That smell. You thought you wouldn't get that anymore, not here, not after all the millions spent, the stadia built, the effort made year after year to scour, paint, sandblast and haul it away. It's most noticeable in this small corner of Flushing Meadow before the tournament begins: The food-court ovens aren't cooking yet, the thousands of bodies still haven't poured through the gates. Still, that smell—of a steamy subway stop, of a CBGB's toilet, of the U.S. Open circa 1991—was supposed to be history, wasn't it?
But, no, the scent is unmistakable. And, oddly enough, you don't find it unpleasant, not in the least, because it almost seems intentional in this tableau, a living reminder of how life used to be. "A lot of people just stand there and watch," says Burford Smith. "I want to get a sign that says IT'S NOT POLITE TO STARE."
But it's hard not to. Wedged under the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium, next to a deafening air-conditioning unit and below a flaking pipe bearing God-knows-what, four wobbly tables and one vinyl printer serve as headquarters for the 2012 Open's most hands-on job. DRAWBOARD PRODUCTION OFFICE reads a little sign, tongue only slightly in cheek: Wasps, high wind and rain are problems here. For years, Smith shared this space with a family of raccoons.
Still, you can't beat it for convenience. Just outside is the catwalk onto which Smith and his partner, Frank Ayala, scramble daily: Up and down the four 40-foot-high sliding ladders, strapped in and clenching the sticky-backed strips of scores and players' names—1,201 by tournament's end—in their teeth. Smith travels from Atlanta and Ayala from Southern California each year to spend the Open updating the most scrutinized patch of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center: 4,000 square feet of blue plywood bolted to Armstrong's flank.
Mistakes do happen. "You spelled it wrong," an old lady once yelled up to Smith.
"Which one?" Smith said.
"I'm not going to tell. You should know."
This is Smith's eighth year. He has a fierce sense of ownership of the board, likes telling people, "The players haven't won their match until I say they've won their match." He also gets up for events like Arthur Ashe Kids Day, and he likes the way Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer handle stardom. But other players? "I wouldn't throw water on 'em if they were on fire," he says.
Smith's irreverence seems important. You'd like to think it's of a piece with his gritty surroundings, a hint that the Open's famously manic soul might yet survive even the most spectacular success. But Smith doesn't know that. He wants to help. He's just about exhausted his store of drawboard tales, in fact, when he remembers his trump card. He'd like not to care, but even Smith knows that nothing lends legitimacy at Flushing Meadow now more than the presence of a big star—and if it's a TV talk-show host who tweets to 13 million followers, well, all the better. For the first time in 20 minutes Smith grins, he's so pleased.
"Ellen was here," he says.
Who cares? You do. Because when, 15 years ago, Venus and Serena Williams locked arms in the hallway of the newly opened, 23,000-seat Ashe Stadium and sang, "Let the sideshow begin," you knew they weren't just laying down a track for their own tumultuous futures. The U.S. Open may not have Wimbledon's stateliness or Roland Garros's style, may not have the pure ease of the Australian Open, but it has long been the game's leading indicator, the Grand Slam event that tells us better than any other where pro tennis will go next. The tiebreak, equal prize money, night play, electronic line calling—all began in Queens, and if you're seeking the game's next innovation, try following the hypnotic dips, zooms and hovers of the Spider-Cam now doing eerily spectacular work around Ashe Stadium.
Meanwhile, you can get any U.S. Tennis Association suit to describe more construction plans, a vague intention of slapping roofs on Ashe and Armstrong someday, but last week turned out to be more about subtraction than addition. On Thursday, Andy Roddick, the last U.S. male winner of a major and No. 1, celebrated his 30th birthday with the surprise announcement that he would retire at the end of the 2012 Open. "I've always wanted to, in a perfect world, finish at this event," he said.
Though Roddick came of age in Ashe Stadium—where he won his 2003 Open title and has competed in more night matches than any American man—he's one of the last active players who can recall what came before. As an eight-year-old in 1990 he snuck into the old players' lounge and played video games with Pete Sampras, and the next year Roddick managed to wriggle, with only a grounds pass, into four matches of Jimmy Connors's hallowed run to the semis. That such a move would be nearly impossible today is only another reason this year's Open felt like the end of an era, a time to take stock.
So off you wander through the tournament's days and nights, past the gleaming Mercedes display and through the well-coiffed, well-toned throng. You see far fewer fans these days garbed in tennis togs, as if waiting for Federer to call them out of the stands to rally, because there seems far fewer who'd actually be interested. It's not easy ripping a forehand while holding a $12 mojito, especially in high heels.
You take the old rattletrap elevator that used to steam up to the tin-can press box above Armstrong, now long gone. You walk along the seam between the stadium and the Grandstand, to the corners where the bottles and cans and paper mounds used to gather. You walk through the humming food court to the gorgeous new bullring, Court 17, as cozy as a beanbag chair. The ground is spotless. Garbage nestles in plastic-bag-lined cans. When players pass en route to a court, surrounded by four security guards, reaching out is frowned upon.
"It's tamer—don't you feel that?" Chris Evert says when you track her down at the ESPN trailer one afternoon. She recalls her semifinal against Martina Navratilova in 1981; the two of them patiently sitting down in the third set to wait out a brawl in Armstrong's stands. The deafening jets still flew low over the matches then. Smoke from a nearby hamburger stand used to envelop players on Court 4. Court lighting was laughable. Fans had a rep, established during the chaotic 1979 match between Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe, for threatening to swarm the court if they didn't like a call.
"Back then, anything went," Evert says. "It's more controlled now. I didn't have security: People were touching me and wanting autographs and pictures and having conversations: 'Chris, how do you feel about today's match?' You don't get any of that now."
From 1978, when the Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow, to '96, the year before Ashe Stadium opened, players used to walk the quarter mile from the locker room to Armstrong. As the matches progressed, the crowds grew, until by the final a 10-deep throng had gathered to scream, snap flashbulbs and size up the players as they trooped, championship-bout-style, over the concourse to the court.
You put in a call to Connors, who won the Open five times. "You broke through the doors, and it was like the parting of the Red Sea," he says from California. "The fans were standing there, and the energy started there. I knew right away if I was going to be liked or not, which fires you up either way. 'Come on, Borg! Come on, Mac! Come on, Jimmy!' Thousands of people revving you up. Nothing will ever be like that."
Funny. You would argue that tennis today is in the latter stages of a golden age, with record prize money, wall-to-wall TV coverage, scads of information online. The level of play is better than ever. But this is an iTennis Era, sleek and cool, with a Facebook level of intimacy. Now when finalists leave the locker room in Ashe, hallway security doors slam shut, leaving the players to themselves, a few hangers-on, the lights of the network cameras. "We keep the players off-limits from everything and everybody," says a USTA guide leading a tour of the press room last Saturday night.
"Really?" asks a visitor. "Why?"
Because in 1993, top-ranked Monica Seles was stabbed by a fan. In 2001, two days after Lleyton Hewitt stunned Sampras in the men's final, security worldwide was revolutionized by the attacks of 9/11. Who can argue that something needed to change?
The opening of Ashe in 1997, with a monstrous upper bowl set atop 90 luxury suites that lease now for $250,000 apiece, demanded that the event change its character. The $285 million cost needed to be paid. Ticket prices rose. The U.S. Open needed to be sold like never before.
Real estate mogul and attention hound Donald Trump set the aggressively luxe tone when he set up camp in his Ashe suite next to the TV booth, scanning matches like a lord. Armstrong got scaled down and spruced up, and the Open, once "the quintessential New York venue," according to longtime tournament referee Brian Earley, began to evolve. "It's a different New York feel now, more high-class," Earley says. "The energy's still there, but it's not the bleacher mentality."
Not even close, though on a hot night in Ashe's upper deck a brawl can still break out, distracting fans from the moment when they, too, appear on the stadium's big screen. As in Melbourne, Paris and London, the first-week scramble by purists to find—then brag about—an early-round epic remains a blood sport. But it often seems that competitive name-dropping is just as important.
"The Trumps of the world sit in the front row, and when you watch the tapes after, you say, 'Whoa, he was watching my match?!'" says 1988 Open champ Mats Wilander, now a Eurosport commentator. "That is very New York. They have 'em in France, but you don't know who they are. Everybody knows the American celebrities. And they're just normal people, which they prove every time they come and watch tennis."
They wouldn't be celebs if that were really true, but Wilander has a point: The less styled, less assisted, less entouraged a bold-faced name is, the more valuable the sighting. Hence the excitement surrounding Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. On Day 1, the face of Russian hockey showed up outside the President's Gate, toting a bag for girlfriend Maria Kirilenko, the No. 14 seed, and blowing big green bubbles with his gum. The Grand Slam tournament first played on the genteel grass of Forest Hills has been trending this way for a while—ever since former USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian made it a mission in 2000 "to make this the place where sports, entertainment, fashion and celebrity people come together in one event.
"We hired a p.r. firm in New York City, and their sole responsibility was to pull together the celebrities and invite them to the Open," said Kantarian. "We rolled out the red carpet." Literally. On Aug. 27 a 12-foot-long stretch of scarlet pile was taped to the sidewalk outside Ashe Stadium. Stanley Tucci and Jordin Sparks dutifully walked the only gantlet left, stopping in front of a Mo√´t-sponsored backdrop for the jungle of cameras and boom mikes.
Still, it's a far more institutionalized affair than in the 1990s, when the Open merely comped tickets for singer Barbra Streisand so she could pronounce Andre Agassi a "zen master." By the time Ellen DeGeneres broadcast her show from Flushing during the 2010 Open—ending on a catwalk with her name unveiled as the "winner" on Burford Smith's drawboard—Kantarian's hope of turning the fortnight into DISNEYLAND WITH NETS had been realized. Last Friday night fans filled Ashe for Roddick's potential last match. But the loudest ovation by far during his second-round romp over Bernard Tomic came when singer Keith Urban gave his wife, Nicole Kidman, a kiss on the big screen.
Frivolous? Sure. But leveraging celebrity—making the Open a must-do New York scene—has proved a brilliant marketing stroke for a sport that, since the fade of its 1970s boom, has struggled with a deep inferiority complex. If U.S. stars such as Sampras weren't fending off charges of being "boring," tennis was bristling over the world's endless fascination with Tiger Woods. That's why Woods's appearance at Roddick's last final here, in 2006, made tennis wonks so happy. When Tiger sits in Federer's box, or LMFAO singer Redfoo joins Victoria Azarenka for a press conference, or No. 1 golfer Rory McIlroy fills out girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki's entourage, some cool has to rub off.
During Kantarian's tenure (2000--08), Open revenues rose by $70 million. This year's fortnight will net some $110 million and, if the weather holds, threaten the two-week 2009 attendance record of 721,059. In terms of tickets sold, there's now no bigger annual sporting event on the planet. Just as telling, though, is how the players have bought in. Like it or not, they've learned: Tennis alone isn't enough anymore.
"Players are different now; they embrace technology," Earley says. "Twenty years ago [if] you put those big screens up there and ran live action in the middle of play, I can tell you five players who would've said, 'We're not doing that.' Players now love that s---. Getting interviewed before a match? We had players who wouldn't get interviewed the first year. Now? They're onstage, acting!"
Maybe, though, it's too easy, too fogyish, to say that the Open has lost its edge. The place may have gotten more posh, but the rains that shredded the schedule and every last nerve over the last four years remain a threat, and New York City's unique nature will never allow a true calm. "The distractions are big here because you almost enjoy your time too much," Federer says. "Not meaning you go party, but you do too many things maybe you shouldn't be doing. In Wimbledon you rent your house, you eat and breathe tennis. When you come here, you go out at night for dinners. You catch up with friends. There's many more things you can follow and do, so that brings challenges."
Young Americans hitting the place for the first time feel like their heads are going to explode. "The energy was something I'd never felt before," says Ryan Harrison of his minirun (including qualifying) to the second round in 2010. "You always hear that it's the most incredible tournament, but you never can really understand what people are talking about—and I didn't—until you play. That was incredible."
Maybe this is just life now in Mayor Bloomberg's New York, where tourists take their kids to Times Square and the crime rate keeps dropping and it's practically a crime to smoke, eat bad fat or down a big soda. You're chewing on this one afternoon when here comes the tennis embodiment of 1980s downtown angst, the punk prince. John McEnroe, 53, still looks the part: black T-shirt with suit pants, sunglasses, a Giants cap jammed on his head. You pull an immediate U-turn. He's moving fast.
"I [still] get pumped up," McEnroe says of coming to the Open. "I've had a long summer, and my energy level, just from being here, is up 15 to 20 percent. I'll walk around, and people are saying, for the most part, good things—and you just get ... up."
Then again, McEnroe isn't the rebel he was in his prime, when matches felt like war and "everyone," he says, "seemed like an adversary." In fact, the only thing in tennis that has undergone a more radical makeover than the Open is McEnroe himself, the Superbrat cum television commentator, oft seen poking fun of his younger self in ads for American Express and National Car Rental. Once, McEnroe would've found prematch interviews or deafening music during changeovers "ludicrous," he says. "Now I think it would've been sort of cool to hear some music."
You hear this, and it's fair to wonder if tennis even needs a brash U.S. Open anymore. After Open tennis began in 1968, petulant, hyperactive adolescent behavior seemed the perfect way to keep the world watching. But like McEnroe now, the pro game is a sport well into middle age. The use of replay has all but eliminated verbal abuse, and the top players treat officials and each other mostly with respect, making episodes like Serena Williams's Open meltdowns seem downright bizarre.
You're almost convinced, but then you find McEnroe's onetime doubles partner, CBS commentator Mary Carillo. Every year, as a kid growing up in nearby Douglaston, Queens, she'd end her summers at the Open. It's home. "For me, what started out as a game became a sport, and now it's a business," she says. "I'm not naive: I'm wistful. And it's not just this place that has become corporate. The players have too. They're brands—the Federer brand, the Sharapova brand. Maybe some things have to change, but it's no secret why the Grandstand produces so many of the best moments here: The fans still feel like they're right there with the players. They get to see 'em sweat and see 'em curse. When Connors made his great run, the fans at Armstrong felt like they were helping him win. I miss that."
That was last Thursday. In the following days Carillo's words began to feel like an incantation, summoning the very forces she thought had fled Flushing for good. Roddick's press conference dwelled mostly on retirement, but he mentioned Connors's run in '91 and how much he loved Ashe at night. "The most electric atmosphere in our sport," he said.
Once Roddick, coached by Connors from 2006 to '08, rolled Tomic in straight sets on Friday, you felt something stir. You watched Roddick exhorting the crowd, loping in his U.S.-flag shoes, grinning on court like never before. "The stadium, that's the smallest it's felt for me," he said. "It almost felt cozy."
Then you talk to Connors. He had noticed too. "When I was working with Andy, I said, If you let 'em, those 25,000 people will help you win," Connors said. "And it takes him to say that he's retiring to see it and to feel it. I guess, better late than never."
Roddick was asking for help. And once he took the first set from his third-round opponent, Fabio Fognini, on Sunday afternoon, the comparison became unavoidable: It was also Connors's 60th birthday, and during the changeover a montage of Jimbo moments unspooled. Roddick, shoulder aching, sat watching clips of matches he attended as a nine-year-old. When he walked out to serve, the voice-over with a hint of that old New York accent commanded, "Andy: Like Connors in '91—a big run. Let's go."
In the second-set tiebreak, the moment for which you come to the Open—the kind that you'd almost forgotten amid the pomp and money and celebrity nonsense—occurred. With the score tied 1--1, someone screamed, "Nice shoes, Andy!" and then Roddick and Fognini cut loose with a stunning 20-stroke rally that Roddick finished off with a vintage forehand pass. The crowd erupted. Roddick won the next three points to go up 5--1, wagging his finger as the clamor grew.
At set point, he walked to the service line. Up in the TV booth Carillo quoted Connors's famous words from '91: "This is what they wanted!" A cool wind began to blow, the Open's first hint of fall. When the match was over, with Roddick winning in four sets, he spoke into a microphone, his voice echoing all the way to the top of the stadium. He didn't sound like himself. "These last couple days have been really humbling," Roddick said. "I love this place, and I love you, and I'm having a blast. I'm going to give my all here."
Within 10 minutes, Frank Ayala had stepped out on the catwalk along the drawboard. He took three steps up the ladder and flattened the score—7--5, 7--6 (1), 4--6, 6--4—on the blue wall. Below, hundreds stood watching, necks craned, camera phones poised. Ayala stripped off the vinyl backing, and when he stepped down to reveal Roddick's name, people whooped and clapped. It wasn't Ellen, but nobody seemed to mind.
"IT'S A DIFFERENT FEEL NOW," SAYS A LONGTIME OPEN REFEREE. "THE ENERGY'S STILL THERE, BUT IT'S NOT THE BLEACHER MENTALITY."
THE ONLY THING IN TENNIS THAT HAS UNDERGONE A MORE RADICAL MAKEOVER THAN THE OPEN IS MCENROE, THE SUPERBRAT CUM TENNIS COMMENTATOR.
"I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO, IN A PERFECT WORLD, FINISH AT THIS EVENT."
SI AT THE OPEN
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Images of past champions loomed large on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court during the tournament's celebrity-studded opening ceremony.
END OF AN ERA
After a decade of carrying U.S. men's tennis, Andy Roddick said he would retire after this U.S. Open. He rode a swell of fan support into the fourth round, beating Italy's Fabio Fognini 7--5, 7-6, 4--6, 6--4 on Sunday.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
TENNIS SPRAWL Three panoramic images of the Open's vast grounds, shot with a Sprocket Rocket camera, which allows light to bleed over the entire film plane, help explain why this tournament is the best-attended annual sporting event in the world.
Photographs by SIMON BRUTY
OPEN SEASON The tournament provides unparalleled vantage points, from the drawboard ladder (left) to the celebrity-studded grounds, where you might find (clockwise from below, upper left) Redfoo and Kim Clijsters; Hilaria Thomas (Mrs. Alec Baldwin); Tucci and his wife, Felicity Blunt; Ovechkin; Azarenka and fans; and No. 52--ranked Martin Klizan.
WALTER IOOSS JR. (MCENROE)
PUMP 'EM UP The raw emotion that fed McEnroe (left) and fueled Connors's epic run to the 1991 semifinals has been missing from the tournament in recent years.
CARYN LEVY (CONNORS)
[See caption above]
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
FEELING THE LOVE Thanks to vocal fan support, the cavernous confines of Ashe Stadium felt "cozy" for Roddick during the Open's first week.