They work in strange ways, the Tennis fates. On the one hand, the 2021 U.S. Open stands proud as the Reset Major, the first big-time tennis event in 18 months to be played in front of a full crowd, a sign that we are progressing against COVID-19, back to full communal experiences. And yet the cast of characters will not feature Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal or Dominic Thiem, the defending champ and winner of the 2020 Ghost Open. This is like that dispiriting insert in your Broadway Playbill announcing that Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kristin Chenoweth are under the weather and not appearing in tonight’s performance, replaced instead by understudies.
Yet, it’s offset to some degree by the potential for history. Novak Djokovic comes to the U.S. Open not merely as the top seed and not merely—get this—as someone who hasn’t lost a full match at the U.S. Open since 2016, but as a player on the threshold of winning THE Grand Slam. It’s tennis’s holy grail, and he would be the first player to achieve it since Steffi Graf in 1988, and the first male since Rod Laver more than a half-century ago. What’s more, if Djokovic wins seven matches in New York, he will vault past Federer and Nadal and win his 21st major, taking the lead, perhaps for good, in the GOAT race.
This year, the U.S. Open, this two-week TennisCon that will draw upward of 700,000 fans, might be more relevant than ever, absences be damned.
For those planning to attend, here are various insider tips—culled from previous years with some new ones thrown in. Thanks to the more than 200 of you who weighed in. …
• We'll get the unseemly self-promotion out early. The SI.com tennis page will feature the work of various and sundry colleagues.
• Tennis Channel’s daily U.S. Open live pregame show starts at 10 a.m. ET. Steve Weissman, Lindsay and I—plus daily guests—will be gabbing. Then Brett Haber, Paul Annacone, et al. will be providing match coverage. Conflicts aside and disclosed, it’s good fun and crackling television.
• ESPN is your go-to for match coverage, first ball to last. And this year, a warm tennis welcome to Jeremy Schaap.
• As sporting event websites go, USOpen.org is strong. Powered by IBM. Bookmark it. Play around with the stats. Note the momentum-based player ratings. And note the practice schedules, which are posted daily.
• @T_tennis_tennis: Download the U.S. Open app and check out the order of play the night before to make a game plan of what you'd like to see.
• Root for any and all players outside the top 100, this year especially. Winning that first round could be the difference between financing another year on tour and quitting the sport.
• Root for players who are parents. Root for players born in the 1980s. (They grow old; they grow old.) Root for the undersized and the underaged.
• Root for the players who could use it. This year, candidates include: Andy Murray, Madison Keys and Amanda Anisimova. This to say nothing of the lesser light who looks to be close to tears. Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty can win with or without your vocal support. For these other players, it can make a real difference.
• @scharfmind asks: “Perhaps name a dozen up-and-comers we should watch on the backcourts before they become stars.” Hmm. Off the top of my head (and adding some fun-to-watch ascending vets) … Jenson Brooksby, Carlos Alcaraz, Sara Sorribes Tormo, Marta Kostyuk, Ann Li, Leylah Fernandez, Mikael Ymer.
• As always, the program contains a compendium of the finest tennis writing. This year the program is available for order at www.tennisprograms.net. (By the power vested in me, I hereby declare 15% off the $20 cover price for anyone who uses code ACUSO-1.)
• Watch the top players in the boys' and girls' singles draw. One day soon they're likely to play on the big stages (or not). Either way it makes for good theater. (A few years ago, it could’ve been Coco Gauff.) Adds @meganfernandez: "And watching them play let serves is different, fun—and sometimes heartbreaking."
• If you notice a scoring console and see that a match is deep in the fifth set (or third set for women), watch the conclusion, regardless of whether you've heard of either player. It will give you a good sense of just how brutal tennis can be.
• Curse the robots calling the lines. But accept they are here to stay.
• Watch wheelchair tennis. Not out of any sense of obligation, but because it’s super awesome—terrifically entertaining tennis and filled with the kind of shotmaking we all love.
• The usual Tennis Hall of Fame exhibit under Louis Armstrong Stadium won’t be there. But book a trip to Newport or take the virtual tour here.
• We used to advise buying the grounds pass over the seats in Ashe. No longer. A lousy seat in Ashe—and now Armstrong—is comparable in price, gets you roving privileges and is insurance in case of rain.
• I started in on some ticketing tips, but this page is terrific and will answer all your FAQs.
• @galloots: “If you want great value, go see matches on the Tuesday after Labor Day, everyone back to work and tickets on Stubhub less than face.”
• Take the safest play: the MTA's much-maligned No. 7 train from the new Hudson Yards, or Times Square, or Bryant Park, or Grand Central in Manhattan to the Willets Point-CitiField stop. Be prepared to stand, especially if the Mets are playing.
• @sufed4ever: “If you are taking the subway, be friendly to other passengers. Struck up a conversation with a doctor, wife and his mom who were fellow U.S. Open attendees and they gave me an extra ticket to one of the suites.”
• Our preferred alternative: Ride the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station. It’s much faster, though trains run only three or four times an hour, so check the schedule.
(As part of our crowdsourcing, reader @clarkcomed notes: “You can take a bus to the Open straight from LaGuardia.”) At the risk of sounding like a tourist-bureau, you'll be surprised how civil and efficient the trains are. If you insist on private transportation, take an Uber or cab over a car service, which drops you off somewhere near Montauk.
• Here’s reader Esha Bhandari: “For the cycling-inclined, biking to the U.S. Open is an excellent option. If you come up through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, you can park at bike racks outside the Queens Museum, putting you right by the "back" entrance to the tennis (the one that subway riders don't use). Not only is it very pleasant to avoid long lines on the way in, at the end of the day you can walk out, hop on the bike, and avoid the hordes waiting for the subway.”
• Many of you wisely suggested filling up your MetroCards before heading out so you avoid the lines at the end of the session. And Long Island Railroad requires a ticket that can NOT be purchased with a MetroCard.
While at Flushing Meadows
• Arrive way early. Or fashionably late. But there’s a crush at 11:00 a.m. when matches usually start.
• @IanKatzTennnis: “Don't go in through the main front entrance by the boardwalk. Too crowded. Go around to the left and enter through the side.”
• Buy a program and/or a daily draw sheet when you walk in. The schedule of matches is critical for spectator planning, and the program is great changeover reading. The program contains a compendium of the finest tennis writing.
• @Cdhort: “While there are charging stations on site, bring a Mophie or other charging device.” @ChewyYorkie adds: "If you have a Chase credit card or account, you can get a free portable phone charger. Definitely a must!"
• Get off your damn screens, look up and experience life. You’re at the U.S. Open. You paid for this. Everything else can wait.
• Check out the Court No. 5 viewing platform.
• @brad_duester: “When going from Ashe to Armstrong, walk the back way, not the main way.”
• @mariayealdhall: “If you have a Chase card, reserve a spot in the Chase lounge. You get AC, snacks & free hat each day. Also great during rain delay.”
• Little-known fact: Most of the players—including some stars—practice near the main gate and the miniature golf course. Mosey on over. Recently, one of you stumbled upon Fabrice Santoro hitting with Mats Wilander.
• And yes: Your eyes are not deceiving you; there is a miniature golf course—and a par-3 with lights—mere yards from the back entrance. You’re welcome.
• If you own an American Express card, investigate whether you're entitled to a free radio that enables you to hear the TV commentary. (Aside: Whoever does the AmEx U.S. Open sponsorships gets it. These are consistently creative, fun and feel completely nonintrusive.) If not, bring binoculars. Particularly during changeovers—"I think the trainer is on the court, icing down Granollers’ larynx!"—they can come in handy.
• @scottzabielski: "The free Amex radios are surprisingly awesome. They might not look cool but they make the match so much more interesting. There's nothing like the Armstrong night sessions—so much fun."
• Complain at least once about the lack of intimacy in Arthur Ashe Stadium and the overselling of grounds passes. And complain at least twice about the lucky ones in the luxury suites who have prime seats yet fail to show or have their backs turned away from the court as they eat their canapés and knock back scandalously marked-up wine. It’s your inalienable tennis right.
• Maybe it's desensitization to overpriced ballpark food or New York prices in general, but the food-court fare—once the subject of so much derision—no longer seems so overpriced. The food ranges from passable to quite good. The terrific Sam Sifton cooked this up a few years back. The Indian joint is always my personal favorite. Also, at the Wine Bar near the main fountains, try the burrata—if only because burrata is the single greatest substance known to man.
• Alternatively, check out some of the restaurants in Flushing's Chinatown. You can walk there or take the No. 7 train one additional stop. Says @veryape: “Queens has the best food in the city. On the way back, stop off at Sunnyside or Woodside for authentic everything!” @Mel1612ancholia: “Go to Astoria for some good Greek food” … a few of you mentioned the Queens beer garden.
• @mkopelman: "Main Street Flushing pre or post for great Chinese food. We usually do dumplings."
• @steve_weissman: “Get the Pat LaFrieda steak sandwich.”
• @jasongay: “The Momofuku chicken sandwich line is worth the wait.”
More Do's and Don'ts
• @andrewikesports writes: "Keep an eye on the sunset behind the NYC skyline—Manhattanhenge, the kids call it—from the top of Ashe as the night session gets going."
• Note the Bud Collins Media Center—and pause a moment to acknowledge the eponymous. And pay homage to the good, hard-working pool reporters inside. Realize the vile abhorrence of the term enemy of the people.
• Note a few of the welcome absences this year—and lobby for their permanent retirement. Ball kids that handle players’ effluvia-filled towels. Prematch interviews. Excruciating trophy presentation ceremonies. $8 bottled water on oppressively hot days …
• Unless you have a match that day, there's no excuse for dressing like a player when you attend the U.S. Open. You don't wear stirrups to Yankees games and shin guards and leotards to the ballet. Leave the wristbands at home, Champ.
• Alvaro from Madrid: “To speed through security, put your stuff into a small plastic bag. Also bring a more durable, comfortable bag that you can fold or zipper compactly—keep it out of sight until after the security check … and bring tightly wrapped food (like an overstuffed deli sandwich, so your bag isn’t bulky), and a plastic water bottle to refill at fountains.”
• Speaking of good habits, wear sunscreen—though bring cream, not aerosol, as some of you have told me that a can won’t make it past security.
• SS: Feel free to share this, but as it’s a workaround I ain’t posting it on Twitter:
I stuff my pockets with my extra glasses, money, phone, and a small tube of sunblock, and wear my hat (which may come off later). Plus: one of those string bags that go over both shoulders and scrunch up into almost nothing. I enter through the “no bag” line—much, much quicker—and then once inside take out the shoulder bag, etc. Sneaky? Yes. Legit? Kinda. Works? Yup.
• @likethemovie19: “Do NOT bring those metal/insulated Swell-type bottles, as they will not let you bring them in.
• @magicjewball: “I bought a cheap chair cushion at Ikea and brought it in my tote. It’s good for the hot benches but also more comfortable.”
• Check the website for all COVID-19-related protocols and updates. It’s a fluid situation—forgive the pun—so check early and often.
• Wherever you are, wear a damn mask.
• @beverlyelaine: "Remember that wearing a mask doesn’t mean just being on your face. If your nose and mouth aren't consistently covered in the appropriate settings, for all intent & purposes, you're not wearing a mask. Suggestion: get one that fits properly so it doesn't have to be constantly adjusted."
• Which will improve the odds of returning to the Open, as we know it, in 2022.
More Tennis Coverage: