NEW YORK -- You know what is totally uncool? Catching a stomach virus the night before you're scheduled to play Maria Sharapova on center court in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Such was the fate of Mallory Burdette, a wild-card entry at this year's tournament who surprised in Rounds 1 and 2, earning herself a Friday afternoon date with Sharapova, the No. 3 player in the world. Apparently there's a bit of a bug going around Flushing Meadows, at least that's what a trainer told Burdette, who spent Thursday evening throwing up instead of eating, shaking her head at the irony of it all -- her body depleting itself of energy just when she needed it most.
Burdette planned to get dinner at Lexington Brass, an American eatery near her Manhattan hotel, before relaxing in her room and meditating on how she, a 21-year-old amateur from Georgia who will be a senior at Stanford this fall, might keep pace with Sharapova, an international superstar who has $21 million in career earnings.
But Burdette's plans were scrapped by the bug. When I saw her Friday morning, just before she walked on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium to hit a few balls, she was carrying a bottle of orange Pedialyte and looking like she needed a Red Bull.
The stadium was empty when Burdette and coach Megan Bradley-Rose began smacking the ball around. Burdette's parents, Alan and Judy, watched from the corner as Mariah Carey's "Dreamlover" pumped from the overhead speakers and fans began filing into the grandstand. Burdette had about 20 minutes on the court, but when she finished, she walked over to her parents and gave them a thumbs up. They exchanged all the traditional parent-child info: When had she fallen asleep? When did she wake up? Was there anything Mom and Dad could do for her?
With her bulky bag draped on her shoulder, Burdette was alternating sips of Evian with Pedialyte. It is supposed to be 90 degrees here Friday afternoon, probably even hotter on the hard court, especially with thousands of eyes burning down on her. The Sharapova match will be Burdette's first time playing in a venue like Arthur Ashe, which means she'll need to adjust to the oodles of additional space behind the baseline, the blur of seats and the fans she'll see when raising her eyes upward after tossing her serve.
Burdette is the youngest of four children, all of whom played tennis growing up. She gravitated toward the sport when she was knee-high, tagging along with her older brother, Andy, when he went to his tennis lessons. Because she wants to return to Stanford for her senior season -- the Cardinal have a championship-quality team -- she has already passed up about $65,000 in prize money from her first two victories. She keeps saying she is definitely going back to Palo Alto, Calif., but you can't help but wonder how she would feel if something unexpected happened against Sharapova -- you know, like pulling off a win or fighting in a tightly contested match. (Only four wild cards in U.S. Open women's history have advanced to the fourth round.)
When I first meet Burdette, it is midday Thursday and she has just completed an interview with the Tennis Channel. The station's set is built on a makeshift platform above the main concourse of Arthur Ashe. A metal staircase swirls twice around and is lined with a strand of deflated tennis balls. It looks festive, a kind of garland.
Burdette has to duck her head as she climbs down the stairs because she is 5-foot-10 and the spaces are narrow. I explain the purpose of my story -- hanging out with her to see what it's like behind the scenes at the U.S. Open for a 100-1 longshot in a two-horse race. We walk from the concourse to the player's lounge, then downstairs to where the practice times are scheduled and practice balls distributed.
The maze of hallways seems confusing at first, but the pattern presents itself quickly. The walkways are like spokes, branching out from center court. The outdoor player lounge is at the fringe of this wheel, a fence separating it from the parking lot. This is where I hang out with Burdette for a while, because there has been a miscommunication about her practice time. She thought the officials said 1:45 p.m., but she was actually in the books for 1 p.m. Now, there's nothing available until 3:15 p.m.
No matter. I get to ask her all of the important questions, like how many rackets she uses during each match. She says she uses only one, unless something happens to it, which is rare. The specific style of Wilson frame she loves isn't being manufactured anymore, so she went online and bought all the ones she could find. She uses a Lux string set at 58 pounds, which is done by the professional stringers in the room adjacent to the lounge. (I learn while eavesdropping on one of the dozen tours that come through, the stringing area once housed the family center. Back when Andre Agassi was still playing, photographers would continually come back to this area and snap photos of Agassi's children with his wife, the equally famous Steffi Graf. The family center was later moved to a more private location.)
Mostly, what Burdette wants from Friday's match is to see how her game stacks up against someone as good as Sharapova. She doesn't seem scared that Sharapova might expose weaknesses. In a way, she wants that to happen. A year from now, Burdette hopes to be on the WTA Tour, pocketing the prize money she can't keep this time around. Wouldn't it be great to leave this U.S. Open knowing just what kind of gap separates her from a lucrative pro career?
That's why it's so uncool she caught that stupid stomach virus. She wanted the most level playing field possible. Her best against Sharapova's best. Burdette even had a pair of shiny white Nikes from the Tennis Warehouse sent to her hotel overnight. The total cost was $141 -- $109 for the sneaks and $32 for the expedited shipping, but she needed them. Her old pair was broken down, totally unworthy of center court at the U.S. Open.
When I last saw her before Friday's match, she was feeling well enough to eat something. She was at the bottom of the stairs, preparing to go up toward the players' dining room, where she would eat whatever her stomach could handle before lying down for a little while.
She was also still cradling that bottle of Pedialyte.