Saturday, September 05, 2009

US Open at Flushing Meadows

It's hardly news that I'm a sports fan, but though I've posted on pro baseball, football, rugby, and other sports, I seldom mention professional tennis on here or elsewhere. From childhood through perhaps my mid 30s, I not only followed professional tennis avidly, but took lessons, played the game in my free time, and watched it whenever I could. This timespan, coincidentally, mirrored tennis's rise as one of America's more popular spectator sports, and included some of the sports' unforgettable heroes, characters and rivalries, such as Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg, the outrageous John McEnroe vs. Ivan Lendl, the final years of Arthur Ashe's and Billie Jean King's pioneering careers, Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, hearththrob Yannick Noah's improbable French Open victory in 1980, and later the new generation of champions that included Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, André Agassi, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, and so on, culminating in the late 1990s debut of the US's sole remaining international tennis stars, Venus and Serena Williams. In the last few years my tennis enthusiasms have waned tremendously, though I do still catch a televised Venus or Serena match if I can, and I do keep up a little with some of the current top players, like the efficient superstar Roger Federer, whose sole consistent rival appears to be Rafael Nadal. I had high hopes for model-handsome James Blake, who seems to be following in MaliVai Washington's footsteps by not being able to cash a championship paycheck despite formidable skills, and Amélie Mauresmo, the first of the younger generation players to proudly come out, but both have been consistent disappointments, though Mauresmo did win one major.

Engraved in my consciousness are the words "Forest Hills," the leafy, suburban-like neighborhood in Queens, which is where the United States Open tennis championships took place for many years, before moving a bit further out, to Flushing Meadows, where the Billie Jean King International Tennis Center and complex now sits. It is a short ride from Manhattan (and thus northern New Jersey) via the 7 train, yet despite having been to New York Mets games and periodically spending time in Queens, I somehow had never managed to visit the USTA center and catch the US Open until Friday, when C and I got free tickets to catch the Friday morning matches. This was an opportunity neither of us was going to turn down. After a short detour in a Sunnyside supermarket whose basement would make the denizens of Dante's Inferno feel at home, we reached the tennis center

It was far larger than I imagined and far more luxuriously appointed, catering mostly as far as I could tell to people who even in this Great Recession have an excess of money to spare. In addition to the high end mall presence of luxury goods retailers and corporations (Amex, Ralph Lauren, Lacoste, etc.) everything for purchase was costly, from the food and refreshments to the numerous tchotchkes. Yes, tennis began as as an aristocratic sport and has always carried an air of hauteur, yet this complex, which is often touted as being available to all New Yorkers and is the premier national tennis venue, still felt more than a bit exclusive. But counterbalancing this was I grasped to be the real reason to consider paying the general admissions fee, which was the ability to see live practice sessions and matches, especially on the outer courts and in the smaller stadiums on the grounds, as well as watch people and take in the general atmosphere. The Recession may have accounted for the most of the matches we caught, save the Tsonga-Nieminen contest in the Grandstand stadium, being far less mobbed that I'd imagined. There were lost of empty seats during the 1 pm match in the Ashe stadium, even though a holiday weekend was beginning and a bona fide was playing.

We were very lucky to have tickets for seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main and largest venue, but did check out as many matches as we could throughout the complex. As a result, on the outer courts we got to see Josselin Ouanna and a number of other players taking pre-match practice shots and working on their serves and volleys; a doubles match in which Max Mirnyi and Andy Ram defeated Dusan Vemic and Mischa Zverev, and another in which Alexa Glatch and Carly Gullickson were winning against Su-Wei Hsieh and Shuai Peng; and Julien Benneteau was battling Victor Troicki. (Benneteau eventually won.) After waiting in line for a bit to sit in vacated seats in the Grandstand Stadium, we also got to see the end of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's victorious match against Jarko Nieminen, and in Ashe Stadium, in the pre-headline match, we caught a little of Vania King's match against Daniela Hantuchova.

We were especially pleased, though, to learn that the main morning match included none other than Serena Williams, who was facing the 43rd-ranked María-José Martínez Sánchez. We made our way back by the start of the match, and, in our nosebleed seats, joyfully baked in that immense, open kiln as Serena at times forcefully, at other times distractedly, rolled over Martínez Sánchez, who didn't lose without putting on a show of her own at times. By the time the match was over I felt as I'd spent a day at Rockaway Beach or Sandy Hook, and so we passed on the Andy Murray-Paul Capdeville pairing, but I definitely hope we can come back next year if we can wing it.

And now, the photos!

Welcome gate, US Open
Welcome gates, US Open at the Billie Jean King International Tennis Center
US Open greeter
US Open greeter
Serena Williams
Serena Williams
Tsonga serving
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga serving
Tsonga serving
Tsonga serving
Glatch and Gullickson in a match, US Open
Glatch and Gullickson during their match
Josselin Ouanna
Josselin Ouanna, practicing
Mirnyi (l) and Ram (r), in a doubles match, US Open
Mirnyi (left) and Ram (right) conferring during their match
A Ralph Lauren store worker
A Ralph Lauren store worker, taking his break
King National Tennis Center grounds
King tennis center grounds, with 1964-65 World's Fair Unisphere (globe) in the background
Ralph Lauren store, US Open
Ralph Lauren store
King National Tennis Center grounds
Complex grounds, with Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadium on the left

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