Tough tennis, cool courts. All the New York Open needs is a crowd

by: Steve Tignor | February 15, 2019

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Tags: New York ATP

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Photos by Anita Aguilar

UNIONDALE, N.Y. —When you take the train from Manhattan to the US Open, you have a pretty good idea that you’re going to a tennis tournament. Some of your fellow riders may be scrolling through schedules of play on their phones. Others may be reading about the previous day’s results in the paper. The truly devoted will be dressed in head-to-toe tennis gear.

So far, the same can’t be said for the area’s other professional tennis tournament, the New York Open, which is being played for the second time at the NYCB Live Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., this week. Traveling on the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan on Thursday, I didn’t spot any RF hats among the dozing commuters around me, and the Uber driver who took me to the arena at 11:00 A.M. asked if I was there to see the local hockey franchise, the New York Islanders. The Isles play their games at night, but it wasn’t an unreasonable question; the team’s fans have been known to tailgate all day in the parking lot, in the dead of winter.

But I wasn’t one of those crazies, and the Coliseum’s parking lot was quiet on this bright, cold, February afternoon. Atmosphere-wise, it was 180 degrees from Flushing Meadows. First you see the sleek, silvery, recently refurbished arena. Then you see the highway that encircles it. Then you see two hulking hotels, a Marriott and an Omni, that sit on the other side of that highway. And that’s all you see. Last year, Adrian Mannarino told the New York Times that if he hadn’t had his girlfriend along during the tournament, he might have killed himself from boredom. And he made the semis!

Of course, not every player feels that way. This year top-seeded John Isner, who loves his hockey, said the cold and quiet in Long Island made for a nice change of pace from the tour’s regular hot spots. He also liked the way the tournament had laid down its trademark black courts. Taking my seat a few rows from those courts on Thursday, I tended to agree with him. The New York Open—which is run by GF Sports, the company responsible for the spring exos at Madison Square Garden—is a bang-up production job.

That starts with the Coliseum itself. Originally built in 1972, “The Barn,” as it was affectionately known to the locals, underwent a two-year overhaul and reopened in 2017 with a new metallic exterior, and 14,000 movie-theater-style seats. Hanging from the rafters are championship banners from the Islanders’ glory years of the 1980s; when you look up and see the team’s six retired jerseys towering above the baseline—Smith, Nystrom, Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, Potvin—you might feel as if you’ve made a pilgrimage to the Mt. Rushmore of Long Island. But the Coliseum also holds some tennis history: in 1976, Billie Jean King led the New York Sets, who played their home matches there, to the World Team Tennis title.

For the New York Open, the arena has been chopped in two; a main court, and a smaller space for second-tier matches. The surface and the surrounding stands are black, which makes for clean, high-contrast photographs. The tournament’s logo is starkly contemporary, and no promotional stone is left unturned. The seats where the players sit on changeovers are labeled the “Player Recovery Zone,” and sponsored by the Hospital for Special Surgery. When those players are introduced, to the roof-rattling chords of AC/DC, tournament emcee Jason Bailey does his best to rev up the crowd, WWF-style, by roaring out their names and listing their sometimes-less-than-stratospheric achievements—“He’s won five ATP Challenger events!” Seeing a bed-headed Sam Querrey amble on court to the tune of “You Shook Me All Night Long” was a little disorienting, but it’s the effort that counts.

The only thing missing from the New York Open so far are the crowds. Last year’s final drew roughly 2,200 people, and audiences have been sparse for most sessions this year. Tennis, it seems safe to say, will always be a tough sell in this part of Long Island in February. It probably didn’t help when No. 2 seed and U.S. crowd-pleaser Frances Tiafoe lost his opening-round match to Jason Jung on Thursday night.

Still, for anyone who loves tennis, this tournament offers what every tournament, from the Slams on down, provides: The chance to see the sport up close, and experience it in the visceral way that it can’t be experienced through a TV screen. Thursday’s line-up started at 11:00 a.m. with a match between John Millman and Guillermo Garcia Lopez. The last time New York tennis fans saw Millman, he was upsetting Roger Federer in front of 20,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Now the 37th-ranked Australian was playing in front of a couple hundred people in a pin-drop-quiet barn.

But while Millman-Garcia Lopez wasn’t a marquee match-up or a broadcaster’s dream, it was a riveting slugfest in person. Here you could see, on Garcia Lopez’s strained face, the raw physical effort that went into something as seemingly simple as hitting a one-handed backhand. Here you could see the spasms of frustration that overtook Millman as he fell behind in the third set, and couldn’t quite catch up. Here you could see the buzzing pace and line-clipping precision that went into every one of their shots. Here you could feel Garcia Lopez’s relief when he finally held off an 11th-hour charge from Millman.

Here you could see the life-or-death battle that will always be at the heart of tennis’ appeal. It’s there, at the New York Open, in the middle of Long Island’s vast expanse, for anyone who wants it.

ATP Rotterdam (Mon - Sun 2/11 - 2/17)
•    See Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, Karen Khachanov and Stefanos Tsitsipas live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday 2/11 at 6:30 am ET.

ATP New York (Mon - Sun 2/11 - 2/17)
•    Watch Frances Tiafoe, John Isner and Alex de Minaur live from New York starting Monday 2/11 at 11:00 am ET

WTA Doha (Mon - Sat 2/11 - 2/16)
•    Starting Monday 2/11 at 7:30 am ET, catch live coverage of the Qatar Total Open featuring Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova and Angelique Kerber.

ATP Buenos Aires (Mon - Sun 2/11 - 2/17)
•    Catch the action from the Argentina Open including Dominic Thiem, Fabio Fognini and Diego Schwartzman. Live coverage begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Monday 2/11 at 12:30 pm ET

USTA College Match Day 3 Lake Nona - (Sat - 2/16)
•    Tennis Channel Plus features live coverage of USTA College Matches in Lake Nona on Saturday 2/16 4:00 pm ET

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