Sometimes I wonder if I’ll look back one day and regret that I didn’t do enough New York things while living in New York. These thoughts usually pop up while I’m sitting in front of the television on Sunday night, wrapping up a two-day bender of Dr Pepper, cereal and regret. In 20 years, if we’re living in a suburb or a different country or a different part of this one, will I wish I had gone to Central Park more or hit more of the museums or ate at more great restaurants or sought out more nightlife? Should I have experienced more of the bizarre things that are just a part of normal life here?
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy or take advantage of the things that make New York unique. On Saturday, for the fifth time, I traveled to Queens for the U.S. Open. The Open was my favorite tourney to watch as a kid, whether it was seeing McEnroe battle Lendl or Mats Wilander outlast Boris Becker — in that boring Swedish way — or watching Jimmy Connors’ epic 1991 run, the Open always seemed to have a different type of energy, even on television. The lights, those late-night matches that went until 1 a.m., the loud crowds, the shots of the skyline, it all played into the mystique. When I first moved to the city a trip to the Open was high on my list of must-see events.
It lives up to expectations.
Saturday was the first time I hit the Open on the weekend; my other trips all occurred on the first Tuesday of the tourney. The vibe is the same, even if the ticket price wasn’t. I bought a grounds pass, which allows access to all of the courts except the biggest, Arthur Ashe Stadium. If you ever make the trip to the Open, don’t feel bad if you don’t see a match at Ashe. Veteran fans always recommend wandering the outer courts — plus you’ll have access to the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium — and that’s especially good advice early in the week, when all of the courts are packed, often with highly ranked players. On Saturday I saw one full match and parts of four others.
The first matches started at 11 in the morning. By the time I arrived around 11:20, the line to get into the Grandstand to watch upstart American John Sock looked like Black Friday outside Walmart at 4 a.m. Instead I wandered to the top of Louis Armstrong, which served as the main stadium until Ashe opened. During the action, ushers open the entrances during layovers so people come and go during those breaks. At the Open, it often seems the people aren’t even watching the tennis, or even fully aware of the sporting event taking place. The tennis is more like an act you might see at a mall plaza on the weekend — perhaps the high school choir raising money for cancer — that you pass and watch for a few minutes before walking toward the food court.
The first match of the day featured Roberta Vinci against Dominika Cibulkova, two players I was totally unfamiliar with, although I quickly settled on a favorite, while taking in the action from high above the court.
Cibulkova led 2-1 before Vinci won five straight, much to my delight. Cibulkova reacted after every point and always turned to her supporters sitting courtside. If she won a point — any point — she raised her hand in the type of non-pump fist-pump perfected by Derek Jeter, the kind you’d see from him in the dugout after a clutch hit by Bernie Williams. She stared at her supporters sitting in the nearby seats, receiving affirmation for hitting a nice forehand or winning a long point. When she lost a point — any point — she again stared at her supporters, this time in exasperation. Look within yourself! I wanted to scream, though from where I sat it would have taken 15 seconds for the sound to reach her on the court. Vinci simply went about her business and won in straight sets, slightly upsetting the crowd that is always looking for a match to go the distance.
A woman next to me, who was in a group of six or seven people, told another lady that Cibulkova reminded her of Amanda Coetzer, who played in the 1990s. When her friend pleaded ignorance about Coetzer’s career and looks the woman replied, “Amanda Coetzer? How can you not know her? Little blond thing. Really? Amanda Coetzer? You don’t remember her.”
The woman did not.
“Amanda Coetzer. German girl.”
Perhaps the woman didn’t recall Amanda Coetzer the German because the one who played professional tennis was actually from South Africa.
I watched two doubles matches on Court 13. Front row. Where Nicholson sits.
Watching a doubles match up close is incredibly entertaining, the action fast and intense at all times. Slams and volleys are the norm and when you’re 15 feet away from the players it’s even easier to appreciate the action, even if you haven’t heard of any of the four participants. Unfortunately the first match ended after three games when one of the guys walked off with an injury.
Between those matches — and after spending 25 bucks for a burger, waffle fries, soda and water (but no ketchup, as all of the dispensers were empty, which left me, for the first time in my life, missing the tiny packets you get at fast food joints) — I caught the third-set tiebreaker and the final set between Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic, who put on an entertaining show in front of a boisterous crowd. Nishikori was the favorite, at least judging by the organized chants of his name that started in the seats behind the baseline. Nishikori scrapped for each point while Cilic bombed away with a serve that eventually proved overwhelming as he closed out the match 6-3 in the fourth.
I ended the day where I started it, back in Louis Armstrong, this time to watch Andy Murray’s match against Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, a battle that lasted nearly four hours and included three tiebreakers — all of them won by Murray. From my vantage point Lopez looked his his countryman Rafael Nadal, with the bandana and left-handed strokes. At times he played like Nadal, but the end result was much different than the majority of Rafa’s matches.
Murray is one of the four dominant players in the world — what is the official name for those guys? The Big Three, plus 1? — but at times Saturday he looked annoyed and frustrated. After the match he admitted it was a bit of fatigue from the heat and his summer, which included a Wimbledon final and a gold medal in the Olympics. He prevailed Saturday, as all of the top four guys always seem to do into the semifinals.
What must it be like for every other player in the world? Yes, they pull off the occasional upset, knocking Nadal off early at Wimbledon or Federer at the French. Does the crowd want someone else? I doubt it. We want a tight match — five sets would be ideal — but when Super Saturday rolls around we want Federer and Nadal (who’s out of the Open with an injury), Murray and Djokovic. Everyone else is just fodder, and all we really want is for them to entertain before they shuffle off center stage with a wave and to warm applause.
Lopez did his job, getting the crowd behind him in the third set, a crowd that wanted more tennis.
He must have thought an upset was possible — even if their defeats are inevitable, the opponents of the Big Four have to maintain their self-confidence — and he skipped around a bit and pumped his fist and gestured to the crowd.
And then he walked off to warm applause and a wave while Murray spoke to the on-court announcer about the tough match and his victory. That’s the way of the world.
I left the grounds around 6:30, seven hours after I arrived. I got back on the subway with thousands of others, all of us sweating, all of us content.
Some day I’ll return to the city in a car service, after my second-round victory at the Open. At least that’s the fantasy I had for years.
This was more six or seven years ago, when I was in my early 30s and Federer ruled alone. As a kid I was a pretty good high school tennis player, even though I never had a lesson, never had a coach and never competed in a high school match. In Janesville about four people played tennis. The tennis courts were simply something you passed by on the way to the football field. But I became a decent player and won some summer tournaments, defeating guys who did have coaches and did play in high school. Before my senior year I started playing a kid from town named Nate, who went on to play at college and then became an instructor as an adult. Nate was a really good player but I beat him for years, until finally his talent caught up to mine.
Anyway, I kept playing as an adult but now haven’t played in, oh, probably eight years. But I still have some regrets about not pursuing tennis in school or at college. It could have ended up being my best sport. So what’s that have to do with the U.S. Open?
Well I dreamed up a scenario, the type of thing you think up while sitting on the couch watching the early rounds of the tourney and listening to Ted Robinson and John McEnroe call the action. In the fantasy, I start playing against at 31. I train. I rediscover my dominating serve and adequate net game. I call up my old friend Nate who says, yeah, he’ll coach me.
Like Tin Cup in golf — that was a documentary, right? – I qualify for the U.S. Open through an qualifier, shocking the youngsters and tennis elite. Who is that old guy? He came out of nowhere!
(Please note: I don’t know if tennis works like golf. I don’t know if there’s an open qualifier where anyone can play. There probably isn’t. But do you spend time fact-checking your fantasies?)
At the Open I face the No. 2 seed in the opening round and upset him in five sets. I win a few more matches and now all the tabloids have me on the backpage. At the press conference I banter and spar with the writers, who love my wit and self-deprecating ways. Eventually people wonder about PEDs? Columnists — maybe Lupica — write that I’m a great story but in today’s sports world, how can we know for sure? How can we know he’s not on 78 steroids, including horse tranquilizers and an endurance pill originally created by the Army in the 1950s? How can you never play competitive tennis — he didn’t even play in high school! — and then beat the best in the world?
The Open crowd adores me, chanting my name and melting when I point to my weeping parents in the crowd following a five-set quarterfinal victory over a player from, I don’t know, Brazil. Eventually I make it to the finals and face the machine, Federer. I’m not intimidated because, unlike everyone else in men’s tennis, I haven’t spent six years being decimated by him. I prevail in a fifth-set tiebreak — 7-5 or 11-9 — and fall to my knees as Federer waits at the net to congratulate me. In 20 years, that match replaced Connors-Krickstein as CBS’s go-to rain-delay match.
At 37 I no longer think this is realistic — what are the chances I’d make it through Murray, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic?
For now I’ll be happy paying to get in to the Open. I’ll be happy sitting in the top row of the big stadium and in the front row outside of it. I’ll eat my overpriced burgers and enjoy great tennis. Every tennis fan should experience it at some point.
Especially if you’re a New Yorker.