FLUSHING, N.Y. — Even from inside its little brother, Louis Armstrong Stadium, you could hear Arthur Ashe erupt in cheers when Serena Williams earned herself the right to another singles match at the U.S. Open, beating Danka Kovinić 6-3, 6-3 in what felt like maybe the most anticipated opening-round performance in tennis history. When they showed the final on the scoreboard in the other stadium, Serena even got a standing ovation in absentia from the smaller audience who had missed out on the blessing of seeing her live. With record-setting crowds on hand and loads of celebrities in the vicinity, everything and everyone on the grounds revolved around her historic day.
When Serena played her last point at around 9:15 p.m. ET, the Armstrong match actually sported a pretty unexpected scoreline. I was there watching it from the beginning, because Bill Clinton and Dr. Ruth mugged me and my friend and took our Ashe tickets right as we got off the train. As a result I got to see the 94th-ranked Daniel Elahi Galán absolutely dogwalk fourth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-0, 6-1 through a shocking first two sets. Tsitsipas looked ill or drunk or something, like his eyes were lying to him about the location of such simple objects as the net and the out-of-bounds lines, and consequently he made a series of silly mistakes that stripped any aura of intimidation from the favorite and filled the venue with quietly stunned disgust at the abject failure on display, like all the attendees bit into a $50 steak at the same time and discovered that it had been cooked well done. (In fairness, a recurrence of Tsitsipas’s chronic elbow issues may have had something to do with his struggles.)
For as jaw-droppingly successful as he was while Serena was on the adjacent court, however, Galán might have consigned himself to little more than a sentence or two in the day one recaps had he only managed to get the better of Tsitsipas when the other match was still happening. While Serena was putting the finishing touches on her win, the legit Tsitsipas emerged with an assured 6-3 third set that appeared to comfortably re-establish his superiority on the court. The 3-2 lead he had in the fourth set when the main event wrapped up continued to push a sliding Galán to find some kind of foothold in a match he was only technically winning. The five-set Tsitsipas victory looked to be the safest bet, with those first two no-shows a result of lackadaisical preparation or an inconvenient injury flare-up. But it was still, by default, the next best thing to watch after Serena’s day ended.
It provided a key service in that way. It seemed as though so many tennis fans looked to keep the buzz going after such an emotional match at Ashe, and their gaze soon fixed upon this curious upset alert. Armstrong got more crowded. It in turn got louder, and more prone to sudden outbursts of surprise and joy. And with a sizable amount of that laser focus on Serena now shifted to this action, what followed was an unbelievable, heart-stopping fourth set that tied a clean bow on what had long ago become an unforgettable night.
Galán went down 4-2 in the set before finding a little control with the serve and taking advantage of yet more Tsitsipas mistakes to win the next three games in a row. I’ll spoil the wildest stat: Galán had nine match points before he finally pulled out the upset victory. Nine! Literally eight different times he was one point away from the most gigantic moment of his career, and eight different times he fumbled it away somehow or other. The sheer number of chances that Tsitsipas gave Galán were just impossible to imagine, and it quickly turned into an absurd cycle. Galán would get a match point, then lose it, then I would think to myself “OK, that’s the one he’s going to rue,” then he would play himself into another, only to blow that opportunity, too. Each time it happened, the atmosphere got weirder and weirder—increasingly encouraging, nervous, and then more and more intrigued by the possibility of a wild Tsitsipas comeback. Here’s the fifth one, after which the mood seemed to shift from “Wow, he’s going to do it!” to “Good God, he’ll never do it!”
Whenever it wasn’t a potentially game-ending situation, though, Galán continued to avoid the errors that Tsitsipas couldn’t stop making, and even after blowing five match points with the set at 5-4, Galán came back to win the next game to get to 6-5. It still wasn’t easy, and even with the decisive game at 15-40, Tsitsipas took Galán to deuce. But finally, then, the Tsitsipas escape acts met their end. When Galán got his victory with a Tsitsipas shot that just barely missed the line, it looked like it took several seconds for the moment to actually sink in, as if he forgot that match point meant there was a chance you could stop playing soon.
The emotions got there eventually, though, and despite the support that many of the early arrivals in the crowd had for Tsitsipas, they were firmly appreciative of Galán’s shock success, filling in some of the awkwardness of his post-match interview with rousing cheers. This was a contest that nobody really came to Queens to specifically see, and its place on the schedule guaranteed that it would be swallowed by the larger happening next door. But thanks to great timing and some nerves of steel even in the face of repeated disappointment, Galán kept the party at the Open going just a little longer than initially planned, and in doing so he made himself into a hero.