Ten years ago when American legend Pete Sampras and upstart Lleyton Hewitt walked out to face each other in the men's U.S. Open final on Sept. 9, 2001, nothing suggested they were about to play the last sporting event in New York City on the last normal Sunday that America would experience for a long, long time.
Rains came the following day, washing out a Yankees home game. The day after that -- Tuesday, Sept. 11 -- two hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers while Hewitt was in the air, too, flying home to Australia. A flight attendant told everyone the grim news when his plane landed in Sydney.
"I think we were one of the last flights to take off from New York," Hewitt said.
Hewitt had just won his first Grand Slam title that weekend, he was only 20, and while Sampras was dragged through a post-match discussion about how much tennis' young guns were closing on him, the talk around Hewitt was lighthearted. He was kidded a lot about how he wasn't even old enough to have a celebratory beer because the legal drinking age in New York is 21.
"Not allowed publicly," his countrywoman Rennae Stubbs corrected reporters, prompting laughter. "In my country he's old enough, so ... "
Ten years later, no U.S. Open final weekend has felt as innocent or as uncomplicated since. This year, the men's final was scheduled to fall exactly on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (rain has since pushed it back to Monday and the women's final has been slotted into its place). Back in 2001, Hewitt's short-lived afterglow about his big career breakthrough was just one of the sports stories that was quickly swallowed in 9/11's wake. Nearly everything that happened in the Before was immediately overtaken by the After of the terrorist attacks. Many of the tennis players who had just been in New York spoke of the shock. Feeling young and invulnerable gave way to disbelief at the surreal scenes on the news.
They had just walked the same streets now covered with ash and full of people searching for missing family members and friends.
"Every year since hasn't been the same coming back to New York," Roger Federer said this July at Wimbledon.
American Andy Roddick, who was only 20, had thought about staying in New York after the Open to attend a concert, then changed his mind and flew to his parents' home in Florida instead. But what if he hadn't? Pakistani doubles player Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi had just traveled to Holland to train for his next event. After he finished practice on 9/11, he turned on a TV.
"It was strange, but I was going through channels, and I actually thought it [coverage of the attacks] was a movie or something, so I switched the channel again, and then I felt like it was the same movie on a different channel as well, and I was kind of confused," Qureshi said. "Everything was mostly in Dutch, so I couldn't really understand. Then I actually realized what has happened. Very shocking moment, definitely."
Rafael Nadal was only 15 when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He had just played and lost his first professional match that day in Madrid, but says he immediately forgot the result. Just a few months earlier, Nadal had visited the top of the World Trade Center's South Tower on a family vacation and sat on a bench by an observation floor window for perhaps a half hour, just marveling at the astonishing view.
For the next six years that he returned to New York for the Open, Nadal says he felt compelled to make a trip to Ground Zero every time. He'd look at the gaping hole where the 110-story towers had been and he still couldn't believe it: Those amazing buildings and all those people in them -- all gone now? Just gone?
That's probably the most impact[ful] view I ever had in my life," Nadal said.
When Sampras and Hewitt played their 2001 match, federal authorities had no reason to lay the elaborate security plans they have in place for this year's tournament.
Osama bin Laden had urged al-Qaeda and its associates around the world to strike Americans on the anniversary, and authorities have told ABC News they consider the U.S. Open a possible high-profile target, along with the Mets' weekend series that will be going on across the street at Citi Field and numerous other events around New York.
Security already has been stepped up on trains, planes, bridges and subways. Concrete barriers have been dragged into place to protect buildings around the city from ground attacks. Even specially trained scuba diver teams are on call to patrol the harbor and rivers. No detail is being left to chance, especially with President Obama scheduled to come to town several times.
But sports fans long ago became familiar with extra precautions. The stadium experience in America hasn't been the same since the 9/11 attacks.
Bag searches and bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detecting wands and security pat-downs are the new "normal" at many events now, not just the U.S. Open.
But what does make tennis' view of our post-9/11 world a little different is tennis itself is so different from many other pro sports in North America.
The men's and women's tennis tours are year-long traveling caravans, a perennial melting pot of nationalities and languages and religions. It's not uncommon for tennis players to come from other political hotspots or places rocked by wars or terrorism.
Tennis players, like Olympians, always compete with their countries listed right after their names, too. But since 9/11, it has sometimes felt as if those boundaries have melted away more than ever. Many tennis players have spoken of feeling a special kinship with Americans -- especially New Yorkers.
Examples have popped up almost annually.
After the al-Qaeda bombing of a Madrid commuter train in March 2004 killed 119 people, Spanish-born former Wimbledon champ Conchita Martinez sat at a tournament in California comparing the sadness she felt over terrorism coming to Spain to the shock of it happening in the U.S. And former U.S. Federation Cup captain Billie Jean King recalled some now-it-could-be told stories: The reason her 2001 team opted not to compete in Madrid a month after 9/11 was because the FBI had warned that terrorist cells were operating there.
Six months after the Madrid bombing, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova took the court for the first ever all-Russian U.S. Open women's final wearing FDNY and NYPD hats as part of a ceremony to honor 9/11 heroes.
Speaking to the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd after losing the match, the 22-year-old Dementieva put a lump in many spectators' throats when she asked for a moment of silence to honor the memory of the 9/11 victims as well as the hundreds of students, parents and teachers killed by terrorists who had just taken over a Russian school a little more than a week earlier.
"Let's stay together and battle terrorists," Dementieva said.
At the 2009 U.S. Open, Serbian star Novak Djokovic quietly invited some children of 9/11 victims to visit with him during the tournament. When word leaked out about the gesture, Djokovic, who grew up in Belgrade as his country was mired in a civil war, only reluctantly talked about his reasons, saying: "I know what it [loss] feels like, so I just try to bring some smiles and make them enjoy. I hope that's what I did. It's a sad story from their side and from my side. So I guess in this moment we have no reason to talk about sad things, because, you know, we are here. We're trying to enjoy, we're young. ... What already happened, happened.
Qureshi, the Pakistani doubles player, is back at the U.S. Open this year. He and Rohan Bopanna of India made news at last year's tournament by teaming up in men's doubles to make a symbolic statement. Qureshi is a Muslim and Bopanna is Hindu. They said their hope was to underscore that whatever differences people or countries have on religious or national or ethnic grounds, it doesn't justify killing or abandoning each other.
Speaking after he and Bopanna lost the final to Americans Mike and Bob Bryan, Qureshi said, "Since Sept. 11, every time I come to the States or western countries I feel people have [the] wrong impression about Pakistan as a terrorist nation. I just wanted to declare that we are very friendly, loving and caring people, and we want peace in this world as much as Americans want [it] and the rest of the world wants [it]. You just can't judge the whole country just because of some groups that are trying to, you know, spoil the whole world, basically."
It's a nice thought -- fighting for peace rather than some of the other things people fight over, and standing up to those who threaten that hope.
Ten years have passed since 9/11 and yet that's still the challenge. The victims and heroes of 9/11 will be commemorated again before this year's women's and men's finals at the U.S. Open. As trite as everything sometimes sounds when cast against the gravity of all that happened -- the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost, the countless others that have been impacted -- there is something that always gets said in sports when things get tough or threatening that does apply.
It's that hopeful old idea that you can overcome by never giving in.