It's been 12 years since I was last credentialed to cover the U.S. Open, but my favorite spot inside the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the first week, high in the stands above Court 4, is still far removed from all of the noise of the perceived New York.
It's intimate, the antithesis of the cavernous -- and sometimes half-empty, as was the case with Victoria Azarenka's second-round match Wednesday -- Arthur Ashe Stadium. Instead of walking through turn-styles, then gates, and then going up escalators before reaching your assigned (and over-priced) seat, you walk between rows of 12-foot-high bushes before sitting on bleachers.
Want to get close? Go stand along the east-side railing. From there, tennis lovers are close enough to the players to see their sock tan lines, the red and black stains made on the balls by wet string-stencil ink, and hear rackets literally whistle through the air as players serve. If a left-hander decides to hit a wide kick serve, you'd better get your hands up and be ready to do a Jorge Posada impression.
If the match is a snoozer -- like it was Tuesday afternoon when Jelena Jankovic blew through Kateryna Bondarenko 6-1, 6-2 -- from the upper bleachers you can easily check out Court 5, half of Court 6, and several of the practice courts. On Tuesday that meant I could spy on golfer Sergio Garcia exchanging ground strokes with Daniela Hantuchova.
The scene is a throwback to a time before the U.S. Open became THE U.S. OPEN.
Bill Macatee, who until this week was working in the towers of the PGA Tour for CBS Sports, also recalls those days fondly, especially the little quirks that made the tournament quaint and unique.
"I remember when we were back at Forest Hills," he said on Tuesday afternoon. "That club is in the middle of a neighborhood in Queens, so everyone had to park on the street. Well, one year Tracy Austin was playing in the main draw, but her mother couldn't find a parking spot, so she had to drop Tracy off and then keep looking for a spot."
Sure, from Court 4 you'll hear the drone of cars on the Grand Central Parkway, and like everywhere else you're going to catch a whiff of burgers, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on Earth where you are more completely immersed in tennis.
Augusta National Golf Club now has two female members, but it will be a cold day in hell before the home of the Masters allows a patron, or a writer, to bring a cell phone onto the course. To say you walk on eggshells around Bobby Jones' hallowed venue is putting it lightly.
My fellow golf scribes would plonse if they got assigned to cover the U.S. Open. I've never been an event that is more media- and fan-friendly.
To watch Phil Mickelson's first round at the Barclays Championship last week on Bethpage State Park's Black Course, I had to walk about five miles, following the Hall of Famer while making notes on a pad of paper and hunting for non-guarded water.
Here, nearly every big-name player competes on a court that has at least one TV camera on it. Since every workstation in the media center has its own monitor, pundits can follow almost any match on screen, complete with real-time stats. The monitor even has a 'Match Analysis' feature that provides on-demand highlights of every single point from matches played on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court.
But the real topper is that both winners and losers are required to come to the media center for press conferences. Anyone who has followed a golfer for five hours only to get blown off because he made bogey on the last hole would kill for this kind of access. The player may not give you a gem of a quote, but you know he or she is going to available.
Fans and media members are welcome to bring cell phones, iPads, cameras, lunch, it's all good here. I'm going to miss it when I go back to covering golf.