Serena Williams multitasks as smoothly as she steamrolls opponents. A few hours before her 6-0, 6-0 Labor Day beat-down of Andrea Hlavackova, she was busily texting on her phone while graciously offering her opinion on security at the U.S. Open.
“The security here is really great,” the superstar stated, head down and typing even faster. “I never even have to think about it.”
That is sweet music to the ears of Mike Rodriguez, the tournament’s Director of Security. He is in the demanding position of making sure everyone’s safe while playing, working or having a good time.
“The major challenge for all the security personnel is to make the U.S. Open a fully secure but fan-friendly major-event experience,” he says. “Fort Knox is easy to protect compared to the U.S. Open.”
Rodriguez oversees more than 350 security personnel, working with the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The security people fronting the gates, locker rooms and other locations are seasonal workers, certified by New York State, then specifically trained at the Open.
“They handle access, player safety, bag searching and the credential system,” says Rodriguez.
Ah, the credential system
. There are thousands of people with credentials, from players, their families and coaches and trainers, to media members, corporate sponsors, celebrities and several other categories. Each credential has a unique letter, number or combination code granting or denying access to various locations and facilities. “The letter defines the type of department or staff you are,” explains Rodriguez. “The number further defines what access within that you’re allowed.” Got it?
Almost all guards electronically scan credentials, which must be presented before entering. Ironically, the one location that would seem most vulnerable to unauthorized entrants, player locker rooms, has guards visually checking credentials. “We decided that since everyone in that area has already been electronically scanned entering the building, we didn’t want players to have to line up to get in there,” says Rodriguez.
There is of course a police presence at the Open, but fans are likely unaware of the state-of-the-art magnitude. On each side of a gate entrance are two circular white poles. They’re not decorative.
“They are radiation detectors,” said a policeman willing to provide information but requesting anonymity. “We have to be prepared for anything, including dirty bombs. But what they alert us to mostly are people who have recently had stress tests and still have dye in their systems. They usually have cards from doctors explaining their conditions, for airport travel and the like.
“Other than that we’re on the scene to deal with whatever might occur, whether it’s keeping fans a safe distance from players who are practicing, or handling medical emergencies.”
Further down the security food chain are the rank and file, working with fans and/or credentialed people. Zach Aaronson is a seat marshall at Louis Armstrong Stadium. His job is to keep people moving during changeovers and to make sure the small media section, reserved for photographers and working press, isn’t filled with regular patrons. “People here are friendly,” he says. “They can sit in the media section for a few games if play is going on but have to leave at the changeover.”
Are there any problem people? “Yes,” he admits. “Argentine men. They have ‘security issues.’ Juan Martin del Potro’s played here twice. His fans just take the media seats. When I ask them to move they look right through me like I’m not even there.”
As opposed to other sports, Aaronson says boozed-up tennis fans are scarce. “Liquor is too expensive here so you don’t get a lot of drunk people,” he says.
Samantha Watson stands guard to the players’ dining room. While she gets to see athletes and celebrities, it can be frustrating. “I’m not allowed to let anyone in unless they have the proper credential,” she says.“There are actors, singers and politicians in there, along with players. Yesterday I saw Alec Baldwin, (singer) Redfoo, and (former New York City mayor) David Dinkins. People get upset when they can’t enter, but rules are rules.”
With the second week in full swing, Rodriguez is hopeful that things will continue to be stable on his end, but is prepared for anything. “Earthquakes, hurricanes, diesel spills, we’re ready,” he says. “I’ll be relieved when it’s all over, but we never get overconfident. We prepare as much as possible. And a little luck doesn’t hurt.”