Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Like Nowhere Else
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Like Nowhere Else 09/04/2010 - 7:21 PM

NYWF9-64Rockets This year I decided to stop worrying and learn to love the U.S. Open again. Not that I don’t enjoy most aspects of it. I’ve been to the tournament as a fan or journalist every year since 1983, and I’d miss it if I couldn’t keep that streak alive. At the same time, zig-zagging through the crowds at Flushing Meadows—it’s basically USTA law that more tickets must be printed and sold each year—for 15 or 16 straight days is an agitating experience. When people ask me what my favorite Grand Slam is, I don’t even think about the Open. Chalk it up to reverse hometown bias: If it’s in the next borough over, how great can it be?

But this time I vowed to see it from an outsider’s perspective, to see the way that it differs, for better or worse, from the other two Slams I’ve attended, Wimbledon and the French Open. For the most part, it’s worked. Yes, there are people everywhere at the Open; they come at you from all directions at all times. Yes, the lines are long; you can walk in circles for half an hour and not see more than a few stray points of tennis. And yes, the commerce is relentless; it’s easier to rotate your way from food zone to T-shirt kiosk to wine bar than it is to actually get into any court. But you could say the same for the French and Wimbledon. It’s just that in Europe, the scale is smaller and the commerce hidden behind a half-transparent screen of “tradition”—i.e., culture as commerce.

So what does make the Open the Open? Here are a few thoughts, after a week of unscientific investigation, about what we have that they don’t have. Aside from that fight guy, of course—talk about "only in New York."

***

Manhattan
Wimbledon, in its little hillside village, is cut off from London. Roland Garros is inside Paris. Flushing Meadows’ relation to “the city,” as we borough people humbly refer to Manhattan, is somewhere in between: Flushing has the urban energy, without any of Manhattan’s rigidly majestic design.

On most days, I travel to the tournament by subway or train. Last Wednesday, though, I took the player bus from the Waldorf-Astoria in midtown. Waiting under the Lexington Avenue entrance at 10:00 A.M., I felt like a tourist in my own town. The sun, as it always does as it crosses Manhattan in the morning, cast the east side of Lex in bright light and the west in total shade. In between, New York’s haphazard  soundtrack rolled quietly on. Strangers and tourists from all over the world crossed paths on the sidewalks. A car horn honked around the next corner. The hotel’s black-suited valet walked quickly out to the street, stuck his fingers in his mouth, and whistled for a cab. It swerved with a squeak of its tires toward the curb and stopped. It felt like the calmest place in the world.

***

Americans
What’s the character of an American? I’m honestly not sure. The French are, what, dramatic? The British are, what, reticent? We must be something more than just “straightforward” or “unsophisticated” or “money-grubbing,” right? I know there was a very good and generous description of us by Gordon Forbes in A Handful of Summers, but I can’t remember what it was.

Judging by one conversation overhead in the Grandstand, Americans seem to be inveterate and perhaps annoying askers of questions. Here is a sample of that conversation, between a woman from the Midwest, who is with her husband, and a woman from England sitting, solo, next to her.

“So you were married, never married?” the midwesterner asked.

A little while later:

“Are you dating someone now?”

A little while after that:

“Let me ask you, do you think you’d ever get a facelift?”

The British woman got up and left a few minutes later.

***

New Yorkers
The British are polite fans. The French are passionate and unified. New Yorkers? We tend to let our individual thoughts be known, good and bad. We tend to take on a personal relationship with the player. An example:

Richard Gasquet, every time he wins a point against Nikolay Davydenko on the Grandstand, makes sure he gets the same ball back from the ball boy. It can hold up play, and Gasquet is winning a lot of points, so there are quite a few brief delays. Finally, a fan, a fan with a strong New York accent, a fan who presumably doesn’t go to a whole lot of Gasquet matches, a fan who is only a few feet away from the Frenchman, has decided that he can’t take it anymore. He yells, with pointed venom, “It’s just a goddamn tennis ball!”

***

Security—or Lack Thereof
To get into the third-largest-court at the French Open, the Bullring, you must pass an usher guarding a door, walk through a small room, and then pass another usher guarding another door. To get into any press area at Wimbledon, you must pass someone dressed in a quasi-military uniform. To get into the press section in the Grandstand at the Open, you must find a badge—it could probably be from a physicians’ convention in Chicago in 1992—and hang it around your neck. Hence, this area fills up quickly. Two days ago, there was one seat left, the one next to mine. When the umpire called “time” after a changeover, there were still about a dozen people walking around. The umpire finally said, “Take any seat.” A man behind me pointed at the seat next to mine and started to walk down to it. He was stopped by an usher, who said, “Badges only.”

 “But they just said, ‘take any seat.’”

“Except that one,” the usher answered.

***

Night Sessions
This, of course, is the Open’s greatest invention, one that has added a whole universe of glitz and energy—and, yeah, cash—to the traditional Grand Slam since it’s advent in 1975. Thirty-five years later, the French and Wimbledon have not matched it. There are few more awesome sights in tennis than the titanic cruch of bodies that masses in front of the gates to Ashe Stadium waiting to enter for the night session.

On many days, I watch the night matches from home. I walk out past that titanic crush of glitzy humanity, and see it passing me, person by person by person by person, the other way as I head for the train. It can seem like every good-looking, well-dressed person in New York—or every obnoxious yuppie, depending on how you look at these things—has found his or her way onto the grounds. It’s a fabulous sight, and a weirdly lonely feeling, to pass all of them by.

***

The 7 Train
You can stay in the Wimbledon village, and in the district near Roland Garros. But only hardened New York veterans who have seen it all stay outside Manhattan. The easiest, if not the quickest or most comfortable, way to get from there to Flushing is the stop-and-start 7 train. I wouldn’t recommend the 7, exactly, especially on the way back to Manhattan, which can be an unpleasant way to end a long day. The one benefit of the trip’s length is that you time to do all sorts of things as you rattle your way above the no-frills, never-ending neighborhoods of Queens. Over the first half of the trip, I may read a couple chapters of a book. (During one Open years ago I took out all of Henry Esmond; it seems to have been the most memorable part of the two weeks). This year it’s been the memoirs of former Herald tennis writer Al Laney. It’s a must-read for anyone with a shred of interest in the tennis of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Then when I’ve had enough of Tilden and Lenglen, I can put the book away and listen to music for a while. This week I've been sampling two very New York performers. One is Sonny Rollins, whose bright, bouncing Tenor Madness is  the musical equivalent of walking up a set of subway steps and right into the middle of the rolling crowds on a Manhattan street. I read once where Rollins used to walk out to the middle of the Brooklyn bridge at night and wail away on his horn. I liked to think about him out there when I walked across the bridge, until, a few years later, I discovered that it hadn’t been the Brooklyn Bridge at all, but the Williamsburg Bridge where he played. The one time I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge after that, I forgot to think about Sonny Rollins.

After Sonny comes another group of dyed in the wool New Yorkers, the Velvet Underground. They’re usually assicoated with drugs and “decadence,” but the song that hits me today is a version of their gentlest love song, “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” With Lou Reed singing, rather than Nico the tuneless Teutonic, the song swings and swaggers. And contrary to the decadent reputation, it's as acutely and simply romantic as rock songs get:

I’ll be you mirror
Reflect what you are
In case you don’t know

The doors open, the headphones comes off, and the relentless walk down the boardwalk and toward the stadium begins.

***

A Rocket
When you sit high in the stands at Wimbledon, you can see the spire of the ancient St. Mary’s Church rising at the top of the hill. When you sit high in Suzanne Lenglen stadium in Paris, you can see the top of the Eiffel Tower. When you climb the steps of tiny Court 7 at the Open, you can see, just above the trees at the edge of the grounds, a rusting model rocket from the 1964 World’s Fair. It’s a symbol of a UN-influenced version of globalization long out of fashion, one that viewed the future with collective optimism.

Tennis has offered a very different version of globalization over the last four decades. It might roughly be described as the transition from the ITF to IMG, from the amateur and hierarchical British sports empire, dominated by amateur officials, to the money-oriented and democratic American sports empire, dominated by global talent agencies. The switchover happened in 1968, the year when the World’s Fair of four years before had begun to pretty creaky and naive. Below me on Court 6 and 7 are four tennis players, one from Lithuania, one from Austria, one from the Netherlands, and one from the Czech Republic. The fans, though, are from the USA. They’re chanting and bellowing. It’s a side court, and the players are as un-American as they get. But the fans at the Open are into it, like nowhere else.


 
19
Comments
 

Posted by Anees 09/04/2010 at 08:29 PM

First, Great one.

Posted by Ditte 09/04/2010 at 08:41 PM

This might not be the best place, but still i feel like i need to say this, what have all of you experts at tennis.com got against Caroline wozniacki? She is doing a great job, indeed factually shown at the US open by resent events in the US open. Miss Wozniacki mentions herself, in danish media, that she is tired of hearing people complain of her style because she is enyoying herself and she is winning. So is it not time that steve tignor and all the other conservative tennis experts get your act together and stare realise what is really in front of you. Because truly what is in front of you is a young woman who deserves your ought most respect

Posted by John 09/04/2010 at 09:26 PM

Third!

Posted by Master Ace 09/04/2010 at 09:31 PM

Ditte,
I think tennis.com knows that Caroline is very good. Other than Serena, she is probably the mentally best player in the WTA today that she will not beat herself. Playing 5 pressure matches in Copenhagen, with 3 of them 3 setters, and knowing she had to win all of them as she had the only sellout matches there. That tournament kicked off her summer as she is 16-1 since losing to Petra at Wimbledon. She was slowed by an ankle injury during the soft surface season. Now, if Caroline wins USO, this should quiet the critics as she would have won her first ever match against a former or current number 1 in the round of 16 along the way.

Posted by Skippie 09/04/2010 at 11:56 PM

I MADE A COMMENT!!!!!

Posted by SRao 09/05/2010 at 01:22 AM

Steve,

I’ve always wondered that,everytime you write something as wonderful as this current post,there are so few comments! Why?
Anyway…

I’m just so happy to read your stuff,because,I lovee tennis and everything about tennis.But my biggest regret in life,[so far]…I’ve never been to any slam,I wait to read stuff about slams and the places it’s held at. But I do watch all matches live on TV,right from my home, no matter if it’s night or day.And I “have” to watch Fed’s matches! I live in Bangalore and going to a slam is a major chore,and getting court-side tickets is impossible,so I’m happy with TV viewing,with perfect angles and superb commentary.

NYC city is simply the-best for me. Though I’ve visited the place several times, I’ve never been to the Open. And I’m somewhat partial towards USO. Aussie Open is my second choice.Your description makes me want to go right away, absorb and be immersed in that atmosphere.

I desperately want to go and watch Fed play a night match on Ashe, from a seat right behind the baseline.I know it’s kinda of impossible to get “that” seat. But that’s my ultimate dream.
Steve,FYI,I’m so envious and really really jealous,as you have been going to the Open since ’83,huh!

Posted by My Perspective 09/05/2010 at 02:23 AM

Feels nostalgic after reading your post ... Well written Steve ...
All my visits to the Open have been nothing but awesome fun (the one where I watched Fed win the finals was even better :) ....
Hands down the best tennis tournament in the whole world ...

Posted by rackettec 09/05/2010 at 04:21 AM

Yes The US OPEN is different than the other slams. I was amazed at the number of people running about. Although this is one of the great sporting events with sellout crowds, there is something to be said about the quant and intimate setting of a smaller tournament such as Miami. I would imagine that NewYorkers don't feel the squeeze of millions of people walking about, but when you come from small town westcoast comfort it sometimes is abit overwhelming.

Posted by skip1515 09/05/2010 at 06:45 AM

Steve, that "You're married/not married?" conversation is emblematic of Americans?

We're in way worse trouble than I ever thought.

[Or maybe not, and the man who was talking deserved to be the 2nd rude guy to get sucker punched at the Open. :) ]

Posted by Mr. T. 09/05/2010 at 07:11 AM

Steve - The Gasquet story was great as is your entire take on the US OPEN. My wife and I and our children went to the US OPEN for many years - 80s into the present century - until the money hungry USTA drove us away. How many bodies can you squeeze into that limited space before it turns into an unpleasant experience? They have finally achieved that goal. But it is still a great happening where the greatest tennis players in the world show their stuff. Every year I marvel at how hard and fast the tennis pro can hit the ball and still keep it inside the lines. Even the USTA can not ruin that sight.

Posted by My Perspective 09/05/2010 at 07:39 AM

Another thing, is the majestic view of Ashe Stadium under lights (from one of those corner stands, or ariel).
Ref: the picture in tennis.com or the USTA, where its lighted up under fading light, the blue and green courts etc.
You know what, I know there are calls for putting a roof on this place given the two monday finals, but the majesty of the stadium would be lost. Its unparalleled and given that there is no heavy seasonal rain in NYC at this time, I personally think the roof shld never come on.

Posted by Nick 09/05/2010 at 08:00 AM

Hey Thanks for a really interesting article .. i would one day love to visit NYC and the open.. the only thing is that as a proud Melbournian it would have been nice if you had given more consideration to the Aussie Open cause their is 4 slams

Posted by Ann 09/05/2010 at 08:06 AM

Yes a great article however the Australian Open is also great and maybe it could be included more

Posted by princepro110 09/05/2010 at 08:21 AM

I attended my first open in 1981 and have only missed a 3 in 30 years. I liked it better when you had to have a seat for the main stadium(Louis Armstrong....I think they called the grandstand that back before Ashe) that kept the crowds manageable. The sale of the ground pass and now reserved seating(in Louis Armstrong & some grandstand) that keeps growing every year is begining to turn me off. The USTA has become a money grab with the Open and it gets worse each year. I may just go to Challengers & Futures next year.......plus most of the American men are very boring ......Isner/Fish/Roddick...give me a break!

My tips:

-Take the LI Railroad from Penn station to Flushing...only two stops w/a seat

-When you arrive around 11AM go to an outside court for front row doubles or ladies singles before doubles.......I still can't sit through a 5 set mens match.

-On the outside courts go to the corners with some shade

-Bring a NY hoggie & large water

-Friday is USTA day with free soda/water/chips/door prize all day plus they have great bathrooms you don't have to line up for!

-By 6PM you can get some great matches first week on outside courts and the casual fans are leaving for the day with a sunburn

-The Louis Armstrong/Grandstand now are good places to go and not fry in the sun but not till after 5 or 6 PM!

Posted by petewho 09/05/2010 at 10:02 AM

haha .. I love new york folk , although Im not American I think its refreshing to just say what you think , rather than think what you say - it adds to the to chaos , that the reserved British only save for weekends ( oh the British can be crude and downright obnoxious as hell ) Wimbledon is just anomalie trust me , and for that matter so is Andy Murray ( A scotsman who hates drink ??? )

FM is the only GS ive been too and the first thing that hit me was how much smaller it all seemed than on Tv, I almost laughed it was just like my home court - but then why wouldnt it be ??

Night matches are more fun fer shure , the trouble is the head during the day tends to put you to sleep if the matches dont get bore you to death first.

Aside from the Agassi , Federer semi I saw in 04 , the rest of it was pretty unforgettable and disappointing .

The best bit was getting there the day before and sneaking in to see them all practice up close , I saw so many that day ...pricelss

Posted by sally 09/05/2010 at 10:54 AM

i think he didn't say much about the AO cause he hasn't been there.
he was reflecting on his experiences at the 3 majors he has been too.
steve wasn't dissing the AO. it is a great major.

Posted by adicecream 09/05/2010 at 01:13 PM

I was at the Open on Wednesday and Thursday. I love the crowds and the atmosphere. I love the outer courts where you can sit right next to the players and almost feel the ball whizzing by. I love sitting in my last row seat in Ashe and turning around to see Manhattan.

I'm quite fond of the 7 train. On the way to the Open the fans' anticipation is wonderful to see. On the way home, everyone is tired but happy and sharing their Open stories.

My only complaint: Need many more ladies' bathrooms and drinking fountains! And I couldn't bring myself to pay $90 for a sweatshirt, no matter how often my husband told me I was worth it.

Posted by Lynn Brown 09/05/2010 at 04:55 PM

I love the open, but the best day of all is Friday of Qualifying week. 32 matches, all high caliber, crowds a FRACTION of the madness that comes later, and ITS FREE!

Consider the cat out of the bag. I'll regret this next year.

Posted by tina (in the "Đ-block") 09/06/2010 at 04:04 PM

As a single American woman who does a lot of solo traveling, trust me, I get many more questions about being unmarried overseas. I carry an old engagement ring in my wallet to wear if I want to avoid the conversation completely.

I also love the thrill of everyone on the 7 train, but must agree about the terrible dearth of ladies' toilets.

I attended some first week session for more than 20 years straight. Last year, I didn't enjoy it as much - the "open spaces" are too crowded, there used to be more places to picnic. I was toying with the idea of going tomorrow night, but I'd rather save up for Indian Wells.

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