Commentary

Players remember events of Sept. 11

Updated: September 9, 2011, 9:52 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Ten years ago, unranked Rafael Nadal was playing Guillermo Platel -- ranked No. 731 in the world -- in a Madrid Futures event.

"I remember exactly what I did that day," Nadal said. "I was playing a match to win my first [ATP ranking] point, and I lost that match [after saving] 13 match points."

Rafa didn't win that first point, losing the match 6-2, 5-7, 2-6. Still, he collected $117 in prize money. He was 15 years old.

"I was really sad about my match, because the first point ATP always is really important," Nadal continued. "But when I came back to the locker room and I saw that on TV, I really forget the match in one second, no?"

Like so many of us, Nadal turned on the television that terrible Tuesday and saw the world change before his eyes. That day, of course, was Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers came down and nearly 3,000 died. Nadal had actually visited the twin towers in lower Manhattan a few months earlier and taken an elevator all the way to the 110th floor. Seeing the towers on television in a tragic context, he said, had a profound impact on him.

The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is about 15 miles from ground zero, and the tragedy affected many of those around the game who were in attendance for the 2001 U.S. Open. Lleyton Hewitt of Australia won the men's title two days earlier, defeating Pete Sampras in straight sets. The fact that Hewitt was winning his first Grand Slam as a 20-year-old underlines how long ago, in terms of tennis, 10 years truly was.

The night before, Venus Williams, then 21, beat her sister Serena in the women's final.

"Time flies so fast," Serena said recently. "You know, 10 years since September 11th is time where I think all Americans really kind of reminisce. It's a moment I don't think any American can forget.

"I was in New York at the time, and also in D.C., so it was just a really horrible, really scary, scary moment for me and my whole family. Yeah, it was a disaster."

This year's players were given a white U.S. Open cap with 9/11/01 in black, block figures on the side. Those digits will also be painted on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night in advance of the men's final scheduled for the 10-year anniversary date.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer was two years away from winning his first of a record 16 Slam titles in 2001.

"It's hard to understand and grasp it, really," said Roger Federer, who had yet to win any of his record 16 Grand Slam singles titles when the al-Qaeda terrorists struck. "I couldn't believe what was happening. I guess I didn't quite understand it almost until I came back to America the next time, or when I came to New York the next time, that this was such a shock.

"It was almost surreal that something like this was possible; that someone would want to do that. So that was very heavy. Every year since [it] hasn't been the same coming back to New York."

What follows is a narrative of the events of the day, as experienced by members of the tennis community who were in New York for the fortnight before the attacks:

Federer: I lost the first week, so I was at the National Tennis Center in Biel, Switzerland, and working out in the gym. I heard something was going on. I don't know if I got a message on my phone or someone ran down and told me, and I started to tell all my friends to turn on the TV and see this incredible news. That's how I heard it. I was long gone from New York.

Maria Sharapova: I was playing a challenger event in Kentucky, of all places. My dad and me were having breakfast in the morning, came back to our room and turned on the TV, and that was when we kind of saw the news. How old was I? Fourteen. Wow. Scary moment.

Andy Roddick: I actually had tickets to a concert in New York City that night, and for some reason I left the night before. I was in New York, and I woke up the next morning at my parents' house and just saw it. Like anybody else, you're just shocked. You know, it was a place you were the day before.

Miki Singh: I was working communications for the ATP. I remember we took Lleyton Hewitt around the city the day after he won to do some press. One of the stops was supposed to be the World Trade Center, Windows on the World. We never made it over there; it was too far out of the way. I think Hewitt made the last flight out to Australia late that night.

Rennae Stubbs: I won the mixed [doubles] on Friday night with Todd Woodbridge, and then Lisa Raymond and I won our first women's title at the U.S. Open on Sunday. We took a flight to Hawaii, the next event, on Monday. We arrived late at the Kona Island Hilton, so we deliberately turned our phones off because so many people were congratulating us. We got up early to go for a walk and were feeling great, our lives were so blessed. When I turned on my phone, one of my friends sent me a note: Turn on the TV and call me. That's never a good note to get.

Lisa Raymond: I was really jet-lagged and went to get coffee. We turned on our phones and, right after that, the TV. We had the same reaction everybody else had: absolute fear.

Stubbs: We saw the mayhem. The buildings were already down at that point. I didn't know what the f--- was going on.

Raymond: One of my best friends from high school, Jennifer, worked for Morgan Stanley. She had a 9 o'clock meeting in one of the towers. I didn't find out until later that it was canceled.

Stubbs: We went from feeling incredibly blessed -- to feeling incredibly blessed. We went from leaving a place that had given us the reward of a lifetime to learning that life can be so fleeting and terrible. The anniversary will have so much meaning for us, because it was such a strange time for us.

Donna Kelso: I was a WTA supervisor running a Tier IV event in Waikoloa, Hawaii. I got an early morning call from the tournament director telling me that the Pentagon had been attacked and we wouldn't be playing tennis that day. Given we were on an island and nobody was able to leave, we decided to play on Wednesday. Sandrine Testud won the event. She beat Justine Henin in the final. Mardy Fish: I was in Los Angeles, actually at former player's house, Alex O'Brien. I was playing a challenger that week that got canceled because of that. I remember I woke up like probably 7 out there and everything had already gone down. So it was sort of surreal trying to catch up with everything that had been going on -- not really knowing. There were things happening all over the place, so you didn't know if something was going to happen on the West Coast, either.

[+] EnlargeVenus Williams and Serena Williams
Cynthia Lum/Getty ImagesVenus Williams had just beaten sister Serena in the 2001 U.S. Open final three days before the attacks of Sept. 11.

Serena Williams: I was in D.C., and there were just Army trucks everywhere. And I was really scared, and it was just -- it was almost like, I guess, a war scene, because the whole streets were filled with these huge tanks. I remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, this is crazy.

Jim Courier: I was still a Florida resident, but I had moved on a part-time basis to an apartment [in New York] that March. I got stuck in Florida playing Mal Washington in a charity event because of the planes. It was quite a jolt to come back. When I walked out my door in Soho, I'd look to the left and see the Empire State Building; I'd look right and see the Twin Towers. It was pretty disturbing to see that void.

I had a neighbor in my city building. It was small, only five apartments. The guy's name was John Law. He worked for Cantor Fiztgerald, which lost 658 employees. By chance, he was not in the building that day. He should have been dead. He and his fiancée attended a CF wedding in Los Angeles and decided to stay a few extra days. Everyone in his team that flew back died.

Federer: I think you're never quite safe. Doesn't matter what you do. I guess what you try to do in life is try to be as safe as you can be without living in a golden cage, either. You have to go out there and live life, right?

Raymond: It was extremely surreal, like that movie, "Sliding Doors." Life is funny that way. Those split-second decisions that we make can determine whether we live or die on a given day.

Courier: New York City hasn't gone back to where it's been. And it won't. Security is different. Everything's different. There was a spirit there for a long time, but now we've gone back to being hardened New Yorkers.

Federer: For us, it left a big impact, because as tennis players we don't really have the choice not to travel, right? We are a part of the traveling circus with planes and so forth. We didn't really like to see it, I think all of us.

Roddick: The six months to a year after that, I probably haven't been prouder of the people in this country as far as the way they came together. I wish it would have had a little bit more staying power. Hopefully the 10-year mark will bring back some of those feelings of unity that we did have after that. I don't think it's a bad thing to remember.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Kamakshi Tandon contributed to this story.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.