Scenes from Queens: Autographs

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The U.S. Open is more than just the matches, it's an experience. Each day, we'll highlight one part of what makes the Open the Open.

Walk across the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center for a day, and you’re certain to see signs of philography. Bands of autograph seekers, mostly kids, run amuck across the grounds, searching for their moment of access. They work in crack command teams, of sorts: Armed with felt pens and jumbo balls, the little shavers set up strategically near exits and player throughways, wearing on their faces fluctuating looks of anxiety, anticipation, and glee.  

Jeremy Chardy, marching out to Court 8 for his second-round match with Matthew Ebden, walks by a small girl. She sees her opportunity and, maneuvering around security guards, stretches her ball out at Chardy’s hip. Her eyes light up, but only momentarily; Chardy, presumably in game mode, demurs. Her parents endeavor to coo and comfort her. But all’s in vain: The junior philographers hunger, ever more, for scrawls on their balls.

It all makes you wonder: What’s the appeal of the autograph? What does it mean to those who seek them? The simple and straightforward answer, of course, is that they’re personal mementos, reminders—and social proof—of those brief but special encounters with tennis’ esteemed. But really, in a world suffused with cheap, high-resolution video cameras, where does the autograph derive its staying power? What’s at its heart?

“It’s like you leave something physical from yourself,” says WTA pro Varvara Lepchenko. “You actually do it with your hand. Maybe they want a part of you. It’s like, people asking for towels or sweatbands or clothes or racquets—they just want a piece of something from an athlete.”

“When I was a kid,” Lepchenko continues, “and I was a ball girl [at a tournament], some of the kids were getting things from the professional players. It was like a good luck. Tim Henman won the tournament, and I wanted to shake his hand, for good luck.”

Which makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? The autograph flows from the body through the hand—from the same corporeality that moves so powerfully and with such grace, from the same hand that swings the racquet so smoothly and dexterously. Who wouldn’t want a mark of that?

More Scenes from Queens:

Monday, August 27: Getting to the Open
Tuesday, August 28: Night Matches
Wednesday, August 29: Photography
Thursday, August 30: Autographs
Friday, August 31: Food at the Open
Saturday, September 1: Practice Courts
Sunday, September 2: Getting In
Monday, September 3: Staying Connected
Tuesday, September 4: Ball Kids
Wednesday, September 5: The Corporate Connection
Thursday, September 6: The Outer Courts
Friday, September 7: Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Saturday, September 8: Arthur Ashe
Sunday, September 9: Empty Corridors

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