Written on May 2, 2008
Since 2000, schedule permitting, I have been a faithful and fervent attendee at my hometown tournament in Key Biscayne, Florida. Yet, as a devout tennis fanatic, my wish has always been to make a pilgrimage to one of the shrines of the sport, a major.
In my mind, there has always been the perception that I was being deprived of an ecclesiastical experience by not going to New York, London, Paris or Melbourne. As luck would have it, in 2006 and 2007, I ascended from the category of lowly television viewer to that of obscured spectator when I was finally able to drink in the atmosphere at the U.S Open. After spending five days at the opening round matches in New York the last couple of years and a week at this year’s Sony Ericsson, I began to view the latter through a new lens. As I surveyed the familiar vista at Crandon Park, the prism through which I evaluated the tournament was suddenly lifted. Moreover, I arrived at the realization that the Sony Ericsson Open is truly a jewel in my own backyard.
Manhattan’s bright lights and vibrant streets are comparable to an impish, unruly child with the magnetic powers to draw one in with a cunning smile. A similar attraction lures one in at the U.S. Open. On the subway, I was overcome by a wave of exhilaration from the chatter of the passengers whose destination, just as mine, was the major’s site. As the train approached the tennis center and the Arthur Ashe stadium came into view, a touch of awe and anxiety intermingled as I became conscious of the magnitude of the place. These sentiments were further accentuated as the grounds crew greeted me with their megaphones shouting instructions such as, “no backpacks allowed into the stadium”. Or as I filed through the long security lines that stretch for miles and saw my precious can of juice seized since opaque containers were prohibited entry. The shear volume of people, over 700,000 attended the tournament in 2007, and the additional security measures implemented after the catastrophic incident at the Twin Towers signify that one has to be willing to tolerate these inconveniences in order to experience the U.S. Open.
Nevertheless, my dedication was such that one day I spent twelve hours on the grounds at Flushing Meadows taking in the action oblivious of the scorching heat as I literally roasted to a crisp. Still thirsty for more, I returned the following day, while my father, my tennis buddy, decided to take a respite from the intense temperature. With a cornucopia of top ranked players to watch, I felt obfuscated at times in having to choose from such a palatable menu. Occasionally, the choice was made by a coin toss since it came down to deciding between matches from my nose bleed seat in the main stadium versus a prime location on the outside courts where I could see a lesser ranked player who might be the sports’ future star.
One afternoon, perched from my assigned seat in the main stadium, I had an epiphany. Although I was thoroughly enjoying the matches, unless, I was willing to pay top dollar for a closer seat, I would never have the opportunity to get a decent photograph of Federer, Nadal, Henin or Serena. With the excessive amount I had already allocated to this venture, I would have to conform myself with what I was getting. After attending the Ericsson Open a few weeks ago, I finally realized the element that was lacking from my New York experience, intimacy.
Entering Crandon Park, there was not the same perception of being lost, overwhelmed with too much sensory information, as was the case, as I made my way inside the U.S. Open facilities. Instead of nerves of steel, nerves of aluminum were sufficient in dealing with the proceedings in Miami. The main drawback at the Sony was the distance between the parking grounds and the stadium. Since at times I was unwilling to cough up the extra bucks to park closer, I was forced to ride the shuttle buses, thus, resulting in a little wasted time. But, once that unpleasant detail was disposed of, the short walk to the stadium was swift, the lines at the ticket counter manageable and the security measures bearable. After going through the gate, the tough task started in terms of which initiative to take: sit down to view a match, stroll the premises or make a beeline to the practice grounds. As I crossed the threshold of the entrance, my dilemma became greater since within a few steps, I stumbled upon the player’s eating area which itself was a feast for the eyes. Player watching became a new past time because it was not uncommon to spot Lindsay Davenport having lunch with friends or accidentally trip over someone, as it happened with Arnaud Clement who was gracious enough to pose for a picture. Miami’s relaxed setting perhaps gave the athletes a homelike feeling because countless competitors were seen roaming the grounds without an entourage. As they sought the sanctuary of the players’ area, a group of fans simply stopped Andy Murray and John Isner for autographs and photos, they politely obliged them. I ran into doubles specialist Mark Knowles who was kind enough to chat with admirers as they picked his brain about the game.
The primary bonus that the Sony offered was the access to the players’ practice sessions. Although I could not get choice seats inside the big stadium, on the side courts, I was front and center observing the best players in the world fine-tuning their game for upcoming matches. Indeed, when Jelena Jankovic says that she does not like to practice and would rather play, she means it. Jelena spent less than one hour on the court before ceding the space to Roger Federer and Kevin Anderson who were scheduled next to practice. Few places will provide the opportunity to witness Federer at work within arm’s length. Amazingly, even after hours of practice, Federer looked as if he had just rolled out of the shower, not a bead of perspiration in spite of the thermometer registering 85 F and the humidity being off the scales. It was well worth the price of admission to see Roger’s dad carrying his gear back to the player’s section. While Roger himself, with tinted shades looking like a rock star was escorted back by a couple of policemen in an attempt to control the mob of adoring spectators. Indeed, another unique moment was when I became an unplanned participant at the running of bulls Miami style, as Rafael Nadal strove to maneuver pass the herd of doting fans still requesting photos and autographs, after he had already spent a considerable amount of time appeasing their request. Occasions at other events are sparse where I, as a spectator, would find myself within steps of a player such as Gael Monfils, as he sauntered in with iPod in hand to check out the match of compatriot Alize Cornet.
At the US Open, the top competitors always played in the bigger stadiums out of reach of my measly camera. Yet at the Ericsson, on the side courts, I had a perfect seat to see Venus Williams, David Nalbandian, Daniela Hantuchova, and Justine Henin take on their opponents. Outside the majors, the Sony Ericsson Open trophy is the most coveted in the sport. In fact, tennis connoisseurs and aficionados consider it the fifth major. Other than the bye accorded to the 32 seeded players and the first two days dedicated to the qualifying rounds, this tournament is identical to the majors with the fifth biggest purse. Attendance peaked at over 297,000 this year at Crandon Park. Thus, the ‘smallness’ of the event is its grandest attribute. It can best be described as having the allure of a major with a hometown ambience.
If all these outlined virtues do not convince one of the invaluable worth of the Sony Ericsson, perhaps, this will. With the budget I expended in going to the U.S. Open, I could have attended Miami’s tournament in style with excellent seating and with maybe a little money left over.
In conclusion, would I trade off my U.S. Open experience for anything in the world? Not a chance! Am I willing to go through the hassle and fork over the expense given the opportunity again? One can bet the bank on that. But, going to a major is analogous to venturing to the Vatican. Although your chances of observing mass celebrated by the Pope are great, it is highly unlikely that you will be invited for an audience with him. While the Sony Ericsson is akin to your local parish or cathedral, by going to the services, the possibilities of conversing with your priest or bishop are infinitely better.