Monday, September 3, 2012

US Open.

If you know me, you know I am a tennis nerd. I have a big, unabashed, stupid kind of love for the sport of tennis. During my childhood summers, the US Open and Wimbledon were always on, and usually coincided with a beach trip. I have so many memories of watching Agassi, Sampras, Rafter, Courier, etc. play on the TV at Duck or Fripp Island on rainy, indoor afternoons. For me it was more background noise at the time, something to occasionally catch my absentminded attention, as I waited for the sun to come out and get back to the beach. But still it sticks in my memory, courts of green and blue, fuzzy, neon yellow balls against the backdrop of so many summer days.

And then when I started high school I fell in love with the sport on my own terms. Since then it's meant everything to me. It's my sport, my thing. But despite how much tennis has enriched my life, it hasn't always been easy to be a tennis fan. It's often very lonely. It's watching a five set, edge of your seat Australian Open final in the wee hours of Super Bowl Sunday, and having no one to share my exhilaration with over the result at the Super Bowl party later that day. It's constantly being in a rooms full of people who will talk excitedly and at length at the mere mention of football or basketball, but who will look on with polite confusion if the names David Ferrer or Juan Martin Del Potro are brought up. It's being the one lone geeked out Facebook or Twitter post about a tennis match in a sea of like minded updates about other, far more popular sports in American culture.

As a tennis fan, at least in Richmond, VA, I've never really had a pack. Sure, I'll meet the occasional tennis fan and gorge myself on that rare, spirited conversation about tennis. My dad and mom are  tennis fans, and that helps. But more often, I'm in it alone. I can't go to a sports bar and surround myself with other intense Nadal or Roddick fans to cheer with during a match. I show up bleary eyed to class after staying up till 2am to watch a thrilling, history making night match at the Open, look around, and realize that absolutely no one else shares my sleep deprivation.

I've accepted this. I've found solace reading eloquent and passionate Jon Wertheim articles, or on tennis websites, or in the crowds I see on TV, proof that passion for tennis is real and exists in abundance, somewhere out there.

But this weekend, a short ride up the 7 train from Manhattan, in Queens, NY, at the US Open, I found my pack, a world full of crazy, stupid, passionate, flesh and blood tennis fans. For the first time, I wasn't one lone tennis fan in an apathetic world. I was one among tens of thousands.

The US Open was everything I hoped it would be and more. This analogy may be the result of the fact that I'm currently re-reading the Harry Potter series for the 7th or 8th time (shockingly, tennis is not the only thing I am a geek about), but all weekend I kept thinking that this was my Hogwarts, my platform nine and three quarters. I got off the 7 train at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, and suddenly I went form a world where as a tennis fan, I was always out of place, always missing something, always a little strange, and into a world where I fit, where being a tennis fan wasn't an anomaly, but the norm. I was in a world that made perfect sense, surrounded by people who spoke my language, who talked freely of groundstrokes and return games, of first serve percentages and break point conversions, who were not only familiar with Nadal and Federer and Serena, but who could identify Jack Sock and Milos Raonic just as easily.

I've been to live tennis before, to Davis Cup events and the tournament in DC. And those were great and awesome. But nothing can compare to a grand slam tournament, two solid weeks of tennis at its peak capacity. I walked onto the grounds of the US Open, and saw tennis at its most saturated, vibrant form, a miniature village that exists just for tennis, with multiple show courts and dozens of smaller courts and practice courts.

And of course Arthur Ashe stadium, the 22,000 plus capacity goliath of a tennis stadium.

We watched Andy Roddick play here Friday night, and by the second set this place was full. You kind of get a sense on TV of the crowd here, but really I had no idea what 22,000 tennis fans can sound like.  It was rewarding on so many levels. As a fan of tennis in general, to be around 22,000 tennis fans was unreal, to know that tennis love on this level exists, that this many people love this sport the way I do, are willing to shell out for pricey tickets (even at this level up) and pricier concessions, to drive of take the train or fly to New York and venture out to Queens, for the love of this beautiful game. And it was rewarding specifically because it was a Roddick match. I'm going to write a separate post about this, but Roddick was the first player I truly followed as a fan. His 2001 US Open quarterfinal against Lleyton Hewitt was what really got me so invested in tennis. And he's had a hall of fame career. He was in the top 10 for nine years. He's played to the peak of his capacity and fought like a warrior every match. But I've often had to defend him, especially from casual tennis fans, people who watch the last weekends of slams, but who don't get the full scope of the sport. On Friday night I was surrounded by  22,000 people who were there to support Roddick in his last ever tournament, who showed him so much love and support and appreciation for his career and what he's meant for American tennis the last decade. It was really special, and I'm so grateful to have been there for his last tournament. It means the world to me.

But on a less emotional note, night matches at Ashe are just fun. You don't get that on TV either. There's booze a plenty (even if its costs $8.50 for one Heineken), lots of fried food, and dancing on every change over. It's a celebratory, giddy atmosphere, and I soaked up every ounce of it.

Saturday we were back for the full day and night session, and it was so flippin' great, I still have to pinch myself to believe it's real. How the US Open works is that there are a ton of stadiums with matches going on simultaenously. You only need tickets for one stadium, Arthur Ashe. If you have tickets for Ashe or grounds tickets, you can go to any of the other matches going on. You can also go to practice courts and see top players super close (sadly the day was so jam packed we didn't get a chance to do this) On the middle weekend there are a lot of matches going on. It is a buffet of world class tennis, and we feasted.

We started the day at the Grandstand, the smallest of the three stadium courts, to watch Jack Sock, a 19 year old American up and comer play Nicolas Almgaro, a Spanish player ranked 12 in the world.

Arthur Ashe gets the big names, but I actually loved going to the smaller courts, because of how much closer you can get. And unlike at Ashe you don't have to take out a second mortgage on your house to afford court side tickets. You just show up, stand in line, and then grab whatever seat is empty. This place got packed, because American tennis fans love to root for American players. One of my favorite parts about tennis is that because it's an international sport you get to be patriotic. Think the atmosphere of the Olympics, rooting your country on, only all year round. The match was really close, and despite the 90 plus degree temperature and the fact that our seats were in direct sunlight (I was drenched in sweat and burnt to a crisp by the end), we stayed through all four sets. Sock lost, but he's 19 and very green to the pro circuit. It was impressive in itself that he got to the 3rd round, and played Almagro so close for the first three sets. Especially with Roddick retiring, it's nice to know that the future of American tennis is promising. Although it makes me feel slightly ancient to know that this kid is SEVEN years younger than me.

After the match we walked around the grounds and got some surprisingly good (and not so surprisingly overpriced) food at the Food Village. Again I was struck again and again by how lovely it was to be surrounded by people talking about TENNIS. This does not happen in my life. But as I sat eating my turkey sandwich, almost every snatch of conversation was about my favorite sport. People talked animatedly about the matches they had seen, the matches they planned to catch. We shared a table with a duo from Canada, and we happily swapped stories about our experiences at the tournament. It's this big love fest for tennis, on a scale that I honestly didn't know could exist.

We rushed back to Ashe after lunch to catch the Federer Verdasco match. I was determined to catch Federer live, because duh, he is the greatest tennis player of all time, and you tell your grandkids about seeing him live, but honestly his match wasn't super exciting. The only drawback to matches on Ashe in the first week is that it's the top players in the world playing people that are far below their level, so often the matches are kind of wimpy. It's great to see the top players, but there's not a lot of tension. After two sets of watching Federer dominate (and he does dominate beautifully), I heard chatter that the Murray match on Armstrong was still going on. Another great aspect of a tennis tournament, with it's multiple, simultaneous matches, is that there's always a lot of chatter and rumors flying around about what's happening on the grounds. We heard that Murray and Lopez were in the middle of a good fight, and since the conclusion to Federer's match was pretty much foregone, we decided to hop on over to Armstrong.

We joined a bunch of other like minded people who wanted to catch the most exciting match, and again got amazing seats. I sat with a dazed smile on my face, in disbelief that I had just walked from a match with the number one player in the world and greatest player in history to a match with the number four player in the world and recent gold medalist. The atmosphere in Armstrong was electric, and we were lucky to catch the deciding fourth set tie breaker, which Murray won, along with the match.

We did a little shopping (there are endless ways to spend money at the US Open), grabbed some wine at an outdoor wine bar in the plaza (there are endless ways to drink at the US Open), and then headed back into Ashe for the night session. The first match was an exciting three setter between up and comer American Sloane Stephens and former world #1 Anna Ivanovic. The crowd pulled for Stephens, but Ivanovic took it. After that was American Mardy Fish against Gilles Simon. The match didn't even start until 10am so it went till past 2am. Even though I'm old and like an early bedtime, I'm so happy I got to be there for a late night match. Some of my favorite US Open moments as a fan have been matches that stretch to the early morning, where the crowd thins but the crowd that is left is die hard and more than willing to make up for their reduced numbers by increased volume. Fish won it in four, and everyone (except for any lone French people in the crowd) went home happy.

Other random highlights of the US Open:

-American Express card members (I am not one but the boyfriend is), get these nifty little ear piece radios where you can listen to the TV commentary as the match plays live. As I am both a Johnny Mac fan and a fan of random trivia, this was great for me.

What the ear piece looks like, just picture my head here

-I get abnormally excited to see local TV news anchors in person, so you can imagine my excitement to be in such close proximity to national TV news commentators. Every stadium has a little box for the announcers, and I spotted both MacEnroes (two for one!), Jim Courier, Mary Carrillo, and Justin Gimelstob to name just a few. Sure they were kind of far away, but I could make them out, so it still counts. We also walked by quite a few of the TV sets, including ESPN and Tennis Channel. I even got excited about those despite the fact that no one was in them at the time.

-So after the US Open I have no idea why anyone would say that tennis is a snobby sport. I mean okay there were several booths full of Mercedes cars, because Mercedes is an official sponsor. And maybe Moet was the official champagne of the tournament, but what sporting event doesn't have an official champagne? And Lacoste and Ralph Lauren had official shops, but again, doesn't NASCAR have those too?

Okay fine, the tennis is the snobbiest sport that ever snobbed. But at least within the snobbiness of tennis, there is still a class system that separates the most snobby from the least snobby. At the US Open, there are clearly the elites and the normals. The elites sit court side and pay thousands of dollars in tickets prices. They get to go to restaurants that us normals don't even have access to (yes there are two, count em', two restaurants on the US Open grounds that only certain ticket holders can go to, so us normals don't contaminate them with our filthy poverty while they eat). Seriously there was a lot of money at this tournament. And tennis should be more accessible. But hey, at least during the Fish match they gave out special blue tickets to let people in the upper level move down to the court side seats at the end of the match when the crowd was so much smaller. I had a lot of pleasure imagining the looks of disgust and horror on the real ticket holders faces as they saw all of these upper middle class people coming into their vicinity.

-Manhattan was eerily empty, because most Manhattanites are off to the beach on Labor Day weekend. Which gave the very realistic impression, as Jim Courier pointed out during his commentary, that the only people left in NYC on Labor Day weekend are tennis fans. This made me feel warm and fuzzy, especially as it seemed realistic. Several times in the city at random restaurants or on the street I heard snatches of conversation about tennis. It really felt like NYC existed for tennis fans this weekend.

-We did manage to fit in a little non tennis action. We ate Friday night early at Boquiera, a Spanish place in the city. 

And holy God. I've had a lot of really awesome meals in NYC. Last time I ate at Bobby Flay's place, Craft, at Gray's Papaya, and at this awesome brunch spot in Brooklyn. But this might be my favorite NYC meal ever. And we weren't even there for dinner, so we ordered off the tapas and lunch menu. However my favorite food in the world is the humble sandwich, and this place delivered on that and more.

For an appetizer we got two different kinds of croquettes, mushroom and serrano ham.

(This or the next two pictures are not mine, stolen from other foodies' websites, please don't sue me)

Oh sweet heavens. I don't know if I can describe these. Just the lightest, crunchy, salty fried crust, and then filled with the nectar of the gods. So much packed in flavor, both the mushroom, and the ham, and whipped into just the lightest pureed form. And the sauces! A sweet, almost apple-y sauce to go with the cheesy, ham croquettes and a more savory cream sauce to go with the earthiness of the mushrooms. Perfection in a fried ball. And in my opinion fried balls of any kind are in themselves perfection.

We also ordered salty, charred, padron peppers, and then each got a sandwich for an entree. Mine was tuna nicoise, with fresh tuna salad, capers, and hard boiled eggs. I eat tuna sandwiches for a living, and I always love them. But this one was another level. It was what I always think of about Spanish food, even though I have very little experience with Spanish. It's not about reinventing the wheel with bizarre flavors and combinations. It's flavors we know and love, but done exceptionally, with the highest quality ingredients. The bread was crunchy and perfect. The tuna fresh and bursting with flavor. It was just all good. I devoured it and wanted to weep when it was over.

This was all amazing, but the high point of the meal might have been the side of fried potatoes that came with it.

I just don't even know what to say. These potatoes had a tangy and savory tomato sauce underneath and a creamy, almost mayo-ish (although that doesn't do it justice) sauce on top. So much salt and crunch and flavor. I want these in my life permanently. I may try to mail order them from NYC.

Oh and this was all washed down with a perfect rendition of red sangria.

It was very, very good, and I just found out that there is one of these restaurants in DC, so see you later, I will be face planting into a plate of potatoes in the very near future.

After the tennis Friday night we stopped by the Strand Hotel's rooftop bar. One word: view.

There happend to be a post reception wedding party here, so we hung out with the groom's father for a bit and watched a lot of really drunk and happy people act silly. But mostly we just enjoyed the stunning view (that and the bartender's really, really hefty wine pour).

To sum up, it was a really, amazing weekend. I don't know if I've adequately expressed how much going to the US Open meant to me (I've certainly used enough words, whew!). It was a great trip, and one I know I will remember for the rest of my life.

View of NYC skyline from Arthur Ashe stadium at sunset

I'm a person who gets really excited and over enthusiastic about the details and small things in life. Whether it's food or a TV show or a book or a sport. Life is short. Why waste time being over it or apathetic? Why not dive head first into the things you love and make them important to your life?

Tennis is important to my life. I've loved it through all those years where I sometimes felt like the only tennis fan in the world, through all those matches I wished I had someone to obsess over, through all the early mornings and late nights, sitting alone in a room with a TV, heart ready to burst.

To spend a weekend surrounded by tens of thousands of people with that same passion and love and heart, by tens of thousands of people who get it, who get tennis and its beauty and its soul,

well it kind of felt like coming home.

1 comment:

C.Cadigan said...

There's a boqueria in D.C. too. SO GOOD.

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