t’s hard to find fault with any of the U.S. Open’s numerous renovations over the past few years. Court 17, a 2,800-seat arena which debuted in 2011, makes up for its nondescript name with cozy views and general admission seating. Side courts 4, 5 and 6, once charmless relics from the early days of the National Tennis Center, are now a unified and inviting destination of tennis amphitheaters. Adding a roof onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, rather than tearing it down and starting over, preserves enormous investment (it opened less than 20 years ago), and forever saves us from the dreaded Monday men’s final.
And yet, I would take back the old Court 17—a remote rectangle of asphalt—the previously underwhelming courts 4, 5 and 6, and subject myself to a week-long loop of Jimmy Connors vs. Aaron Krickstein highlights with rain pelting me from above if I could stop one renovation: the razing of the Grandstand. The name will remain, but the court won’t be the same when a new and larger version is built on the opposite corner of the grounds. The current Grandstand’s 38-year run as the best court at Flushing Meadows will come to an end after this year’s Open, to the lament of both fans and players.
“It’s one of those courts and one of those atmospheres where you really don’t feel anything other than excitement to be out there,” says Ryan Harrison, who’s not alone in his appraisal. I asked Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga about the Grandstand after they played matches there at last year’s Open, and all of them included the word “atmosphere” in their positive reviews. “When my dad played, he said the graveyard court at Wimbledon was an interesting court and a fun court to play on, and he was sad that it was moved,” says Taylor Dent, son of former pro Phil Dent. “It sounds very similar to the Grandstand at the U.S. Open.”
From a fan’s point of view, the appeal of Grandstand is both obvious and nuanced. No special ticket is required to enter the 6,000-seat stadium, which, as the Open’s third-largest venue, gets popular players early in the tournament and compelling match-ups as the event moves along. But the competitors are only part of the overall experience. The close proximity of the fans to the action is such that the drama is shared by player and patron. If a moat seems to separate the crowd from the court in Louis Armstrong Stadium and Ashe, Grandstand provides a bridge. “The enclosure, the way it’s built, the sound and the energy—it feels like the people who are supporting you are pretty much on the court,” says Harrison.
The Bose-like acoustics in Grandstand make for an immersive tennis soundtrack. But what I will miss most are the court’s various vantage points; each unique perspective is savory in its own way. Sometimes the hardest thing about a late-summer day is choosing which flavor of ice cream sounds best.
Behind the Baseline
You can pay a lot to sit courtside at the U.S. Open. The boxes that surround the stage in Armstrong are reserved, and the choicest seats in Ashe can run upwards of $2,000. But savvy grounds-pass holders know that the smartest expenditure at Flushing Meadows is the 60 minutes of time between the gates opening and play beginning. In that hour, Grandstand’s coveted front rows are like a student section at a big football game. There’s a rush for seats, and they don’t last long.
“I know a lot of people here that are pretty much regulars,” a fan told me years ago. “I don’t see them this year, but there are some ladies here that sit in these seats all the time, every year.”
I was blissfully unaware of this devotion, and even the existence of Grandstand itself, when I saw pro tennis in person for the first time at the 2005 U.S. Open. As introductions go, Gustavo Kuerten and Tommy Robredo on Court 13 was a good one, and I spent the rest of the day catching segments of matches in between aimless walks. One of those brought me to Grandstand, where a match between Richard Gasquet and Giorgio Galimberti was about to begin.
I found a vacant seat about 15 rows from the baseline, but I never got too comfortable—whenever a slightly superior seat became available, I meandered my way down to claim it. After enough changeovers, I had reached the front row. With an air of accomplishment, I sat transfixed, knowing there was no better seat in the house.
A few changeovers later, Galimberti retired. On the surface, it was an utterly forgettable 6–1, 3–6, 6–3, 3–2 ret. result. But from my perspective—where you can see, hear and feel the impact of the ball as it hits the back wall—it was a sumptuous feast for the senses.
The following year, I knew exactly what I needed to do. I took an early train to Willets Point. I mapped out the quickest route to the Grandstand. I brought sunscreen. And I got the same, glorious seat, right behind the baseline. From that location, it didn’t matter who was playing. That it was the flamboyant Gael Monfils—perhaps the perfect player to watch on Grandstand—made the view even better.
Two games in, it began to pour.
Hours later, play resumed, and Monfils won the first set of his match against Michael Russell, 6–2. It was the only set of tennis I saw that day, as raindrops took up permanent residence in those sacred seats. It was worth it.
From the Top
The chair umpire had given his traditional closing remarks after Taylor Dent’s 6–4, 5–7, 6–7 (1), 7–5, 7–6 (9) second-round win over Ivan Navarro at the 2009 U.S. Open. But the 195th-ranked American, who had recently spent “pretty much 23 hours a day” in bed after three back surgeries, had something to say. He motioned for the microphone. “You guys were unbelievable,” Dent boomed. “I love it here, let’s go!”
Scores of fans cheered from the largest seating section of Grandstand, above and across from the umpire’s chair. Higher up and from the opposite sideline, they lined the railing along a balcony, accessible from adjacent Armstrong. From that terrace, the subway cars in nearby Corona Yard look like toy trains. You can go higher, though: Fans have been known to watch matches on Grandstand from Armstrong, while standing on its top row.
“So many people shared that moment with me,” Dent recalls six years later. “That’s the match that people talk about the most when they come up and say, ‘Hi, I’ve watched you play before, I really enjoyed the Navarro match.’ It will definitely be one of the matches I take with me, hopefully forever.”
From a bird’s-eye view, tennis looks less like gym class and more like geometry. It becomes apparent how important angles are to success, and you can read the curvature of a ball like a caddy reads a putting green. Adept baseliners like Jelena Jankovic are a joy to behold from this platform, but it’s equally mesmerizing to watch serve-and-volleyers, like Dent and Navarro, cover the court.
“It felt smaller,” Dent says about Grandstand, “so guys would just naturally stand a little bit closer to the baseline. Any time the points were quick and short exchanges, that helps a serve-and-volleyer. When guys have time to wind up, take big swings at balls, that’s not good.”
Dent and Navarro combined for a staggering 255 net approaches and 191 winners that evening. Two of them stick out. Leading 4-3 in the fifth-set tiebreaker, Navarro engaged Dent in a rare rally. Dent tried to terminate it by clocking a forehand to Navarro’s off wing, but the Spaniard got just enough racquet on the ball to see it float across the net. Dent let the seemingly harmless shot fall—and it caught the line. He futilely called for a Hawk-Eye challenge, but he could have just glanced at the expressions of those watching from above.
It was the kind of point you look back on, after a crushing loss, and wonder how it could have happened. But the crowd favorite and his thousands of supporters rallied. “I was doing my best to be mentally tough,” says Dent, “but when you've got half the stadium screaming your name, really really loud and out of control, you want to fight that much harder, be that much tougher. It just gives you a little extra backbone.”
Dent won the next three points—then lost his first three match points. At 9–8, Navarro earned a match point, but Dent saved it with a serve-and-volley sequence. Finally, on his fourth match point, Dent carved a slow backhand winner of his own. The ball didn’t even have time to land before Navarro’s head sunk, Dent kneeled to the court in exultation and the crowd exploded in celebration. From up top, they knew Dent’s shot was landing in.
It has received more ink in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal than many U.S. Open participants. In Man Versus Ball, it was referred to as a “ball person war room.” It’s become a part of Open lore, just like the classic matches that have unfolded below it.
Tucked away in a corner of the Grandstand is the Perch, a veritable treehouse of steel with an open-door policy: Anyone can come in, but unless you’re wearing the tournament-issued ballkid apparel, you’ll probably feel a little out of place.
“Back then, it was where all the ballkids were dispatched from,” says John J. Edwards III, who fetched towels and stray balls for the players as a teenager in the late 1980s.
The Perch has persisted, with tournament officials still scrawling court assignments on a whiteboard and adolescents composing text messages on iPhones. For ballkids, it’s a refuge from the sun and work.
“I worked a Navratilova doubles match on Grandstand once,” Edwards says, “and Martina would only take one ball to serve and needed another if she faulted. I got distracted once and missed that she needed one. She waved her racquet at me, and the crowd laughed. It’s my own favorite Grandstand memory.”
From this secluded hangout you’re likely to hear ballkids “gossip” about players, as the Times once put it, along with other gripes. Namely, complaints from fans trying to enter and exit Grandstand. Hardly a changeover goes by without the chair umpire asking fans to take any available seat; this rush-hour traffic is one of the reasons for Grandstand’s demise. The design of Court 17, a circular venue with ample means of egress, is the new standard in small stadia, and is what you can expect the next Grandstand to emulate.
Like Mets fans who never wished to see Shea Stadium go, or Islanders fans who have been exiled out of Nassau Coliseum, plenty of New Yorkers will miss this old barn. In a city where sports arenas are discarded like morning papers, the loss of Grandstand will leave a similar, permanent wound. “The energy and atmosphere that stadium can create is unmatched,” says tennis fan Joey Hanf. “It’s really a shame that they're tearing it down.”
Hanf would know. Two years ago, during American Tim Smyczek’s surprising third-round run, Hanf and four of his friends stood a few rows below the Perch, donning white T-shirts with black tape arranged to spell SMY!!
“At the time he wasn’t very well known,” Hanf says of Smyczek, “and we wanted to make sure he had some crowd support. Grandstand was the perfect setting for that match.”
Like the makeshift sign, Smyczek’s run was abbreviated. He led Marcel Granollers by two sets to one, and then 4–1 in the fifth, but ultimately lost the final set 7–5. Yet for Smyczek and the five fans who looked up to him “as a role model,” it was a night they’ll always remember.
“I never had to step up to the baseline with goosebumps so many times,” Smyczek told the press afterward.
Under the Shade
Years ago, there was a restaurant embedded into the west side of Grandstand. It was called Racquets, and with tables set right above the court, fans could enjoy a meal and a match. In 2003, it gave way to covered seating, where anyone could avoid the elements and plop down with their own provisions. The food isn’t as good, but the view remains worthy of a Michelin star.
It was from this area that I once witnessed a 19-year-old Novak Djokovic show off his obvious potential. But it’s another match I watched among the shaded spectators that I’ll remember most fondly when Grandstand is but a memory.
“Going into it I was not sure what to expect,” Harrison says about his second-round match at the 2010 U.S. Open. “I was young, I knew [Sergiy] Stakhovsky had just won a title in New Haven. I wasn’t quite sure about his game.”
Over the next four hours and 13 minutes, the 18-year-old qualifier would become intimately familiar with his opponent, his tactics and the setting. Harrison was well-known among tennis insiders, but the hype machine kicked into gear after he upset No. 15-seeded Ivan Ljubicic on an outside court in the first round. Tournament officials decided to put his next match on Grandstand—to me, the most American court at the U.S. Open. Ashe and Armstrong can swallow a homegrown story whole, or force it down our throats. Grandstand strikes the right balance.
The 220th-ranked Harrison took a two-sets-to-one lead with a mixture of technically sound baseline play and striking net approaches. But Stakhovsky, not afraid to come forward himself, had the mettle to deal with a plucky underdog and a rapturous capacity crowd. He took a 5–3 lead with a gorgeous down-the-line backhand, endured a rain delay and forced a fifth set.
“I’d never been a part of a match that went that long,” says Harrison. “I remember having to, in the rain delay, run my brother and my family over to players to get me more wristbands, shirts, stuff like that.”
He wasn’t the only one perspiring in this cauldron of excitement. The fans timed their cheers like the two players timed their swings. Harrison gave them what they wanted: Serving down 1–3, 15–40, he eventually scrapped his way into a deciding tiebreaker.
Invested in every point, I was shaking, and at one point was overcome with dizziness.
“If I go back now and watch the YouTube video, it’s just kind of incredible for me to sit there and just really appreciate the crowd, the way they were behind me,” says Harrison. “They really helped me push that thing as far as I did.”
Harrison pushed it as far as you can go without winning. Channeling Magnus Norman, who saved four match points before beating Max Mirnyi on the Grandstand in 2000, Stakhovsky saved three match points before winning the tiebreaker 8–6.
“It was nice,” Stakhovsky said after it was over. “I mean, except that 99.9 percent of the people were against me.”
Despite the loss, Harrison recalls this match vividly and with reverence. After all, Grandstand is his favorite court, too.
“I’m going to personally request that I play on Grandstand this year,” Harrison says. “You see your name on Grandstand and the first thing you think is, ‘Yes. This court is awesome.’ I wish we could keep it.”
To Ryan and everyone else: Enjoy the grand finale.
Originally published in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of TENNIS Magazine. To see more photos from Manuela Davies, go to manuela.com