The grounds at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are essentially a very commodious parking lot. There’s nothing but pavement and flagstone through most of it.
There are a few small, shady patches of grass – along one side of Louis Armstrong Stadium, at the far end of the main square that leads into Arthur Ashe Stadium – which are rammed to capacity at all hours.
Nobody sits in these spaces. They sprawl. Midafternoon, about a quarter of the loungers are stretched out, asleep. It makes for a peaceful battlefield triage scene.
There’s tennis happening. These people have tickets to the tennis. But they’re still here on the tiny lawns, out of sight of the tennis.
Inside the stadiums, it’s a Grand Slam. Outside, it’s still summer. People come here hoping to grab one last bit of that fading season, which arrives at Flushing Meadows every August ready to die. That’s the real allure of this event, America’s most urbane sporting export.
As a kid, the majors bookended my idea of summer. Wimbledon started as the school year ended.
All my strong memories of Wimbledon have nothing to do with who was playing whom. They’re shot through with that magical freedom of lounging around the house at noon on a weekday watching anyone play anyone else. There is nothing quite so decadent as rolling out of bed in your underwear, dragging a comforter down to the couch and allowing other, better people to physically exert themselves for your amusement.
Later, I would come to know this feeling as “unemployment” and it wasn’t quite so magical, but Wimbledon – just the idea of it – still makes me giddy. It’s the beginning of all of summer’s possibilities.
After Wimbledon ends, summer gets rolling. For eight weeks or so, sports recede. Baseball bumps along in the background, but lazily. You’ll give it its full due in September. Every once in a while, an Olympics or a World Cup demands your time, but that is no constant.
Early on, the people who make money off professional sports realized their product is best suited to the pragmatism of fall and the limitations of winter. That’s when we are trapped like rats in our homes, and have nothing better to do. Summer is for being outside, where no one will judge you for drinking in the middle of the day, possibly in a park.
Then the U.S. Open swings into view, and it’s all over.
Maybe that’s why the crowd here is so famously raucous. (A mind-boggling variety of licensed establishments may also have something to do with it. How many lovely days with the out-of-town in-laws have been destroyed by too many visits to the champagne kiosk?)
One of the small pleasures of attending this tournament is the chair umpires constantly, fussily shushing the stands, and being largely ignored. After each break, the stewards try to stem the flow of crowds rushing into the stadium looking for seats, so as not to distract the players. It usually turns into a game of Red Rover, as patrons push by the geriatric staff and begin sprinting toward the stands, which makes everything worse.
In one case, someone was called out by the umpire, who really had had enough – “Would the lady in the blue dress please take her seat?” The lady in the blue dress very purposefully slowed down and gamboled the entire length of Louis Armstrong. The players looked at each other, shrugged and started anyway.
I don’t know the lady in the blue dress, but she is a hero of such Herculean proportions they should name a street after her. A long one.
Without ever saying the words, we put this disregard for etiquette down to the fact that these are U.S. fans. They will not be shushed or hurried. They will take their seats in their own damned time.
I think this mania is the result of summer’s end, rather than national character. This is the last hurrah. They’ve called time at the bar and everyone has rushed up to order six drinks (not a metaphor). They’re trying to jam several months worth of fun into two weeks.
And so, the U.S. Open doesn’t build to a climax. It declines to one.
At the outset, the hallways that lead onto the court and into the dressing rooms are packed with players and hangers-on. Every backstage space is thronged with people.
Now, it’s nearly empty. The lucky survivors come to practise and then leave immediately. At home in your living room, this is getting more exciting. On the ground, the circus has begun to pack up.
With each passing day, the feeling here is of growing wistfulness.
Though I haven’t been a student in ages, I still get violently ill around Labour Day. A return to normalcy (i.e. many, many searching conversations in the vice-principal’s office) looms.
The first day of school always felt more like the beginning of the year than New Year’s ever could. It’s the bookmark in the philosophic annual of our lives. It’s a time for self-appraisal, which is seldom pleasant. (“Sept. 4: Not rich. Again.”) It gets harder as life goes on. More history, less opportunity.
So if Wimbledon was freedom, the U.S. Open is the end of it.
Each match takes you closer to the end of one reality and the beginning of another. For two weeks, we’re balanced on the edge of that possibility together. It’s proof of one the cornerstones of fandom – that while watching sport may or may not define your life, it is constantly giving it structure. The U.S. Open is one of those comforting signposts.
Life changes, but every year you chart its progress by watching this same familiar play, just with a different cast of actors.