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A great many tennis fans at the U.S. Open wear tennis shirts and shorts and shoes, sure, but also wristbands, on the evident assumption that an umpire, seated high in his canopied lifeguard chair, might single them out from a sea of people and summon them to play Pete Sampras. Golf writers do this too, walking the course in logoed golf shirts, golf hats and—as God is my witness—soft-spiked golf shoes. But that owes only to the strange relationship between golf scribes and golfers, who grow to physically resemble one another in the way that long-married couples sometimes do or, more accurately, the way that pets and their owners begin to look alike.
Still, all those tennis outfits at the Open—with its gin-and-tonic-swilling spectators, its burgers hissing on a grill—give it the jaunty quality of a suburban soiree, circa 1978. Thus the holder of an early-round ticket can, as I did, fairly float from court to court, shod in Stan Smiths, doing a daylong Tennisy Waltz.
Perhaps it's all those too-small tennis shorts—those Borg-era bumhuggers—but the Open exudes a swinging and slightly louche quality. Listen to the way a German chair umpire leeringly says "love"—luff—or the constant, intercontinental grunting during the Paul-Henri Mathieu versus Fernando Gonzalez match, which resembled the soundtrack to some bizarre, Franco-Chilean stag film. Then there is the National Tennis Center's enormous statue of Arthur Ashe, naked but anatomically incomplete: A few hundred yards from it is a fund-raising stand labeled, as if in remedy, ARTHUR ASHE ENDOWMENT. And so the Open, with its $26 Shrimp-Scallop Salad, at times has the look of a backyard Babylon. (Indeed, Babylon, Long Island, is but 20 miles away.)
Yet with 36 courts the National Tennis Center is also, in the first week of the Open, sports' most grazeable salad bar. The savvy fan will forgo Ashe Stadium—as charmless as its ana-grammatical neighbor, Shea—for all those satellite courts that are lined up outside it, one after another, side by side like solitaire cards. It is possible, in the span of three hours and 300 paces, to watch the ambidextrous Evgenia Koulikovskaya hit only forehands (lefthanded from the ad court, righthanded from the deuce court), repeatedly tossing her racket from hand to hand as if it were a potato just pulled from the oven.
From there one can pop in on the Gonzalez-Mathieu match, where the crowd of maybe 200—quiet as an operating-theater audience—is suddenly enlivened by competing shouts of Ol�! and Allez! Within minutes all spectators have joined in, and by the time Allez takes Ol� to five riveting sets (before falling), we are collectively strung tighter than a Wilson T2000.
Afterward it's a 30-second walk to Court 4, where Andre Agassi is practicing with his coach, Darren Cahill. "Don't clap for him, he's an Aussie," Agassi tells us, on the solitary occasion that Cahill wins a point off his pupil's unearthly volleys, which appear (at close range) to have a Day-Glo green vapor trail, like the white blur that followed the blip on a Pong screen. After two hours of drills and 10 minutes of rallying, Agassi steps to the service line, bounces the ball and says to his coach across the-net, "Fifth set, match point, you have to break me." Then Agassi hits a service winner and runs to the net in celebration, as if he's a kid pretending to win the Open rather than the world No. 6, preparing to do just that.
Sportswriters who wished to cover the Open endured a criminal background check before getting credentialed—this surely halved, or even quartered, the potential press pool—but it's the ticketed public, far from the stifling press box, that gets the more intimate glimpse behind the scenes. Flushing Meadow is full of such apparent contradictions. Indeed, the very name Flushing Meadow, as the English novelist Martin Amis points out, "is at once lavatorial and sylvan."
So watch Agassi exit the practice court. He's encircled by five security guards linking hands, like scissored-out paper dolls attached at the wrist. The largest of the guards is in front, the prow of his forehead acting like a locomotive's cowcatcher, and he shouts to the crowd as he cleaves it, "Moveouttatheway, moveouttatheway, moveouttatheway," which is New York for, "Excuse me." Seeing such a clamor, it is hard to imagine that tennis is dead, or dying, or even living in Boca.
At day's end I duck into the fan-participation pavilion, where a short, fit 34-year-old city planner from Oakland serves a ball that registers, on a radar gun, an astonishing 122 mph. "I played in college, at UCLA," says Romel Pascual, sheepishly, having smashed the fastest serve of the day. It is, he notes, still five miles an hour slower than Venus Williams's best, and 22 shy of Andy Roddick's.
Pascual, attending his fourth consecutive Open, rolls his eyes when I ask him if tennis is in trouble. "Ten minutes ago," he says, "a 13-year-old girl served 85 miles an hour in here." Outside, people are picnicking on the grass. The New York City skyline rises to the west, but tennis fans are content here: on the outskirts, blissful in their sporting suburbia.