In the middle of a terrible August a few years ago, I got up very early and took the 7 Train to the U.S. Open by myself. An overcast Middle Saturday, back end of the third round. I got there hours before any scheduled match, went straight in, and took a seat about ten rows up from the net post in the Grandstand. I had the whole arena to myself for about twenty minutes, which felt particularly good because my job sucked and so did New York and so did I, and mostly what I recall from that period in my life is constantly searching for somewhere quiet just to sit for a minute. You know how summer can be.
This was when I first saw Mikhail Kukushkin.
Mikhail Kukushkin is a professional tennis player from Kazakhstan, which needs clarifying because you haven’t heard of him and before that day neither had I. He’s about the ninetieth-best tennis player in the world. That makes him better than any of us will ever be at anything, and also bad enough that a stadium full of people was going to convene in hopes of watching him lose to someone better and more popular. An hour before his match he stepped out onto the court in a ratty hoodie, stretched, and got a warm-up in with a hitting partner. From ten rows up I watched.
More than the rest of the full day I spent in Flushing Meadows wandering the grounds and sitting in various sets of bleachers, I most vividly remember Kukushkin in the chilly morning, trying to ease into his day. He looked vaguely irritated as he got limber and started hitting, a sensation that hurt to feel vicariously through him, for its intimate familiarity—after college, tennis had become too expensive for me to play now that a school team wasn’t footing the bill. He looked tired of his coach. He kept flexing his wrist between rallies, making furtive eye contact with the woman in an oversized sweatshirt who’d walked out there with him.
Because I didn’t know who he was at first, I debated for several minutes whether this was a pro I was watching, and then, absurdly, whether I could beat him. This was the first time I had ever seen a ball struck by a professional in person—before then, the best tennis I had ever been in attendance for all came from my own opponents. I didn’t know what this was supposed to look like.
It looked ordinary. Eventually the caliber of play became clear—he went about fifteen minutes without missing a ball and his impeccable footwork did not lapse—but the rallying pace wasn’t extreme, and he himself, Kukushkin, was short and wiry, the sort of player in a life before this one whom I would have comfortably bullied off the serve.
I liked him for this. Too often we’re led to believe that the things we hope and imagine for ourselves are exceptional or otherworldly, existing elsewhere on a plane free from the boring logic of our lives. That summer I had finally become a book editor, the job I had always wanted, and I hated it. It did not Change Everything, to become one—I was still me, all my various neuroticisms intact. Kukushkin quietly scolded himself after finally missing a groundstroke in this warm-up. You do not become a professional tennis player without having wanted it your whole life, exponentially more so if you’re good enough to reach the third round at the U.S. Open. But he did not seem very happy with this lot, and I found this refreshing. The clouds broke and the heat poured into the morning, and he mostly looked plagued with the same frenzied sickness of summer we all contract by mid-August.
Some of this mood surely stemmed from the task looming in front of him: his opponent that day was David Ferrer, who at the time was a top-five player in the world and stylistically just a pain in the ass to play against, in general. Kukushkin—along with his coach and the woman and the pale New Yorkers in dry-fit Nike polos now streaming into the stadium to take seats around me—knew he was going to lose.
I spent about twelve hours at the U.S. Open that day and I saw a lot of world-class tennis. I got to see Victoria Azarenka play on Louis Armstrong Stadium, and Tomas Berdych, and Janko Tipsarevic, who has all but disappeared now. I watched Richard Gasquet play from close enough to hear him castigating himself in French—Gasquet specifically you come to see in desperate hope that the television hasn’t lied to you, that his backhand really does look like that, and when he whipped through it the first time I remember thinking, no one can take that away. The act of seeing it, I mean. The act of remembering it now. The whole day felt impossibly good in a sad and slippery sort of way, and then afternoon dropped into evening, tipping off the head of a pin.
But the day was not dazzling. These were people. Tennis possesses this quality that makes it so strikingly clear that the space between who you are and who you’d like to be is not cosmic, but instead a matter of degree. The best players are just average ones with slightly quicker hands; you can feel the continuum on which both parties exist, and in the middle lies a collection of small decisions and circumstances that at some point widened the gap.
I have not written as much as I would have liked to this summer. From the nadir of it I would say it’s because summer is a hazy, spirit-sucking swamp that, when coupled with the sheer volume of things all of us now need to do to get by, places creative thinking well out of reach. But I don’t think that’s actually the reason. Probably I just didn't write. Probably, with other choices made at junctures I did not see at the time, I could have written more and felt good about it. That’s simple, and it is true of anything we are and aren’t—the alternative to whatever it is we’re being is always a finite distance away.
This is all to say that there’s no turn coming in the story from that morning. Mikhail Kukushkin lost to David Ferrer, in a match that mostly showcased how much energy Ferrer expends even when playing clearly inferior opponents. The sun rose above the stadium midway through the second set and it got uncomfortably hot. Mikhail lost without much in the way of real drama; he lost while spectators lazily clapped for Ferrer while filing in for the upcoming John Isner match. “I don’t know who this is,” I heard many people around me saying about Kukushkin, who lost quietly and shook hands and the next day flew back home to Kazakhstan.
But. He had a moment. After dropping the first two sets he managed to sneak away with the third, mainly due to a momentary drop in Ferrer’s level. No one cared. Tennis doesn’t really have garbage time but this felt pretty close. But midway through the fourth set, Kukushkin took advantage of a sloppy service game and converted a break point, and was now strangely just a few holds away from drawing even. We got a fist pump and a shout from him and suddenly the passive crowd stopped staring at their phones—for a brief few minutes, before Ferrer buckled down and wrestled away the set and the match, the scene felt like how you imagine the U.S. Open should feel.
Who knows if he remembers any of that match; eventually we’re all just guessing at each other’s interiors and probably also our own. But I hope that stretch in the fourth set was fulfilling in some small way, for him. More likely it felt like a loss, which it was. It was summer; it is now, too. You move forward. You trust that where you’d like to be will feel enough like where you are that it’s reachable, that you don’t have to become an entirely new version of yourself to get there. You trust that the heat will break.
At some point that evening the stadium lights buzzed on while I was watching Tommy Robredo, age something, beat a British teenager. I left to catch the 7 Train as a new crowd with special tickets arrived for the night session in Ashe.
Tennis is rife with these strange repetitions that can make the sport feel buggy and glitched. If you’re not careful, the summers can bleed into one another and you’ll forget where they start and end. Last year, years after the day I had watched him in person, Mikhail Kukushkin once again had to play a heavily favored David Ferrer at the U.S. Open. I wasn’t there—I don’t live in New York anymore. The match again went four sets. This time, Kukushkin won.