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September 10, 2012
Oh, the U. S. Open has changed—less raw, more polished, the nouveau province of the hipster and the high-heeled. But the old electricity? It still courses through the most thrilling fortnight in sports
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September 10, 2012

Bigger, Richer, Calmer, Cooler

Oh, the U. S. Open has changed—less raw, more polished, the nouveau province of the hipster and the high-heeled. But the old electricity? It still courses through the most thrilling fortnight in sports

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Who cares? You do. Because when, 15 years ago, Venus and Serena Williams locked arms in the hallway of the newly opened, 23,000-seat Ashe Stadium and sang, "Let the sideshow begin," you knew they weren't just laying down a track for their own tumultuous futures. The U.S. Open may not have Wimbledon's stateliness or Roland Garros's style, may not have the pure ease of the Australian Open, but it has long been the game's leading indicator, the Grand Slam event that tells us better than any other where pro tennis will go next. The tiebreak, equal prize money, night play, electronic line calling—all began in Queens, and if you're seeking the game's next innovation, try following the hypnotic dips, zooms and hovers of the Spider-Cam now doing eerily spectacular work around Ashe Stadium.

Meanwhile, you can get any U.S. Tennis Association suit to describe more construction plans, a vague intention of slapping roofs on Ashe and Armstrong someday, but last week turned out to be more about subtraction than addition. On Thursday, Andy Roddick, the last U.S. male winner of a major and No. 1, celebrated his 30th birthday with the surprise announcement that he would retire at the end of the 2012 Open. "I've always wanted to, in a perfect world, finish at this event," he said.

Though Roddick came of age in Ashe Stadium—where he won his 2003 Open title and has competed in more night matches than any American man—he's one of the last active players who can recall what came before. As an eight-year-old in 1990 he snuck into the old players' lounge and played video games with Pete Sampras, and the next year Roddick managed to wriggle, with only a grounds pass, into four matches of Jimmy Connors's hallowed run to the semis. That such a move would be nearly impossible today is only another reason this year's Open felt like the end of an era, a time to take stock.

So off you wander through the tournament's days and nights, past the gleaming Mercedes display and through the well-coiffed, well-toned throng. You see far fewer fans these days garbed in tennis togs, as if waiting for Federer to call them out of the stands to rally, because there seems far fewer who'd actually be interested. It's not easy ripping a forehand while holding a $12 mojito, especially in high heels.

You take the old rattletrap elevator that used to steam up to the tin-can press box above Armstrong, now long gone. You walk along the seam between the stadium and the Grandstand, to the corners where the bottles and cans and paper mounds used to gather. You walk through the humming food court to the gorgeous new bullring, Court 17, as cozy as a beanbag chair. The ground is spotless. Garbage nestles in plastic-bag-lined cans. When players pass en route to a court, surrounded by four security guards, reaching out is frowned upon.

"It's tamer—don't you feel that?" Chris Evert says when you track her down at the ESPN trailer one afternoon. She recalls her semifinal against Martina Navratilova in 1981; the two of them patiently sitting down in the third set to wait out a brawl in Armstrong's stands. The deafening jets still flew low over the matches then. Smoke from a nearby hamburger stand used to envelop players on Court 4. Court lighting was laughable. Fans had a rep, established during the chaotic 1979 match between Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe, for threatening to swarm the court if they didn't like a call.

"Back then, anything went," Evert says. "It's more controlled now. I didn't have security: People were touching me and wanting autographs and pictures and having conversations: 'Chris, how do you feel about today's match?' You don't get any of that now."

From 1978, when the Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow, to '96, the year before Ashe Stadium opened, players used to walk the quarter mile from the locker room to Armstrong. As the matches progressed, the crowds grew, until by the final a 10-deep throng had gathered to scream, snap flashbulbs and size up the players as they trooped, championship-bout-style, over the concourse to the court.

You put in a call to Connors, who won the Open five times. "You broke through the doors, and it was like the parting of the Red Sea," he says from California. "The fans were standing there, and the energy started there. I knew right away if I was going to be liked or not, which fires you up either way. 'Come on, Borg! Come on, Mac! Come on, Jimmy!' Thousands of people revving you up. Nothing will ever be like that."

Funny. You would argue that tennis today is in the latter stages of a golden age, with record prize money, wall-to-wall TV coverage, scads of information online. The level of play is better than ever. But this is an iTennis Era, sleek and cool, with a Facebook level of intimacy. Now when finalists leave the locker room in Ashe, hallway security doors slam shut, leaving the players to themselves, a few hangers-on, the lights of the network cameras. "We keep the players off-limits from everything and everybody," says a USTA guide leading a tour of the press room last Saturday night.

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