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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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"Really?" asks a visitor. "Why?"

Because in 1993, top-ranked Monica Seles was stabbed by a fan. In 2001, two days after Lleyton Hewitt stunned Sampras in the men's final, security worldwide was revolutionized by the attacks of 9/11. Who can argue that something needed to change?

The opening of Ashe in 1997, with a monstrous upper bowl set atop 90 luxury suites that lease now for $250,000 apiece, demanded that the event change its character. The $285 million cost needed to be paid. Ticket prices rose. The U.S. Open needed to be sold like never before.

Real estate mogul and attention hound Donald Trump set the aggressively luxe tone when he set up camp in his Ashe suite next to the TV booth, scanning matches like a lord. Armstrong got scaled down and spruced up, and the Open, once "the quintessential New York venue," according to longtime tournament referee Brian Earley, began to evolve. "It's a different New York feel now, more high-class," Earley says. "The energy's still there, but it's not the bleacher mentality."

Not even close, though on a hot night in Ashe's upper deck a brawl can still break out, distracting fans from the moment when they, too, appear on the stadium's big screen. As in Melbourne, Paris and London, the first-week scramble by purists to find—then brag about—an early-round epic remains a blood sport. But it often seems that competitive name-dropping is just as important.

"The Trumps of the world sit in the front row, and when you watch the tapes after, you say, 'Whoa, he was watching my match?!'" says 1988 Open champ Mats Wilander, now a Eurosport commentator. "That is very New York. They have 'em in France, but you don't know who they are. Everybody knows the American celebrities. And they're just normal people, which they prove every time they come and watch tennis."

They wouldn't be celebs if that were really true, but Wilander has a point: The less styled, less assisted, less entouraged a bold-faced name is, the more valuable the sighting. Hence the excitement surrounding Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin. On Day 1, the face of Russian hockey showed up outside the President's Gate, toting a bag for girlfriend Maria Kirilenko, the No. 14 seed, and blowing big green bubbles with his gum. The Grand Slam tournament first played on the genteel grass of Forest Hills has been trending this way for a while—ever since former USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian made it a mission in 2000 "to make this the place where sports, entertainment, fashion and celebrity people come together in one event.

"We hired a p.r. firm in New York City, and their sole responsibility was to pull together the celebrities and invite them to the Open," said Kantarian. "We rolled out the red carpet." Literally. On Aug. 27 a 12-foot-long stretch of scarlet pile was taped to the sidewalk outside Ashe Stadium. Stanley Tucci and Jordin Sparks dutifully walked the only gantlet left, stopping in front of a Moët-sponsored backdrop for the jungle of cameras and boom mikes.

Still, it's a far more institutionalized affair than in the 1990s, when the Open merely comped tickets for singer Barbra Streisand so she could pronounce Andre Agassi a "zen master." By the time Ellen DeGeneres broadcast her show from Flushing during the 2010 Open—ending on a catwalk with her name unveiled as the "winner" on Burford Smith's drawboard—Kantarian's hope of turning the fortnight into DISNEYLAND WITH NETS had been realized. Last Friday night fans filled Ashe for Roddick's potential last match. But the loudest ovation by far during his second-round romp over Bernard Tomic came when singer Keith Urban gave his wife, Nicole Kidman, a kiss on the big screen.

Frivolous? Sure. But leveraging celebrity—making the Open a must-do New York scene—has proved a brilliant marketing stroke for a sport that, since the fade of its 1970s boom, has struggled with a deep inferiority complex. If U.S. stars such as Sampras weren't fending off charges of being "boring," tennis was bristling over the world's endless fascination with Tiger Woods. That's why Woods's appearance at Roddick's last final here, in 2006, made tennis wonks so happy. When Tiger sits in Federer's box, or LMFAO singer Redfoo joins Victoria Azarenka for a press conference, or No. 1 golfer Rory McIlroy fills out girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki's entourage, some cool has to rub off.

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