a woman scooped it up while continuing with her mobile-phone conversation. A ball girl came to the waist-high fence and asked for the ball. The woman did not notice and continued her conversation, holding the ball. The ball girl went back to the match. The woman continued her conversation, still holding the ball. Other fans tried to alert the woman on the phone. The woman finally hung up and returned the ball.
Distraction: Smack in the middle of points down on the peasant courts, fireworks suddenly boomed upward from nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium -- the glossy night session had begun! -- causing skips in at least one heartbeat and, from the looks of it, probably two others. The fireworks died down but then reappeared for an encore right in the middle of the eight-shot rally on Court 13 on -- no, really -- match point.
With such an imaginative array of distractions helping to ferret out tough champions, it's a shame that the airplanes from LaGuardia no longer thunder overhead as they did in the yore of last century, when their bellies would appear so quakingly close that your pancreas would turn up behind your shoulder blade.
Now, that was a distraction.
As my safari continued, court after court, there was a 23-shot baseline rally between Alize Cornet and Gibbs, an 18-shot baseline rally between Marin Cilic and Marinko Matosevic and a 12-shot baseline rally between Falla and Martin Klizan which featured such searing quality that a bystander exclaimed toward Falla, "That was sick hitting, man. That was sick hitting."
In a bushel of passing shots and a trickle of difficult volley attempts that burrowed into nets, there was ample evidence of the contemporary reality: If you venture up to the net, you almost certainly lose. The Slovenian Blaz Kavcic forged a skillful winner from some sort of forehanded volley-ish push that almost sated my quest but just didn't seem Edberg-ian enough. The Atlantan Crawford bent for a low, commendable, backhand swoop that looked like something from the volley family, maybe a second cousin once-removed, and she did fashion a running half-volley swing from dangerously close to the net, sort of halfway to Navratilovan or Mandlikovan. And the Australian Matthew Ebden won a point on a successful overhead smash during which I thought I saw a Brontosaurus milling in the background.
Finally, nearing 10 p.m., airplanes too distant, I thought I might get something from Cilic, who, at 6-foot-6, would have been a volleying maestro back in volleying days, and who, with that reach, could play two courts at once. Something came, but from his opponent. Matosevic served a well-placed boomer. Cilic lunged for the thing. The return meekly survived the net. Matosevic pounced and redirected it. Cilic retrieved it.
And as Cilic's desperate plea headed toward Matosevic, Matosevic let 6 feet, 3 inches of Bosnia-Herzegovina-born Australian tennis player stay right up there at the net, close enough to kiss the tape. Fielding it just above his head, he produced some sort of semi-awkward punch that dredged a forced Cilic error and a point. It was not lovely, but in professional tennis circa 2012, it did come as a bit of a treat.