Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Anyone for tennis, or a non-cliche tennis headline?

On Tuesday I ventured to Queens for the second day of the U.S. Open. A friend graciously provided the ticket, saving $54. It seems steep, but the day session lasts from 11 a.m. until past six, so it's a reasonable price, considering ticket costs for two-hour basketball games, three-hour football games, and two-hour Broadway shows.

What's not reasonable are the concession stand prices. They make Manhattan rent prices look like a bargain. I bought a burger, fries and small Pepsi for $16.50. To be fair to the Open's price-gougers, they were waffle fries. This is the view from the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium. I didn't have my camera so this isn't my picture. Plus, my view wasn't this good.

Arthur Ashe stadium holds 22,000 people. People often criticize it for being much too large for tennis, and it's hard to disagree when you're sitting near the top of the facility, where it seems the overhead planes are closer than the players down below. There is a great view of Citi Field, the Mets's new stadium, and even from high up and far away, it's almost possible to see the failure on that field.

I caught the end of the decisive third set between the top seed in the women's draw, Dinara Safina, against a wild-card entrant who was expected to offer little resistance before politely waving to the crowd and exiting the tournament. Instead that player, Australian Olivia Rogowska, won the first set and led 3-0 in the third. Even from my high-altitude seats, the physical differences between the players was striking. Taking one look at them, it was obvious who the higher seed was. Safina - who's the top seed only because Venus and Serena Williams choose to play about four times a year - is powerfully built, in the Williams sisters mode. Rogowska, meanwhile, looked like Tracy Austin, circa 1979.

Although the seats weren't the best for seeing the match, I had no trouble hearing it. Safina's grunts reverberated all the way up to the should-be-but-aren't-cheap seats. If Ashe Stadium was big enough to hold 82,000 people, everyone could have still heard Safina's war cries, which simultaneously conveyed sounds of agony and ecstasy. Safina took control later in the set, sending Rogowska packing, but not before the plucky underdog fulfilled her duties and politely waved to the crowd.

The coolest thing about attending the early sessions is wandering around the outer courts. Ashe is home to the tournament's big dogs, but the outer courts have compelling action, and superior seating. I sat in the front row for a match between two players I'd never heard of (a Frenchman and an American; the match brought out the patriot in me. Alas, the Yank lost, shaming his country). But being courtside provides a unique and highly entertaining perspective. Television doesn't do tennis justice. The camera angles ensure that it's impossible to see just how powerful the players serve and strike their ground strokes. Men and women both. When seated in the middle of the court, and being just a few feet off of the playing surface, the power is breathtaking.

In the same way watching professional golfers in action gives you a better idea of how accurate they are with every shot, and in the same way sitting courtside for an NBA game shows you why they're the best athletes in the world, and in the same way being on the sidelines of an NFL game provides an argument that the evolution of the human body is out of control, being courtside at a professional tennis match brings about a new appreciation of the sport.

The grunting, however, is that much more annoying.

I caught parts of four or five other singles matches - nearly all of them involving players I couldn't name even with a program - and the conclusion of a doubles match. But the anonymity of the players is ultimately meaningless. While watching Federer, Nadal or the Williams sisters is the ultimate, there are always other compelling alternatives. The up-close action often trumps big names.

But sneak in a snack lunch.

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