Julie Zhou writes: I looked anxiously up at the sky — dark clouds hung ominously low, the air smelled like wet laundry. These were not ideal conditions for tennis, but there I was, standing in front of the gate at Flushing Meadows, getting ready for a night of grand slam tennis featuring Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The first thing you should know about me is that I am a die-hard tennis fan and a die-harder Federer fan. One of my bucket list goals in life is to visit all four grand slams, preferably while Federer was still playing. Being a Melbournian and having seen Federer play at Wimbledon just the previous year, the US Open was about to become my third “Roger slam”.
Like most live sporting events, grand slam tennis is shaped to a large degree by the character of the crowd. The Australian Open is known universally as the Happy Slam, filled with families and young people enjoying the last days of their summer holidays. The French Open crowd is rude and rowdy, never missing an opportunity to boo a player into the ground as if he had just personally insulted their grandmother. Wimbledon is the least accessible slam of all, attracting an older, more affluent crowd with a higher-than-tolerable ratio of fedora wearers to human beings.
And the US Open? The US Open sparkles like a disco ball, with all the excessiveness that America has come to be stereotyped for: excessive size, excessive prize money, excessive corporate presence, and an excessive obsession with fame and glamour.
By the time I arrived in Flushing, everyone was anxious to get the match started. Play had been rained out for last two days and the tournament schedulers were beside themselves trying to finish the remaining matches by Sunday. I noted, with a sense of Australian smugness, that this sort of stuff would never happen in Melbourne. Oh no. Not at Melbourne Park, with its two roofs, soon to be three after the refurbishments.
The truth is that the BJK National Tennis Center, which houses the US Open, is everything a public sports facility should not be. Unused for most of the year except for the two weeks of the US Open, it lies as a colossal waste of real estate in a city where real estate is desperately needed.
Although situated in a park, the grounds lack the expanses of green lawns dotted with picnickers and giant screens that typify the Australian Open or Wimbledon. The show courts are crammed next to each other with little space for mass movement in between. The main court — Arthur Ashe Stadium — is shaped like a concrete fish bowl designed to hold whales. And despite its reputation as a ‘democratic’ slam, nowhere is the social hierarchy of tennis spectatorship more evident than in the seating inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Court level and mid-level seats are almost exclusively reserved for corporate boxes, series ticket holders, celebrities and the privileged class of deal-makers too busy networking to care about the actual tennis.
Sitting in the upper promenade sections, however, is like being a groundling at the London Globe Theatre, only you’re so high up in the stratosphere that Saturn looks bigger than Federer’s head. It doesn’t make for great tennis viewing, but it does make for some excellent people watching.
In a way, you’re among the true “general public” of the US Open: tourists carrying heavy machinery DSLR cameras, husbands insistently explaining surface differences and playing styles to bored wives, fans dressed in Swiss and French colours, parents and awestruck children, the Average Joes of this world taking a night off to watch the tennis simply because, well, that’s what you do in September in New York.
The mix of personalities gives the upper level seating area a playful vibe, and on this particular evening, the crowd was raring for some entertainment. There was plenty of cheers, groans, or sometimes — mass inhalation, at the various degrees of spin Federer can put on a yellow fuzzy ball.
There was plenty of dancing too, during the rain delay, the changes-of-ends, and even a skit organised by the tournament, which involved undercover dancers in the crowd leading everyone to a rousing rendition of “…it’s fun to stay at the YMCA!” As the large screens switched back to the players, the crowd giggled at the sight of the normally poker-faced Federer cracking up behind his towel.
It was a good night to be watching Federer. Coming off the back of two consecutive losses to Tsonga, many were questioning whether he had lost the mental edge over the Frenchman. But soon, it became apparently that Federer had come to dispel all doubts this time: he served too well, stayed too focused, and played too smart for Tsonga to make any real impact. Unlike their infamous Wimbledon match, this time, Federer would wrap up the match emphatically in straight sets.
As the crowd gathered up their belongings and filed slowly out of the too-few exits to the stadium, Alicia Keys and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind echoed throughout the grounds of the Billy Jean National Tennis Center.
Corny. But at the moment, as I quickly gobbled down the last spoonfuls of my Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and soaked all my senses in the post-match buzz of a chatty, departing crowd, I felt part of something truly wholesome and warm. Despite the inaccessibility of Flushing Meadows, this was New York at its most natural, most human best.
And there I was, in the midst of it all, feeling inexplicably and inexhaustibly happy.
Writer and tennis buff, Julie blogs regularly about tennis at ‘All I need is a picket fence’.