That smell. You thought you wouldn't get that anymore, not here, not after all the millions spent, the stadia built, the effort made year after year to scour, paint, sandblast and haul it away. It's most noticeable in this small corner of Flushing Meadow before the tournament begins: The food-court ovens aren't cooking yet, the thousands of bodies still haven't poured through the gates. Still, that smell—of a steamy subway stop, of a CBGB's toilet, of the U.S. Open circa 1991—was supposed to be history, wasn't it?
But, no, the scent is unmistakable. And, oddly enough, you don't find it unpleasant, not in the least, because it almost seems intentional in this tableau, a living reminder of how life used to be. "A lot of people just stand there and watch," says Burford Smith. "I want to get a sign that says IT'S NOT POLITE TO STARE."
But it's hard not to. Wedged under the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium, next to a deafening air-conditioning unit and below a flaking pipe bearing God-knows-what, four wobbly tables and one vinyl printer serve as headquarters for the 2012 Open's most hands-on job. DRAWBOARD PRODUCTION OFFICE reads a little sign, tongue only slightly in cheek: Wasps, high wind and rain are problems here. For years, Smith shared this space with a family of raccoons.
Still, you can't beat it for convenience. Just outside is the catwalk onto which Smith and his partner, Frank Ayala, scramble daily: Up and down the four 40-foot-high sliding ladders, strapped in and clenching the sticky-backed strips of scores and players' names—1,201 by tournament's end—in their teeth. Smith travels from Atlanta and Ayala from Southern California each year to spend the Open updating the most scrutinized patch of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center: 4,000 square feet of blue plywood bolted to Armstrong's flank.
Mistakes do happen. "You spelled it wrong," an old lady once yelled up to Smith.
"Which one?" Smith said.
"I'm not going to tell. You should know."
This is Smith's eighth year. He has a fierce sense of ownership of the board, likes telling people, "The players haven't won their match until I say they've won their match." He also gets up for events like Arthur Ashe Kids Day, and he likes the way Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer handle stardom. But other players? "I wouldn't throw water on 'em if they were on fire," he says.
Smith's irreverence seems important. You'd like to think it's of a piece with his gritty surroundings, a hint that the Open's famously manic soul might yet survive even the most spectacular success. But Smith doesn't know that. He wants to help. He's just about exhausted his store of drawboard tales, in fact, when he remembers his trump card. He'd like not to care, but even Smith knows that nothing lends legitimacy at Flushing Meadow now more than the presence of a big star—and if it's a TV talk-show host who tweets to 13 million followers, well, all the better. For the first time in 20 minutes Smith grins, he's so pleased.
"Ellen was here," he says.