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During Kantarian's tenure (2000--08), Open revenues rose by $70 million. This year's fortnight will net some $110 million and, if the weather holds, threaten the two-week 2009 attendance record of 721,059. In terms of tickets sold, there's now no bigger annual sporting event on the planet. Just as telling, though, is how the players have bought in. Like it or not, they've learned: Tennis alone isn't enough anymore.
"Players are different now; they embrace technology," Earley says. "Twenty years ago [if] you put those big screens up there and ran live action in the middle of play, I can tell you five players who would've said, 'We're not doing that.' Players now love that s---. Getting interviewed before a match? We had players who wouldn't get interviewed the first year. Now? They're onstage, acting!"
Maybe, though, it's too easy, too fogyish, to say that the Open has lost its edge. The place may have gotten more posh, but the rains that shredded the schedule and every last nerve over the last four years remain a threat, and New York City's unique nature will never allow a true calm. "The distractions are big here because you almost enjoy your time too much," Federer says. "Not meaning you go party, but you do too many things maybe you shouldn't be doing. In Wimbledon you rent your house, you eat and breathe tennis. When you come here, you go out at night for dinners. You catch up with friends. There's many more things you can follow and do, so that brings challenges."
Young Americans hitting the place for the first time feel like their heads are going to explode. "The energy was something I'd never felt before," says Ryan Harrison of his minirun (including qualifying) to the second round in 2010. "You always hear that it's the most incredible tournament, but you never can really understand what people are talking about—and I didn't—until you play. That was incredible."
Maybe this is just life now in Mayor Bloomberg's New York, where tourists take their kids to Times Square and the crime rate keeps dropping and it's practically a crime to smoke, eat bad fat or down a big soda. You're chewing on this one afternoon when here comes the tennis embodiment of 1980s downtown angst, the punk prince. John McEnroe, 53, still looks the part: black T-shirt with suit pants, sunglasses, a Giants cap jammed on his head. You pull an immediate U-turn. He's moving fast.
"I [still] get pumped up," McEnroe says of coming to the Open. "I've had a long summer, and my energy level, just from being here, is up 15 to 20 percent. I'll walk around, and people are saying, for the most part, good things—and you just get ... up."
Then again, McEnroe isn't the rebel he was in his prime, when matches felt like war and "everyone," he says, "seemed like an adversary." In fact, the only thing in tennis that has undergone a more radical makeover than the Open is McEnroe himself, the Superbrat cum television commentator, oft seen poking fun of his younger self in ads for American Express and National Car Rental. Once, McEnroe would've found prematch interviews or deafening music during changeovers "ludicrous," he says. "Now I think it would've been sort of cool to hear some music."
You hear this, and it's fair to wonder if tennis even needs a brash U.S. Open anymore. After Open tennis began in 1968, petulant, hyperactive adolescent behavior seemed the perfect way to keep the world watching. But like McEnroe now, the pro game is a sport well into middle age. The use of replay has all but eliminated verbal abuse, and the top players treat officials and each other mostly with respect, making episodes like Serena Williams's Open meltdowns seem downright bizarre.
You're almost convinced, but then you find McEnroe's onetime doubles partner, CBS commentator Mary Carillo. Every year, as a kid growing up in nearby Douglaston, Queens, she'd end her summers at the Open. It's home. "For me, what started out as a game became a sport, and now it's a business," she says. "I'm not naive: I'm wistful. And it's not just this place that has become corporate. The players have too. They're brands—the Federer brand, the Sharapova brand. Maybe some things have to change, but it's no secret why the Grandstand produces so many of the best moments here: The fans still feel like they're right there with the players. They get to see 'em sweat and see 'em curse. When Connors made his great run, the fans at Armstrong felt like they were helping him win. I miss that."
That was last Thursday. In the following days Carillo's words began to feel like an incantation, summoning the very forces she thought had fled Flushing for good. Roddick's press conference dwelled mostly on retirement, but he mentioned Connors's run in '91 and how much he loved Ashe at night. "The most electric atmosphere in our sport," he said.