A Snobbish Curmudgeon Takes On the U.S. Open

The first time I went to the U.S. Open, in 1983, I bought tickets for the semis and finals of both men’s and women’s singles at what I believe was a Ticketmaster counter at Hecht’s department store in Tysons Corner, Virginia. I don’t remember the cost, but it was more affordable than it is today, even in relative terms. I was in college and went that year with my mother.

Since then, I’ve been back, usually a couple of days each time, in 1988, ‘89, (only once or twice in the ‘90s when I was living outside the U.S.), and every year except one since 2007. This year I went for the first day of qualies and the first two days of the main draw. I went with my wife and my son, who’s already out of college.

Before I launch into a predictable curmudgeon’s rant about a few things I don’t like about the U.S. Open, I should say that overall, the fan experience is much better now than it was 36 years ago. What was cool back then was the intimacy, and competing with far fewer fans for seats on outside courts. Security wasn’t as big a deal in the 80s, so you could see Wimbledon champ Stefan Edberg and his coach, Tony Pickard, walk right by you unaccompanied — no burly guard shouting, “Clear the way!”

There was no Internet or apps, so the only way to know scores on other courts was to leave a court and go to the main plaza with the scoreboards. This was a huge advantage for tennis nerds like me. If you studied the order of play and knew the grounds well, you could get a sense of what was going from the sound coming from nearby courts. A certain kind of roar punctuated by a series of “Vamos Gaby” meant that Sabatini just broke serve and we’d better hustle over to the Grandstand. A relatively quiet court meant a serve-fest, probably not worth leaving the court you were on at the time. Repeated sustained applause typically meant an engaging duel with long rallies.

One of the things I liked best in the ‘80s was that you could get very close to the courts. I remember hearing Mary Jo Fernandez muttering to herself in Spanish. Fun stuff. But to the credit of the U.S. Open, you can still get very close. I could practically stand on the edge of Court 6 for Pella and Carreno Busta on the first Monday this year. And watching players practice is probably easier now than it was three decades ago. So that’s all good. Here are a few things I don’t like:

–Music that blares loud enough to be heard on court during play. Monfils and Ramos-Vinolas on Court 10 had to compete with the raucous tunes from the plaza. At the expense of sounding my age: Turn that crap off and let them play tennis!

–Arthur Ashe Stadium. It pains me that such an abomination was named for such a noble man. I have trouble getting my head around the notion that someone thought it was a good idea to build a tennis stadium that large. As much as that venue is criticized, it’s not criticized enough.

–The new Armstrong Stadium is much better for watching tennis, but the traffic flow of people is way too disorganized. Lines of people are going every which way, and no one seems to know how to actually get out of there.

–The greeters near the entrance gates spread fake news. I entered for the Monday night session at 6:15pm, and one greeter was telling everyone walking by that there was no tennis until 7pm. In fact, at that moment, there was tennis on about 10 courts that any fan on the grounds could watch. I knew better, but not everyone did.

–One thing is exactly the same as it was back in the ‘80s. I know it sounds snobbish, and it is, but: The sad truth is that the U.S. Open crowd is almost surely the least knowledgeable tennis audience of any decent-sized tournament. (The greeters aren’t helping.) This is obviously an unprovable assertion, but my own anecdotal experience supports it. Back in ‘88 and ‘89, I attended the Open with a friend and we came up with the idea of a sort of roving Tennis Truth Patrol. We thought we’d go around and correct all the conversational misinformation we overheard. But we couldn’t, because it would take too long and we had lives and stuff.

Sample:

Fan: That’s Darren Cahill, the guy who beat Becker at Wimbledon last year.

Me: No, that was Peter Doohan.

Fan: That’s Peter Doohan (pointing to player)?

Me: No, that’s Darren Cahill. It was Doohan who beat Becker at Wimbledon last year.

Fan: No, it was Cahill. 

Enjoy the last few rounds, everyone!