NEW YORK—It’s just past three p.m. and I’m circling past the courtside entrances in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Above me pass towering profiles of yesteryear’s champions—Ashe, ‘70s Afro thick and present, “VS” viz. Babolat’s gut stenciled on his stringbed; Connors, double-fist-pumping his mustard-yellow frame; and finally Lendl, stretched supplely to his right, his arm bowed out in a lethal coil. As I walk my heart’s beating like a hammer. I’m jonesing to watch, within earshot, soon-to-be retired Andy Roddick take on Fabio Fognini, the Italian Adonis. But while I have a credential, I don’t have the scarce but requisite courtside ticket.
So I keep circling, walking nonchalantly by each concrete entryway, hand in my pocket fingering a twenty. I’m considering a bribe, but am a virgin palm greaser, the extent of which is just dawning on me as all I can think to do is to look for ushers under the age of 55 without mustaches. I imagine the mustache as a marker of marshal rectitude, one that would respond dourly with swift punishment. Finally, after walking by the several mustaches, I pass a spectacled kid not older than 25. I walk up to him arms assertively crossed, eyes askance. No palm greasing is necessary. He squints at my credential in confusion. The rope opens. He lets me through.
And I’m courtside, the end of set two, exactly one row behind the chair ump., within spitting distance of A-Rod. He’s leaned over, sweat trickling down the brim of his cap, fussing about with his Babolat Stars & Stripes sneaks, aptly named. Finally he removes them. I’m not sure if the shoes bleed or something, but his socks—and the bottoms of his customary white ankle guard—are a pale red, as if he’s stepped in a puddle of fruit punch.
“Time,” says the ump. Andy laces back up and walks toward the baseline to serve. He struts around the backcourt and checks out three balls, knocking one back with the racquet’s profile, pocketing one. Both Lacoste shirt and shorts are baggy and wrinkle around Roddick’s wide frame; they’re semi-transparently soaked through, as if he just walked out of a pool. A-Rod bows out his elbow and tugs on his shirt in his customary way, twirling his blue Pure Drive in a quick circles. One, two, bang, goes Rod’s first serve, but it’s long. Almost immediately out of Roddick’s left pocket flies the ball in reserve, the yellow fuzzy flying clockwise in a parabola toward the outstretched frame. A few dribbles, and his second serve is off, a high kicker to Fognini’s backhand, which the Italian can only block back into play. Now a long, tiring backcourt rally, on every shot Roddick blowing air such that his cheeks puff out and his breathing is highly audible. Andy’s Pure Drive’s making the ball turn shapes in the air, until finally, umpteen shots later, Fognini leaves one short. It’s a whomper, Roddick’s forehand, which sends the ball thumping on the backdrop.
And he’s back to plucking his shirt, Roddick is, checking and twirling and then serving yet another point.