Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to enjoy the U.S. Open

A friend of mine who lives in New York City but doesn't often attend the tennis U.S. Open decided to hit the tournament this week.  Knowing I'm a regular at Flushing Meadows, he emailed me for some advice. With his permission, I'll reprint our exchange here.

He emailed:

Hi Ben,

I watched Nadal's match yesterday. Can't remember ever seeing a match with so many breaks in it.... a strange match.

So I'll be at the US Open tomorrow! This is exciting! 

I found this page on as a guide: -- have a look at it. The thing about not bringing ANY kind of bag is a bit alarming. Please feel free to elaborate on/contradict/etc. any of the points they raise.

I guess I would like to know about the draw tomorrow -- who's good, who's fun, who's exciting, and all that. A timed schedule would be fine (your third match, around 4pm, should be X vs. Y.....), but if you're in an expansive mood, I'm eager for details too. So do tell me stuff about the players I might not know.

Beyond that, anything else about the experience and avoiding hassles (as far as you can remember) would be terrific. 

Thanks so much and hope you're doing well!


Sent from Staten Island, NY.

I replied:

In general, I agree with most of the points made in this article, with the exception of the thing about not being a rube. From the top of the Court 7 stands, e.g., you can look down onto a number of other courts. Although this is something I would be more likely to do between matches or during changeovers, I wouldn't rule it out altogether if I happened to be at a dull match and I wanted a look at players or practice sessions on nearby courts, which might also help me decide where to go next. I don't think the players are too concerned with what people are quietly doing 350 feet away. It's your money, the day goes by fast, you can't always get thru the crowds, watch what you want. Of course, I'm a rube.

But that's the tail wagging the dog. The big picture is that you want to max out your day at the tennis without wasting a lot of time in lines. That is why I actually second their point about not bringing a bag. What I would do, and DID do last year twice, is NOT bring a bag, but instead pack the handful of things I want to carry into the pockets of a pair of cargo shorts. In my case this was sunglasses, sunblock, a camera, and an apple. So you have all your stuff but speed right thru onto the grounds when the gates open. This saved me from waiting in a lengthy bag check line. (Emily was stuck in that line for 20-30 min. while I sailed right thru the gates in 30 seconds and ran into my parents on Court 13; my dad and I knew to hit the same excellent doubles match.) Most of the stuff people carry around they don't really need for just one day so if you can figure a way to go bagless, great. You can also buy a T-shirt or keychain on the grounds and presto, now you have a bag, if you'd rather empty your pockets.

Speaking of lines, you can walk around the most unassuming courts whenever you want like at a baseball game, but there may be lines to enter the larger stands. Entry there is limited to somewhat rushed one-minute changeovers every other game on the odd total scores in a given set (2-1, 5-2, etc. -- after games 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) and longer two-minute breaks between sets when a lot of people come and go. Sets at the U.S. Open go to tiebreakers (first to 7, win by 2) at 6 games all.

Wear a baseball cap or other hat; you'll be in the sun for most of the day. Bring a portable radio with earphones if you want to hear the live TV commentary. They beam it over the grounds. You can also get a temporary radio at an AmEx booth if you show an American Express card.

And I like that tip about avoiding the long entry lines at the subway gate, I've done that. Like they said, you can walk around to the other gate.  Speaking of the subway, the LIRR is only a 15-minute trip from Penn Station and more comfortable, but the 7 train is more widely catchable including from Grand Central Stn., cheaper, and generally a part of the experience for many. Just allow enough time for a lengthy ride out there.

You mentioned the other day you were getting grounds passes. These get you in to every court except the ginormous and frankly too big for tennis Arthur Ashe Stadium.  The best seats in the second stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, are also reserved, but there are plenty of general admission seats in there too and you might even end up in a box if you make the right friends.

It's hard to say "see this player at this time, see that player at time," because the third match on Court 8 might start at 3pm or 5pm. I would say get there when the gates open and as soon as you enter the grounds, buy the daily program guide. You don't need the fancy glossy magazine, just the daily order of play for $4 or whatever.  There's a well-written preview in there every day by a guy who knows his stuff, which will help set the mood and guide you thru your day. Use the scoreboards posted around the grounds, most notably in the central fountain plaza south of Ashe, to track the progress of matches and decide when to go where. You can try to get a good seat before a match starts or to catch the fifth set of a thrill ride.

I happen to have certain players I like to see, but tastes vary. There was one guy who was a can't miss, Fabrice Santoro (aka "The Magician") of France who would unleash a dazzling array of spins, slices and trick shots, but he retired a year or two ago. The biggest and most familiar names are likely to play in the Ashe stadium, so go on word of mouth, or who you've just read about in the NYT on the subway. For example, check out 2011 NCAA champion Steve Johnson of USC or an American junior champion like Jack Sock or Lauren Davis. You might even choose what to watch based on the scores. If a men's singles match on a nearby court is in the fourth set after three close ones, it could be a great battle. Also, on some outside courts, you can stand between two courts and keep an eye on two matches at once.

If I were to give one piece of advice as to what to see, it would be: watch doubles. It isn't shown much on TV as the networks tend to slavishly show big names playing singles. They will show Venus Williams killing someone for an hour in a mostly empty stadium where everyone including the players looks bored, and not even show two seconds of a highly entertaining doubles match thrilling a capacity crowd two courts over. At the pro level the doubles game is so much fun to watch, particularly at the highest level, so look for top-seeded teams. Split-second reactions, remarkable gets, weird formations, hand signals between partners, more interesting strategy than singles. You get these amazing points with all four players at the net:  boom-boom-boom-boom-boom.  

Try to see the Bryan brothers, the American identical twins who are the winningest doubles team ever with a freakishly syncopated style as covered on 60 Minutes and in a lengthy New Yorker profile. They read each other's minds on court and do everything at the same time. They don't do as many midair chest bumps as they did in their Stanford and young touring pro days, but they still bust out that move every once in a while. I've seen them on three continents and they're always a highlight. Other top doubles specialists I enjoy: Max Mirnyi, Leander Paes, Nenad Zimonjic, Mahesh Bhupathi, Daniel Nestor. There are a lot of them. You might also see some mixed doubles if that draw is underway by Thu. Cara Black and Lisa Raymond are two of the top ladies on the doubles scene. Venus and Serena sometimes play together, not sure about this year. If they're playing it might be on Armstrong, check that out. I saw them at Wimbledon overpowering some unfortunate duo.

Two courts I would recommend visiting:   
  • The Grandstand Court is the best-kept secret at the Open. Tucked under the eastern eaves of the Louis Armstrong stadium, it's a TV show court like the two larger stadiums, but there are no reserved seats.  So you can literally sit right behind the players 20 feet away without a $400 ticket as you'd need in Ashe stadium. Speaking of which, I would try to sit behind the baseline (the TV camera view) whenever possible, which you can do on this court and on a handful of the outside courts such as Court 13 that have two rows of seats along the north baseline. Not just because I don't like turning my head back and forth all day, but because every point is a story that unfolds over time and if you're sitting near the net you get a bad translation. You can take in the narrative so much better from the end of the court, where you can clearly see the shots, spins and strategy. In fact, if you're not sure which of two matches to see next, go for the one where you can sit behind the baseline.
  • Court 17 is a new television show court this year located behind the indoor tennis building (which during the tournament houses the Smash Zone novelty tennis areas that you might enjoy, plus it's a shady oasis). It's a sunken court they built by digging down 7 feet below ground level to create an intimate, dramatic little arena. You can sit behind the baseline in there. There are 2200 seats there this year and after they finish building it there will be 3000 next year.
You can also watch players on the practice courts toward the west end of the grounds. You might be one of 20 people watching, or caught in a 1000-person Andre Agassi teenybopper lovefest as I was one year when I watched then-coach Brad Gilbert drilling serves at A.A. from close range. Some of the practice courts are more accessible than others, but in general you can watch pros working on their game, talking with their coaches, wearing casual clothes, trying different things, not on stage but just on their own schedule. Sometimes they'll talk with the fans or give autographs to kids after they're done hitting. It's an interesting break from watching matches and you never know whom you'll run into -- maybe even Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, though they will probably practice in a more secluded area.

I generally avoid the overpriced food on the grounds. If you want to splurge on one big meal, there is an elegant restaurant called the U.S. Open Club in the eastern side of the Ashe stadium. It's like a nice country club dining room with an extensive buffet lunch of everything you could want catered by Levy Restaurants. You can also sneak a couple of pieces of fruit with you on your way out to enjoy later. Plus it's indoors and there are TVs showing the live action on the big courts. It's like $40-45 a person and a better option than spending $20 on something fried and not very good. Not sure if you need reserved-seat tennis tix to get in but we've been welcomed over the years, some days we had the tix, others we didn't. Act like you belong there and they probably won't give you a hard time (which is how I plan to go to the Oscars). But if you have to talk your way in you probably can. The place is usually half-empty, they're there to sell food and you're buying.

That's off the top of my head... have fun!

He replied:


You are a dream. You exceeded even my stratospheric expectations for this. I'll be sure to report back.


Sent from Staten Island, NY.


Karl said...

I like Ben's suggestions, especially about watching the matches from the end of the court. As for specific recommendations for tomorrow: On Armstrong, Jelena Jankovic is a former #1 woman making a comeback; Gael Monfils is an athletic Frenchman with lots of shot making ability; Mardy Fish is a 29 year old American playing the best tennis of his career.

On Court #17 you can't go wrong watching former #1 Ana Ivanovic. She isn't playing the best tennis of her career, but she has the looks of a fashion model.

I like the last match on Court #11 between Karlovic and Gasquet. On Court #6, Kevin Anderson played at Univ of Illinois and has a huge serve. He is moving up the rankings. The doubles matches that follow all look pretty good.

As Ben said, you can move between the courts to find the close matches. Just do it on the change overs. Lots of the other matches look interesting too.

Ben said...

I should have thought of Monfils. The guy is a human highlight film. Likewise, as Karl points out, his countryman Gasquet is another guy with all-world ability. I saw them play each other at the Open last year on Labor Day. They're both a bit flaky but when they show up they're very tough. Lately Monfils is making a sustained push toward the top.

I generally subscribe to Karl's recommendations. Mardy Fish recently supplanted Andy Roddick as the top American and is now in the top 10. I think Kevin Anderson played for the U of Ill. team that was the undefeated NCAA champion and sent several players including Amer Delic and Rajeev Ram to the pro tour. Coach Craig Tiley, Anderson's fellow South African, now runs the Australian Open.

Karl was wise to handpick matches from tomorrow's order of play. Of course, when I wrote the original email, it hadn't been released yet.

Elaine said...

If you get tired of the law, you could make a living being a sort of 'personal tour guide' at the various tennis events...

Ben said...

I should have mentioned, Karlovic-Gasquet is a great contrast in style: a one-dimensional, big-serving giant against a slick shotmaker with a lot of weapons.

BG said...

You can also sneak a couple of pieces of fruit with you on your way out to enjoy later.

Yeah, I can imagine the US Open security guard approaching you now, "Excuse me sir, is that a banana you have in your pocket or are you just enjoying the tennis."

Anonymous said... which you might reply: "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested".

Fantastic summary Ben.