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US Open Diary Part 2

Oversized Tennis Balls, Flushing Fashion, and Serena v. Sloane

For Part 1, Click here

As a member of the media at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, there are several fleeting chances when you feel what it’s like to be a player.

I walk through the metal detector, collect my thoroughly, sometimes too thoroughly checked bag, and walk into the gated entrance where often a crowd of fans are nearly pushing each other over waiting for an autograph. As my ID is scanned there is always the urge to jokingly pull out a sharpie and start signing the large tennis balls that little kids and obnoxious parents hold outwardly as they wait for players. I’ve never quite understood the phenomena of the autograph unless it’s from a truly transcendent star. Twenty years from now, when one of those 10-year-olds pulls out that fuzzy, dusty ball from their basement (if they even have it) and wipes off the sedentary soot, will they really remember the unintelligible scribble that, say, American Jack Sock wrote?

I guess time will tell. Most people like finding unknowns before they make the big time, so I guess with every autograph is the growing chance to obtain the potential thousand-dollar signature. I remember as a kid going to a Colorado Sky Sox game, the Triple-A affiliate for the Rockies, and getting outfielder Butch Huskey to sign my glove. I lived in Seattle and he was on the Mariners for a few years. I think now only four people remember who Butch Huskey really was. And where did my autographed glove end up? In a crate in my basement. When a player is serving on match point, ushers let the little kids rush down to the front rows with their enormous tennis balls for a chance at a postgame autograph session. As the player down in the match, how debilitating it is to know even the ushers are expecting you to lose. Seriously, though, what do people do with these large tennis balls? They aren’t a mantle piece feature and they roll off any kind of table. I’m just glad I don’t have the hassle of carrying it around with me in the overpopulated walkways.

The US Open, between players and fans, is supposed to rake in around $720 million for the New York City area, doubling the expected intake for this year’s Super Bowl at the Meadowlands. So it makes sense that renovations are coming and walkways are getting widened. After hosting “One on One” Saturday, it takes 20 minutes to walk a stretch between Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong Stadiums that normally takes two. Part of the problem is food. The most tread passage also offers the most concessions and there’s nothing worse then trying to get to a match and weaving through the throngs of the clueless and hungry, not sure if they should splurge on the Heineken station or wait a bit longer for an afternoon cocktail. I have to be careful because if I stand on a small stairwell, credential wrapped around my neck, people start asking me for directions. “Excuse me where is Court 17?” Well, ma’am, I’ll answer you politely, but I assure you a grounds map is free.

Friday evening I catch Andy Murray’s last set against Leonardo Mayer at Armstrong, the second largest stadium with the intimacy of the Grandstand. Murray has the great ability to make new angles on the court, puzzling counterparts who thought they had it all covered. Murray is the defending men’s champion but he doesn’t look the part. He always looks like he’s tired and in a world of pain. His game doesn’t have the grace of Federer or dominant confidence of Djokovic. He breaks Mayer to go up 3-1 and gives a “C’mon” to himself, but naturally also to the crowd. Tennis is a sport that’s isolating and lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Play a pretty point and you’ll quickly garner a thousand supporters. Play a poor one and, as Murray often does, you’ll find something to take the blame off yourself: adjusting a shoelace, switching wristbands, toweling the forehead. More often than not, you just need to look at your box.

For Murray, it consists of tennis legend Ivan Lendl, some of his entourage, his girlfriend Kim Sears, and his mother. During Sunday afternoon’s match at Ashe, Lendl in his white, pulled-over hat chats with his group in the player’s box like a mob boss, muttering sporadically to his team. Nick Bollitierri always preaches the importance of the support team, needed in those defeating moments on court. When you sign on to be a boyfriend or girlfriend to a tennis player, you sign on to free seats at every tournament and several minutes of television face time, too. They become mini celebrities within the Tennis frat, people to scan for during the changeovers. When I left one night I walked by Roger Federer’s wife, someone, because of Roger’s incredible career, who has probably seen the most finals matches of any player’s spouse. Don’t ask me what any of Bill Russell’s wives looked like.

“All your lenses steam up when you go outside.” – Random Photographer

When I left Sunday morning it was pouring rain but when I arrived to Queens, the sun was piercing its way through the morning’s thick layer of clouds. Late August and early September in New York is a sticky time of year. The humidity grows between the intense daytime heat and the late afternoon rainstorms. Because this tournament lands between the socially accepted last week of summer and first week of fall (Labor Day), a unique distinction of fans grows. You can walk around for just a minute and see the effort put into outfits, particularly in the women. Many hover under the summer picnic fedora, others wear their sundress one last time. You’ve got to be ready for both elements here so an umbrella is usually ideal. In one minute, it’s a shading mechanism, in the next, a rain repellant.

It’s easy to take this press credential for granted though. Eating dinner, I notice a crowd swarm to a practice court, seemingly climbing the fence on top of one another just to get a glimpse at a player. It couldn’t just be Roger Federer preparing for his night match to draw this iPhone snapping confusion, I tell myself. Then of course I realize most of these people are here for one day, many of whom its their first time. They have a grounds pass, or have a ticket to Court 17 where they’ve been situated watching junior’s singles all day. Roger Federer is Leonardo DiCaprio at a movie premiere. Watching him hit forehands for a few minutes would have been like watching Van Gogh squiggle his brush on the palette before the canvas. I at once resent these magnetized fans and use them as inspiration. I’ve got a Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens match to watch soon, and I’m going to appreciate it.

This is a fourth round matchup but it could have well been a semi final. The third match on a Sunday afternoon is usually one to leave early and beat the traffic, but Arthur Ashe is 90 percent full. Ben Stiller is there. But there are a few things that make this match more than just a match. 1. Stephens beat Williams in the quarters at the Australian Open earlier this year. 2. Stephens a few months later said Williams was not her friend or mentor after she had beaten her, provoking a media storm that eventually cooled after further clarifying statements. 3. Williams is a black American woman who is the face of tennis and Stephens is a black American woman who will likely be the face of tennis, or at least American tennis. The crowd, like me, is split. Present vs. Future is the easy delineation to make here, but Stephens has proven she’s not just beginning to bud. She’s there. “Right now I’m carrying the little torch. But I’m ok with it. I embrace it for now,” she said afterward.

The crowd, including some drunken fan that eventually is escorted out after what looks like his seventh beer, is on Stephens’ side. I feel for bad for the crowd. It’s like Archie Manning when the Giants played the Colts in years past, or more recently Papa Harbaugh, watching his sons coach against each other in the Super Bowl. No one breaks in the early going and the intensity is matched on each end. Williams eventually breaks and takes the first set 6-4 and then Stephens begins to make errors. This was not Sloane’s best match, but even as Serena cruised to a 6-1 second set and match victory, the “oohs” and “ahhs” emanated more from Sloane’s play. Her forehand, when hit perfectly, is about as lethal as you will see. It’s got a whip-like action that explodes from the racquet. This is what tennis is all about. Seeing a legend face a future one. Maybe I didn’t carry a neon green oversized tennis ball around with me, but this memory will not collect dust in my mental basement.

“It wasn’t that bad. I thought it would be really stressful, really overwhelming, uncomfortable,” said Stephens later. “It wasn’t. It was fun. I had a lot of fun. I enjoyed myself…I wouldn’t trade this week for anything.” Sometimes it takes crazy fans to make me realize that, too. 

For Part 3, click here