With the match at Arthur Ashe Stadium nearing its apparent conclusion, the scramble in the stands began. Hordes of children – mostly boys, and many spurred on by eager parents – seemed to materialize from nowhere, racing down the aisles to the front row, behind the players’ chairs.
Their anticipation would soon be rewarded. Not by autographs, photos or a thumbs-up from their racket-wielding heroes, but rather by the players’ terry-cloth wristbands, drenched in sweat.
It is one of the more peculiar traditions in sports, an odd postgame ritual seen after some basketball games, but nearly ubiquitous on the professional tennis circuit.
On Tuesday, after a straight-set victory in the U.S. Open by Gaël Monfils over the higher-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, the young fans were twice rewarded. First the disappointed Dimitrov, who despite his apparent haste to exit, tossed his wristband to the fans, along with several other sweaty belongings.
Then came Monfils, who in the throes of victory, pulled off his wristbands and tossed them, one at a time, to the clamoring throng of children screaming his name. They jostled for them as if he had just thrown a wad of cash.
“You get the player’s DNA soaking into you and you can be more like them,” said Janae Taft, 14, a tennis fan from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Any memento from a player is worth treasuring, she added – the more personal, the better.
“First you ask for the autograph, then a picture, and then if you get that, you ask for their wristband,” Janae said, while seeking autographs outside some practice courts on Tuesday. “Basically, if they touched it, I’ll take it.”
For players, the toss has become part of the postmatch routine. Many players, like Andy Murray or Roger Federer, prefer the overhand heave, while others, such as Monfils on Tuesday, opt for a more subdued underhand lob. Dimitrov favored a no-look, casual sidearm toss as he hurried off.
Dimitrov’s wristband was snagged by Gardner Howe, 14, of Manhattan, who cradled it and said, “I’m going to put it in my room.”
Dimitrov’s sweat-soaked shirt was caught by an adult fan, Miggi Davis, who said she had brought her young son down to snag a souvenir, but wound up with the shirt herself.
“Smell it,” she said, after burying her face in it. “It smells good.”
Monfils tossed one wristband just past the outstretched hand of Luisto Vallodolid, 10. It was caught by his aunt Priscilla Carrillo, standing behind him. She pressed the sweaty thing into little Luisto’s eager palm.
“Never wash it,” ordered his mother, Claudia Carrillo. The boy nodded.
The value of such a keepsake seems more rooted in sentiment than actual currency, although Steiner Sports was selling Derek Jeter game-worn wristbands on eBay for $609.99 each. (For the budget-minded collectors, a wristband worn in 1992 by J.J. Birden, a wide receiver who played seven seasons in the NFL, had no bids; the starting price was $1.99.)
Roberto Larancuent, who has been working at one of Wilson Sporting Goods’ retail booths at the tournament, said young fans seemed so obsessed with wristbands that the inventory of stock white ones at the booth kept selling out.
“You have to understand, these fans worship these players,” he said. “So if they can get something that says ‘I got so close to the player and he used this wristband on this particular day to win,’ then it’s a way of taking some of the player home with them. They think it’s going to make them into a better player themselves.”
Robert Kim, 17, of Flushing, a ball boy at the U.S. Open, said that the demand was highest for highly ranked male players, and that some players themselves seemed to thrive on the practice.
For example, he said, he worked the court for an early round match featuring the French player Gilles Simon. Simon was so elated after winning that he excitedly threw extra wristbands and other items to fans, Robert said.
The wristband toss is not the only example of the players’ offering instant memorabilia: At the conclusion of matches at the U.S. Open, winning players autograph a few tennis balls, and then hit them into the stands.
As for the wristbands, the U.S. Tennis Association sees them as another example of bonding between the players and fans.
“We love it when players and fans get closer to each other,” a spokesman, Chris Widmaier, said.
The top players are not the only ones bugged for their wristbands. Raquel Pedraza, 16, a player from California who participated in the U.S. Open Junior Girls’ tournament, said she was constantly asked for her wristbands after matches.
“It makes them feel like they have a piece of a player,” she said. “Like, ‘This was part of this player on this day.’”
One fan, Amy Simons, 30, who was waiting for autographs near the practice courts on Tuesday, distanced herself from the practice, sort of.
“I don’t want anybody’s sweaty anything,” she said, and then paused and added that it might be different if a top player such as Federer offered.
“Well, if he felt the need to hand it to me, I wouldn’t say no,” she said.
As for Monfils himself, he said he could see why the young fans would want the sweaty garment.
Approached after the match, the Frenchman referred to the courts at Roland Garros, where the French Open is played.
“If I was a kid and my parents took me to Roland Garros, and I could catch one,” he said, “I would.”
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