U.S. Open Early Round Play: A Tennis Bonanza

Don’t get my friend Feesh started on the U.S. Open.

He calls it the worst-run event in New York sports. Yet for each of the past 15 years, he’s been drawn inexorably back. Partly to get his fix of tennis, a sport that he competed in back when he still had cooperative shoulders. Mostly though, “I come to the early rounds for the same reason everybody else does – to see an upset. To be there when an unknown beats a star.”

Like a Janko Tipsarevic beating an Andy Roddick for example – which had occurred on this same stage one night earlier. Watching it on television I had been rooting hard for the “Serbian Bono”, since I had taken a liking to him earlier this summer at the Farmers Insurance Classic. I can imagine how thrilled I would have been to have seen his upset win unfold right in front of me.

In general though, I was chomping at the bit to see everything. But I had been slow on the trigger in purchasing a ticket for the day session, and when I arrived in the late afternoon expecting to waltz in and bounce from court to court consuming tennis in mass quantities I was sorely disappointed. That line queuing up at the box office? That was for the next day’s tickets. Today was sold out.

And so I cooled my heels awaiting the arrival of Feesh and the family, who were hosting me for the evening session and the better part of the weekend. The emphasis here is on the word “host” – because when you visit Feesh, you immediately become a member of one of the most inclusive and active families in America.

As I waited, I walked around the Flushing Meadows – Corona Park complex. This was the site of the World’s Fair in both 1939 and 1964 – back when the world was still a very big place. And the plaza with its now 46-year-old Unisphere sculpture and attendant fountain still draws people in droves.

It was still blisteringly hot in New York – the previous day, 10th seeded Belarusian Victoria Azarenka had actually collapsed on the court and had to be taken to the hospital. And although Hurricane Earl was closing in to suck all of the humidity out of the air, he was still in transit. So the mist from the fountain was a welcome respite. The rainbow was a nice touch as well.

The Unisphere globe and fountain sit at one end of a concourse that is anchored at the other by the South Plaza entrance to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and its three featured stadia: Grandstand Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, and the crown jewel, Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Louis Armstrong Stadium was the original structure, built as part of the 1964 World’s Fair construction project. And when the U.S. Open relocated here from Forest Hills in 1978, it became the focal point of the tennis world each year during the waning days of summer.

In the early 90’s, a rumored move of the U.S. Open to San Diego served as at least partial motivation for then-Mayor David Dinkins to spearhead and approve a $285 million renovation of the USTA National Tennis Center. The original Armstrong Stadium was essentially divided in two to create a new Armstrong Stadium and the adjacent Grandstand Stadium. And next door to that was built the magnificent Arthur Ashe Stadium. The latter opened in 1997, and the whole impressive facility was rededicated to bear Billie Jean King’s name in 2006. It’s safe to say that the U.S. Open is here for the duration.

I wandered back down the plaza and watched as people began to arrive for the evening session. Which is pretty much indistinguishable from the afternoon session. Play begins on each of a dozen or more courts in the morning, and since it’s impossible to plan around how long any individual match can take to complete, they pretty much just line ‘em up and play until all of the scheduled matches have been concluded. During the early rounds of the tournament, that can go deep into the night – and it’s not uncommon for play to extend past midnight and into the next day.

So I wondered how they went about clearing the decks of afternoon session attendees to make way for the evening session patrons. It turns out they don’t. If you’re of a mind to do so, you can arrive early in the day and stay until the lights are shut out. But unless you have tickets for both sessions, you’re limited to watching play only on the non-stadium courts after 6:00.

Still, for tennis junkies, that can’t be all bad. And for the USTA it probably works out OK to have plaza squatters as well. They eventually have to eat and drink, and the longer they’re on property, the more likely they’ll be motivated to wander into one of the many merchandise outlets.

And to seal the deal, they have a huge video screen facing the plaza outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which displays the action inside to all those that are hanging around the beautifully landscaped courtyard. A true win/win. I would be interested to know how many people in fact take advantage of this two-fer (OK, maybe it’s more like a 1 ½ – fer). I know I would, but…well, when it comes to attending sporting events I think I’m probably a couple of standard deviations north of the mean.

To be continued…

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