When you hear a line judge with stout lungs yell, "Fault!" at 1:06 a.m., and his voice echoes through the stadium as if across a barren mountainside, you know your life might just be misspent. When a fan yells, "Let's go. Five sets, Sam!" at 1:20 a.m., you know Sam Querrey can hear that voice in the sparseness, and you wonder whether that man actually knows Querrey on a first-name basis. And doesn't most everyone share an affinity for a fourth-set tiebreaker at 1:39 a.m.?
At some point after midnight in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday, sorry, Wednesday, the question changed. Back on Tuesday, before midnight, it had concerned whether Querrey would become the first American man to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2006. Come Wednesday, it concerned whether these two ball-maulers, Querrey and Kevin Anderson, could exceed one of America's most eccentric sporting records.
The record: 2:26.
Could these two bastions of leverage, Anderson at 6-foot-8 and Querrey at 6-foot-6, play on past 2:26 a.m.? Similar suspense had come when Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic threatened the record in 2014, and USA Today monitored that situation, but that match concluded at 2:26. Bizarrely, three matches share the 2:26 record, with a frustrating lack of data on which second they ended, which could ferret out a winner.
Anderson, the South African who played at Illinois, led Querrey 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (9-11), 6-3, 6-6, the tiebreaker looming. He had seemed the slightly better of the two players who seem to play to determine who is slightly better, given their daunting serves and staccato points and scant opportunities for momentum. Moments earlier, Anderson had served to stay in the fourth set at 5-6, and the sparse crowd had risen and marshaled its scattered throats, trying to encourage Querrey to deepen the American wave here. When their sound died down, and the last strains of it rang out somewhere in the rafters under the closed roof, Anderson blasted a 121-mph serve into the corner, and it caromed off Querrey's racket frame and straight to the ground.
Anderson closed that game at love with a 131-mph thing.
If he could win the tiebreaker, he would become the first South African in a U.S. Open final four during the Open Era. He would reach his first Grand Slam semifinal at age 31 on his 34th try with a ranking of No. 32. But if the No. 21-ranked Querrey could win the tiebreaker, the match had a chance to make resonant non-history if it could just squeeze its way to 2:27.
Questions swirled. If a bathroom break helped the match surpass 2:26, would the record require an asterisk?
Is there a panel, in some windowless office beneath courtside, with a case of Red Bull?
Anderson leapt to a 3-1 lead. Querrey rebounded to lead 5-4. Anderson rang up a second ace of the tiebreaker with a paltry 115-mph blast to lead 6-5. It meant match point. Querrey served 124 mph up the middle, making Anderson lunge to float a forehand into the net. The crowd went about 10-percent nuts, but that's nothing against the crowd, which was only 10-percent full.
"Sammy! Sammy!" it chanted, without checking to learn if anybody actually calls Querrey "Sammy."
It was 1:47 a.m.
Querrey served 135 mph, which is a lot to take at 1:47, but it zoomed long for an opening fault. Next came a second serve and 15-shot rally, which was inexplicable, a complete violation of the serve-and-croak theme. Anderson ripped a backhand into the net. The crowd part-roared, and Querrey led 7-6, a set point. Anderson sent a terrific forehand into the corner, and Querrey's game attempt to dig it out with a backhand crumpled at the net for 7-7.
Anderson served 133 mph, which is a lot to take at 1:49, and Querrey mustered it back, but his first groundstroke after that, a low backhand, stayed low and stopped at the net. That meant a second match point at 8-7, with breathless suspense. The various record holders of the 2:26 matches surely would have shuddered had they only cared.
In a nine-shot exchange that followed, the whole thing teetered with each gasp back and forth. Finally, Querrey whaled a forehand that sailed from the get-go. Anderson won, and the United States still hasn't had a male U.S. Open semifinalist since 2006, and the U.S. Open has one motley semifinal.
Tennis used to have motley semifinals now and then. Wimbledon 1996 featured a cratering of seeds and had Richard Krajicek against Jason Stoltenberg on one side, MaliVai Washington against Todd Martin on the other. A 2002 Australian Open semifinal had Thomas Johansson and Jiri Novak. (Johansson, seeded 16th, won the whole tournament.) Then the famed Big Four came along with their persnickety consistency, and these semifinal slots simply weren't available.
Now two of the big four, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, didn't play this U.S. Open, opening the gates to the long-toiling proletariat. There will be a semifinal between Anderson and No. 19-ranked Pablo Carreno Busta, a 26-year-old from the great Barcelona whose first 15 Grand Slams featured one previous quarterfinal, the 2017 French Open. Carreno Busta had beaten Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, in a match that began at noon Tuesday, or ages prior.
In the 2:15 a.m. interview session, which should have transpired in pajamas, Anderson was decent, pleasant and helpful. He said, "My biggest hope is that I'm able to inspire kids (in South Africa) to play the sport." He said he'd received texts from South African athletes Wayne Ferreira (tennis, retired), Ernie Els (golf) and Louis Oosthuizen (golf). He gave a thoughtful explanation of how Anderson-Querrey matches hinge on little twists here and there - they played five sets on a gnarled court at Wimbledon - and so he concluded, "It felt fantastic seeing that last ball go long."
At the 2:33 a.m. conference, which should have transpired fully asleep, an affable Querrey explained something else. To the spectators, 2 a.m. matches do feel different. For example, there's a far greater chance of getting shown on that big video screen during changeovers in a stadium half-empty (or more than half), with an outside chance of everybody appearing, especially if it's a five-setter. For another example, while U.S. Open crowds tend to chatter all the time, more than other Grand Slams, the problem ebbs after 1 a.m. with almost nobody to whom to talk.
For players, though, Querrey said, "Two a.m. feels the same as 9 p.m." That's because they know it's part of the game now and then. That's because it's a physical sport, he said, so he doesn't get "tired." Counterintuitively, for these record-threatening matches, it's more tiring to sit sedentarily and eat a giant chocolate-chip cookie while noticing four jumpy lads across the aisle and wondering if they might have school in five hours.