Through time, the United States Open often has served as a tennis perversion with a worthwhile purpose: Let's drive the players half-mad, see how they cope. It's almost as if there's a group of wild-eyed, under-slept goofballs in a lab just off-site, hatching fiendish schemes and doubling over in guffaws.
Still, the possibilities for lunacy keep diminishing.
The redone place looks awfully spiffy now - almost, to borrow a word from Wimbledon or Roland Garros, magical. Even that vulgar old scoundrel, rain, has gone thwarted with the new Arthur Ashe Stadium roof, which debuted (and stayed open) on Monday. We're a long way from the days of pre-1990 when, in a case of beautiful senselessness, jets from LaGuardia would scream barely overhead during matches - mauling eardrums and scrambling brains from close enough that their bellies seemed to shimmer from five feet away.
It was reassuring, then, that as No. 9-ranked Madison Keys walked out to serve for a first-round match "scheduled" for Monday night, the clock high above the premises read 1:46 a.m.
It wasn't Monday; it was Tuesday!
The U.S. Open had retained its knack for the berserk.
For the nocturnals in a vast stadium with emptied upper decks, their sparseness boosted their chances of appearing on the giant screens during changeovers. That enabled a woman in a blue T-shirt to demonstrate, during the final changeover, that she knew suitably the lyrics to Diana Ross's "Upside Down." It also enabled perverse veteran viewers to play a little mind game:
Please let them play on past 2 a.m.
Because: I want to say I watched tennis past 2 a.m. Please, please get to 2.
When it did end at 1:48, and Keys escaped countrywoman Alison Riske, ranked No. 60 in the world, by 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, it had become the latest-finishing women's match at a U.S. Open. By then, the signs of the strife lingered all around, detritus on the floors under abandoned seats: empty popcorn bags, an empty tall-Heineken can, a plastic glass with a gulp of rosé still left in the bottom. (What restraint.)
"Did you know you could play such great tennis after 1 a.m.?" Pam Shriver asked Keys in an on-court interview heard by tens of people.
"No, I didn't," Keys said.
Then came two further glories: a news conference at about 2:25 a.m. with the non-winner, and a news conference at about 2:32 with the winner. The first lasted an edifying two minutes, 18 seconds, and the second came in at a loquacious 4:42.
"Where do you think the match kind of turned?" a bleary but resolute reporter asked Riske.
"Um, it's 2 a.m.," she answered (but later said she was kidding).
"Are you a night person?" went another question. (Full disclosure: mine.)
"No," she said.
Bad moods at 2:26 a.m. are often the hardest, as we all know.
Credit her. There ought to be a special trophy for somebody who marshals herself to hold serve, while down 5-1, in a deciding set, at quarter to 2 in the morning. Maybe it could be a replica of an owl.
All along, the mischief-makers in the lab had cackled. In order to inconvenience players as much as possible - part of the point of the event - the evening had begun with an American penchant: protracted razzmatazz. Everyone knows you just can't have a new roof at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center without Phil Collins, Leslie Odom Jr. from "Hamilton." Then No. 1 Novak Djokovic and the 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Jankowicz began at 8:21 p.m. and played four sets in two hours, 37 minutes. Then Keys and Riske warmed up at 11:19 p.m. as fans, perhaps concerned about their employment status, filed out.
Then the match got going and boasted particular U.S. Open charms. Keys, who has become the first American woman to enter the top 10 for the first time since Serena Williams in 1999, held serve to stay in the first set at midnight, a fine distinction. She weathered a second-set tiebreaker in which she lurked two points from defeat at 1:15 a.m., a distinction still finer. She mis-hit a forehand at 1:35, evoking forgiveness.
She served a 105-mph ace at 1:47.
Well, could you?
Sometimes in the emptiness, you could hear the overground subway rumbling by. Attendants hauled masses of soda cans on carts through upstairs hallways. When a linesman working a doubles line made an "out" call, he did so emphatically enough that it did seem to echo. At one point the players stopped briefly, seemingly because a woman with a black dress and white hair had gotten up mid-game - noticeable in the sparseness - and ambled up the stairs all la-dee-da, as if she were an apparition, which maybe she was.
Riske said she had "no idea" of the time as the match went on, and Keys said, "It's not that bad. I mean, we both knew we were going to be on late today. So I mean, I slept until almost 11 o'clock this morning, so I definitely wasn't awake at 6 a.m. and at the courts at 8. I didn't show up until, like, 6:30."
Anymore, it's athletes of a high calibration against the vagaries of a manic event. The world's least-beautiful Grand Slam looks ever more beautiful. The signage looks vogue. Of the intimate new gumdrop of a Grandstand, the 18-year-old College Park native Frances Tiafoe, who lost in five agonizing sets to John Isner on Monday, said, "I think it's going to be the best court at the U.S. Open in years to come." Of the new Ashe court, Spain's Rafael Nadal said, "Is beautiful court. Is an amazing job that USTA did, and I think is a great improvement for everybody, for the players, for the fans who are visiting here Flushing Meadows, and for sure the people who are following the tournament on the television."
Madnesses do remain, bless them. Keys' next opponent, the 16-year-old Kayla Day from Santa Barbara, California, and born in late September 1999, played on wee Court No. 4, pretty much adjacent the Grand Central Parkway outside the grounds, meaning players and drivers can swear in unison. Even there, fine trees interrupt the view of the multi-lane monstrosity outside, so it's refreshing to know that in all the modernity, 2 a.m. spectating remains a plausible goal.
Still, they really should bring back those planes.