The U.S. Open is over, but the tennis season hasn’t skipped a beat; if anything, it has picked up speed this week. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played the Open final on a hard court in New York on Monday; by mid-week they were in Europe practicing on clay with their respective Davis Cup teams. And why not? Life is short, and a tennis player’s life is so much shorter.
For historical purposes, though, 2013 is already in the books. When we think back to this year, what we’ll remember above all else is who won the Grand Slams: The French Open and U.S. Open went to Rafa and Serena Williams; the Australian went to Novak and Victoria Azarenka; and Wimbledon, the oddball major once again, went to Andy Murray and Marion Bartoli.
Is it strange to define an entire season by the Slams, which take up just eight weeks of the 52? On the one hand, they obviously aren’t the only results that count—the game isn’t, as Pete Sampras was known to say, all about the majors. On the other hand, for four events, they cover a lot of time and a lot of ground. Surrounded and defined by the distinctive atmosphere of their host cities, each Slam casts tennis in a different light. Each makes this seemingly repetitive sport new again. And, for anyone lucky enough to attend them, each comes with its own vivid set of impressions and memories. For me, those impressions and memories have as much to do with the location—the feeling that you get being in Melbourne, Paris, London, or New York—as they do with any tennis balls that are hit.
Thinking back to this year’s Australian Open, the first image that comes to mind isn’t of anything that happened at Melbourne Park. Instead, it’s of the long, spacious, wood-paneled dining area on the first floor of my hotel, the Hilton, which sits 10 minutes up the hill from the courts. Coming from New York, the expanse seems almost wasteful—it’s three times the size of my apartment. Small, circular tables are spread so far apart that the waiters often forget you’re there. Which is a big part of the charm. After 20 hours on three airplanes, I can sit back in peace, pick at a basket of fish & chips, nurse a Martini, and be surrounded by summer green in January. To the left, outside a wall-sized window and across the street, is lush Fitzroy Gardens. To the right is a flat-screen TV that seems to show cricket 24 hours a day. At that moment, safely back on earth, with no planes to catch for three weeks, I’m happy just to stare at that huge field and the people running around on it, without having a clue what’s going on.
This year I didn’t go to the French Open, but I did go to Wimbledon, where I stayed in the nearby village of Southfields. It was something of a hike from the All England Club to the flat that I rented there with Doug Robson and Matt Cronin. Which wasn’t ideal. Late nights, and late walks home, were common at this year’s tournament. None went later, of course, than Black Wednesday, though I didn’t make it any shorter by starting and scrapping my write-up of Roger Federer’s loss three separate times. Three times I wrote 400 words, three times I scrolled over all of them and hit delete. By that point, it was past midnight, the press room was empty, and I had a bare screen in front of me again.
At 2:30 A.M. or so, when I had finally gotten something passable down, I started walking toward Southfields. There was enough light in the sky to make it seem like I was meeting the dawn. I walked down the main drag, Wimbledon Park Road, and took a right at the tube station. Our flat was in the middle of a criss-crossing set of tiny, quiet backstreets, far removed from all but the most local traffic. As I got closer to it, all noise began to fade away; it was the closest thing to total silence you might expect in a city—silence, like a large restaurant, is a little unnerving to someone from New York. Also unnerving, and amazing, was what I saw farther down the road. Two figures were lying in the middle of the street, not moving. They were foxes, asleep. When they heard me, they stood up, shook their heads, and walked slowly in the other direction, to their next resting point. A spooky end to an unusual day.
A fox asleep on a street near the U.S. Open? He’d be sleeping for a long time if he tried it. This year I split my trips to Flushing Meadows between the 7 train and the shuttle buses that run from Manhattan’s east side out to the National Tennis Center. Each has its own sights and delights (and irritations): The 7 takes you past, among many other things, colorful 5 Pointz, an abandoned building where graffitti is legal (the place, sadly, is set for demolition). The bus connects two very different worlds. You begin by passing some of the world’s sleekest, most famous modern skyscrapers, on Park Ave., but soon you’re on the ironically named Long Island Expressway, traveling—slowly, foot by foot, brake by brake—through a mostly featureless industrial district of Queens. The one “romantic” spot is here is a grim gray box topped by a souvenir-style replica of the Eiffel Tower. It’s called the Paris Hotel; I sincerely hope no one has ever had to spend their honeymoon there.
The bus leaves you off on the Corona Park side of the Tennis Center. Here relics of the 1964 World’s Fair stand in semi-ruin, symbols of the abandoned futurism of the 50s and 60s. The formerly deteriorating Unisphere has been cleaned up, and its fountains restored to use. But Philip Johnson’s circular, fearsome-looking City of Tomorrow rusts on nearby. Just beyond it, though, was a structure that I had never noticed before this year: a concrete skate park sunk into the ground. All through the days and evenings, it was filled with teenagers spinning up and down and around each other on bikes and boards, in an unscripted borough dance.
The Tennis Center is wonderful for those of us who play and watch the sport in New York. But it can feel like a giant UFO in Queens, an outpost of white Manhattan or the suburbs dropped in the middle of immigrant-dominated Flushing Meadows. The World’s Fair ruins are also from another place and time, and their spaces go mostly unused. But the skate park was busy, it was free, it was local, it was a place to both watch and do. It was as alive, and memorable, as anything else that happened at Flushing Meadows over the last two weeks.