NEW YORK -- My face is sunburned, I'm mildly dehydrated (don't tell Jon Wertheim) and an elderly Irish lady is clutching my elbow for balance. The set of bleachers we're standing on is wobbling slightly as its occupants strain for a better view of Brazil's Rogerio Dutra Silva (ranked No. 134) and Canada's Vasek Pospisil (ranked No. 40) as they finish out a fifth-set tiebreak on Court 14, one of the intimate satellite courts that orbit the towering Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Down 6-5 in the tiebreak, Dutra Silva streaks towards the net, and in response, Pospisil hits a prayer of a lob on the run that nips the baseline and sends the Brazilian, who had already begun pumping his fists in celebration, right back to where he started. The crowd lets out a roar -- in either agony or ecstasy, depending on which player they've latched onto -- and my neighbor again apologizes for using me as a support column. We watch as the two players trade mistakes and mis-hits before the chair umpire controversially overrules a call that would have given Pospisil match point. The marathon eventually ends with Dutra Silva taking the tiebreaker 12-10, and the crowd mercilessly boos the chair (Welcome to New Yawk!) as he steps down from his perch.
Twenty minutes earlier, I would not have blinked if you had told me that Dutra Silva and Pospisil were Nobel Prize winners, or diplomats, or anything other than tennis players. In fact, I wasn't even watching their match, but was focused on the young American Jack Sock as he took on Germany's Philipp Petzschner on the marginally larger Court 13. As murmurs of the five-setter behind us coursed through the crowd, people began to turn around and stand on the Court 13 bleachers for a glimpse of the drama behind them, which explains my tenuous perch for the climax of the Dutra Silva-Pospisil match.
The episode was another textbook case of Sports Attention Deficit Disorder (S.A.D.D.), which I found myself incurably affected by as soon as I arrived at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for Day 2 of the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y. I had originally planned on skipping around to particular matches featuring players I enjoyed watching, but that plan went out the window after a set of watching the towering Milos Raonic dominate the woefully overmatched Thomas Fabbiano with serve after thunderous serve. I realized that wandering throughout the grounds would be my best bet, relying on the grapevine of the thousands of spectators, all searching for their signature Open moment, to guide me to the best tennis the day had to offer.
In this way, the early days of the Open are among the most enjoyably grassroots in all of sports. Even more so than the first round of March Madness, where every team has been analyzed and spotlighted ad infinitum, New York's annual turn at the center of the tennis world allows for discovery at the viewer's own pace, giving a chance to hone your skill at seeking out what type of tennis makes for your ideal viewing experience.
In my case, I discovered that I was attracted to matchups featuring contrasting styles, such as the one featuring the scurrying, slight Michelle Larcher De Brito (you may remember her from when she ousted Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon just a few weeks ago) against the impassive and powerful Eleni Daniilidou on Court 16. What would seem like a mismatch on paper (The Portuguese Larcher De Brito is 5-foot-5; Daniilidou, from Greece, stands 6'0") resulted in a straight-sets win for the 117th-ranked Larcher De Brito, who was showered with applause from people who had never previously heard her name. A man next to me repeated, "Come on, Michelle" every few points or so, and when I asked if he knew her he replied that he did not.
The ability to root for whichever player strikes your fancy is a welcome refresher in a sport so dominated by the elite, both on the court and in the stands. It's well publicized that the men's Big Four have won 33 of the last 34 major titles, while only handful of women -- some of whom are actually not named Serena -- have seriously challenged for supremacy of late. It doesn't help that the clothing worn by the fans features a never-ending parade of Lacoste crocodiles Ralph Lauren horses, or that you can buy $14 Grey Goose martinis or $7 facial sprays ("Moisturizes! Refreshes! Tones!") from Evian water stands emblazoned with the slogan "Live Young." The Open definitely knows its clientele, and yet it's still not the Mercedes-Benz showroom that attracts the multitudes but the tennis, the atmosphere and the chance to get up close to professional athletes like you're watching a high school tournament.
"There's always something that stands out," says Karen Burchette, who has only missed one Open since 1972. She's in from Tucson with her husband Robert, and although the grounds and the faces have changed they keep coming back to Flushing, year after year. Robert reminisces about watching John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase's classic 1979 tilt that featured Nastase refusing to play and a chair umpire being removed for fear of crowd reprisal.
"It was a full moon, one or two in the morning, and everyone was drunk," he says. "It was perfect."
I'm sitting next to the Burchettes at Court 15 because I've become entranced by the buzzsaw forehand wielded by Jeremy Chardy, a Frenchman who is currently yanking Sergiy Stakhovsky all over the court with vicious shots ripped from his position on the baseline. After one exchange Stakhovsky -- who took down Federer at Wimbledon in June -- is caught up at the net, and in trying to recover his position he attempts to pull off every tennis fan's white whale: the between-the-legs backhand, affectionately known as a tweener. The crowd rises as one, expecting to see their ticket prices validated with one swing of the racquet, but Stakhovsky's effort falls long and some, including myself, shuffle off in search of the next big thing.
The constant hunt for titillation mimics television, if by flipping channels you could sit ten feet away from somebody serving 120 mph, or the hype-driven search for hip new indie bands (I actually hear someone in passing say "It's like Jazz Fest, but without music"). It's the reason people stand in line for 40 minutes to watch Gael Monfils take on Adrian Ungur, ranked 105th in the world, in the mini-stadium confines of Court 17. Monfils is known for his athleticism and occasional eccentricity, but there are little signs of either as he dispatches the Romanian in straight sets, taking just over an hour to do so. By the third frame most of the crowd has left, not including a heckler in front of me who loudly advises Ungur to "man up, brother!" -- the Open is not for sensitive tennis players -- and Judy Huot from McDonough, GA., a lifelong player who is at her first Open. Playing the game recreationally makes seeing the pros go about their business in person even more jaw-dropping, and Huot has been exclaiming "Oh, my" and "What a serve!" to herself the entire time.
As the shadows on the courts lengthen I pause for some ice cream, where Mark Wolff, from Louisville, asks me why I'm taking notes. I tell him, and he divulges that he also saw the end of Dutra Silva-Pospisil. "We just came from the best match of the day!" Wolff beams, and it's clear his tennis conscience will rest easy tonight. Speaking of sleep, after seven continuous hours of baking in the sun and listening to the thwock of balls on racquets my own bed is looking like the place to be right now, but I decide to press on a bit longer. Haas-Mathieu, Stosur-Duval, men's doubles, the Carnegie Deli stand at the food court; it's all a sun-dappled whirl at this point. Finally, I find myself back at 15 watching a match between two women, both from South Africa, one named Chanel and the other named ... Chanelle, and I decide that it's time to hop back on the 7 train and return to the real world.
-- By Eli Bernstein