Back to the US Open

American flag

I step off the 7 train just half an hour before noon and scurry past the crowds on the boardwalk leading to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the US Open tennis tournament. The gates had opened over an hour earlier, so the lines to get into the center are almost non-existent. A guard quickly pokes through my purse before I step through the metal detector – a new addition since my last visit five years ago.

Has it really been five years? As I walk through the grounds toward Arthur Ashe Stadium, I struggle to remember. I visited for the first time in 2005 and again in 2006, 2007 and 2008. I know I skipped it in 2010 because that was the summer I managed to make it to Wimbledon. And by 2011, of course, I was at the start of my year-long career break trip and nowhere near Flushing Meadows. But what about 2009? Why didn’t I come in 2009? I try to rack my brain but then I get distracted as I look up at the scoreboard outside of Arthur Ashe. It flashes that Serena Williams is currently on Practice Court 1.

Like a seasoned veteran, I make my way quickly to the practice courts on the far side of the grounds. I bypass the crowds gathered along the fence and instead head to the court next door, climbing its bleachers and joining a handful of fans for the best seat in the house: an overhead view of Serena Williams practicing for Sunday’s final. I wonder why more people haven’t figured this out.

Serena Williams practice

I snap a few pictures with my new DSLR – the zoom lens combined with a faster shutter speed than my old point and shoot make me wish I had made the investment sooner. Then I make my way into Ashe for the match of the day: the men’s semi-finals, starting with number one player Novak Djokovic taking on ninth seeded Stanislas Wawrinka. Stan is Swiss and has long lingered in the shadow of the great Roger Federer. I feel for him and I kind of want him to win even though the better final match up would be another Djokovic-Rafael Nadal battle.

My seat is technically a nosebleed seat in the upper promenade, but unlike in the past, I don’t feel like I’m that far up – I don’t feel all that far away.  I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life, including an obnoxious guy from Philadelphia and a group of Colombians led by a colorful gentleman wearing yellow pants, a navy blazer and a straw hat while holding a glass of white wine. As he takes his seat, he quickly switches from the Spanish he spoke with his comrades to English to introduce himself to everyone in the surrounding seats, observing that we would all be there a while together.

I can’t help but focus on the glass of wine – at what other sporting event in the US will you find wine served alongside beer, mojitos, vodka mixers and special signature cocktails? Not to mention food options that include Indian, Italian and Mexican fare in addition to the standard pizza, burgers and hot dogs? The diversity of the concessions seems to reflect the diversity of the crowd – American, foreign, white, black, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, tennis diehards and tennis newbies. And, of course, major star power – the US Open may offer better celebrity spotting than a Lakers game.

But I digress.

Novak Djokovic Stan Wawrinka

Novak Djokovic

The Djokovic- Wawrinka semi-final doesn’t disappoint in terms of quality or drama. Wawrinka surprisingly takes the first set and then seems poised to take the second as well before Novak battles back. At one point in the decisive fifth set, the players get locked in a single game that lasts more than 20 minutes. Stan eggs the crowd on, drawing cheers throughout the stadium before he serves what seems like his tenth game point – only to have Novak egg them on even more and draw even louder cheers. I’m sure I’m not the only who I sure that whomever wins the game will win the match. But no, Stan finally wins the game but runs out of gas and Novak moves on to the final.

Rafael Nadal

Poor Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet likely start their semi-final in a nearly empty stadium as we all take time to recover from the epic we just saw. I hustle out of Ashe to the food court to grab some Indian food and then hunt down an open outlet in a women’s restroom to recharge my phone (priorities!). After a stop for some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, I am back in my seat for the start of the second set. This match has little drama and by the third game of the third set, I am ready to call it a night. I have dinner plans back in Manhattan and as the sun sets and the wind swirls, I am getting cold. I take a moment to enjoy the sun setting over the New York City skyline and then it’s back to the 7 and back into the city.

New York City sunset

I am back the next day shortly after 2 p.m. , this time for the women’s final featuring the great Serena Williams and world number two Victoria Azarenka.  The seat I purchased back in May is way up in the upper promenade, but with what could be an instant classic ahead of me, I venture to the upgrade booth just inside the gates to see if there is anything better available. Lucky for me, there is, so I quickly hand over my credit card and walk away with a ticket in the fifth row of the loge seats.

I have time before the match begins, so I head to Court 11, where the girls’ juniors final is being played – a matchup of fifteen-year-old American Tornado Alicia Black and Ana Konjuh from Croatia. I don’t make it onto the court until the end of the third set, just in time to see Black lose in a tiebreaker. My heart goes out to her – she seems devastated and not sure what to do as they quickly set up the trophy ceremony and ask her to speak to the crowd.

Then it is time for the main event: Serena versus Vika. My new seat is awesome, in the corner of the stadium with a good view of what will eventually be the trophy ceremony. The match starts off on a low note as some idiot screams out as Azarenka starts to serve. She lets the ball drop, the call clearly affecting her, and seems out of sorts the first few points. Serena easily breaks but then to my surprise, Vika breaks right back. Serena seems bothered by the gusty wind for most of the set, but manages to pull it out. As she jumps out to a 4-1 lead in the second set, it seems like she will run away with the match but then, shockingly, she starts to choke. In very un-Serena-like fashion, she blows not one, but two chances to serve for the championship. Instead, Vika rallies and we go to a third set. I am definitely getting my extra money’s worth!

Serena Williams

Victoria Azarenka

Darkness starts to fall and Serena steps up her game, again taking control in the third set and this time, not surrendering. The match ends as it hits the 2 hour, 45 minute mark, making it the longest women’s final at the US Open since they started keeping track in 1980. I clearly have a penchant for witnessing historically long matches, right? The crowd goes nuts as Serena ends it and leaps for joy – her 17th Grand Slam in the books.

Serena Williams wins

Serena Williams trophy

And soon, my fifth US Open was in the books as well. I jumped on the 7 train one more time, vowing to myself that I will be back again next year.

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