FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. – There were two hot tickets this month – maybe the only one who attended both the Democratic Convention AND US Open is the band Earth, Wind & Fire, the opening entertainment for both.
For the past 30 years I have watched the Open grow up since it moved in 1978 from the grassy courts of Forest Hills to the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. I spent part of my childhood there before the move–my parents brought me there as a kid as a break from our Bronx apartment beginning as a baby going to the ’69 World’s Fair. It must have been just as crowded then as now. This week the grounds turn into a human traffic jam by noon. I have no idea what it was like in Denver but the wait to stand in front of an empty urinal in Flushing is close to 20 minutes.
Every year it’s my routine to reserve the last weeks of August for the Open to see friends who I will not see any other part of the year. Many have Open relationships – friendships which only exist during this three week period (for real fans the Open begins with the week of qualifying rounds). The court with most memories and drama for me is the food-court. It’s a strip mall at the hub with all human tributaries of the event spilling into it’s plaza. I have bumped into high school teachers, old friends, and enemies of mine. I have fallen in love here, ended relationships here…even got fired here (last year when arguing with my new week-old editor and ex-boss of TimeOut.). It is here that highlights are coupled with low points. In 1980 my closest friend from high school was escorted off the grounds for pinching Chris Evert’s ass when she was signing autographs in the food-court. It was at the food-court that I sat down at an empty table with tennis great Illie Nastase after I saw my hero disgrace himself and get defaulted for taking his shorts off during a dispute with an umpire (“It was an entertaining match, no?”). It was the food-court where I was consoled after I was shellacked in the semis of my last NCAAs (but it was my biggest tennis thrill, playing in Louis Armstrong Stadium). I know this place like the back of my hand–in ‘04 I created the US Open map for Tennis magazine, now run by Chris Evert. My favorite story happened when I was sitting on the top row in a neighboring court. I asked my friend if he knew who was sitting next to him and then explained, “That’s Stan Smith.” My friend got so nervous that he turned to the tennis great and said “I’m a big fan of your sneakers” and then knocked his knapsack off the bleachers, sending it banging down the support beams. I called the move “smooth,” getting a chuckle out of Smith and then we all watched my friend climb down to find his bag.
As usual, I have been spending the past two weeks catching up with old friends, listening to old stories of matches long over but never forgotten. As one friend reminisces of what could have been if he stayed on one more year on the pro tour (careers end with either injury or in his case, an exhaustion of funds), some are still going strong (Terry just won the Bronze in the Senior Olympics at 73). And some just starting out. My neighbor, a 15-yr Russian girl, is a top prospect and is playing here in the juniors).
Polo Ralph Lauren is holding a contest to benefit cancer–$3,000 spending spree if you correctly guess how many balls are in the container.