Scenes from Queens: Outer Courts

by: Andrew Friedman | September 06, 2012

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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.

Arthur Ashe Stadium. Louis Armstrong Stadium. The Grandstand. Those are the courts where the marquee players are scheduled at the U.S. Open, where spectators gather by the thousands, and on which television cameras and commentators focus their attention. They are the arenas where legendary matches unspool: Ashe is the home of the semis and finals, where matches extend into the night and echo through the ages, where Sampras and Agassi, Federer and Nadal, Djokovic and the next great champion play out their defining U.S. Open moments. Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand provide a place for other top tier players to gut out five-set matches and for rising stars to enjoy their first taste of the limelight.

But there are thirteen other courts on the grounds of the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center. Numbered rather than named, they are the so-called outer courts, and while they may not be the setting for the chestnuts that get recycled during rain delays and spliced into nostalgia reels, they can be the most intimate venues in which to watch professional tennis players, and pros in the making, ply their trade.
On the outer courts, for the most part, spectators sit in low-lying, backless bleachers, just a few feet removed from the action. (Some of the courts feature stadium seating on one side, and the new Court 17 is an outer court in number only, rivaling the Grandstand in capacity and star power.) When those fill, other attendees gather behind the seated in standing-room-only fashion. If a dramatic match begins to develop, word spreads quickly around the grounds, and before you know it, the crowd might be several people deep, lending the contest the unpredictable, electric aura of a street fight.
One look at the outer courts tells you where the tournament is in its annual lifecycle: In the first days, men's and women's singles action dominates, followed by doubles and mixed doubles a few days later, and junior tennis by the second week. (In most years, a wheelchair event also takes place in the second week, but was not scheduled this year due to the concurrent Paralympic Games in London.) 
The proximity to each event offers fans plenty to enjoy: In the early singles rounds (or during qualifying, which also takes place on the outer courts the week prior to the tournament proper), standing or sitting close enough to hear a player’s every breath and sneaker-squeak, with late-arriving spectators up on their tiptoes atop garbage cans and any other available perch to see over the crowd, can infuse an already urgent contest with even more dramatic lifeblood. When doubles takes over, recreational players can appreciate from a short remove just how quick the reflexes of the best players are at the net, something that’s less discernable from the upper deck of Ashe, and even less so on television. And when the juniors play, it’s a rare chance to scout future champions and, years later, tell your friends, “I saw them when they were just kids.”
Sure, there are downsides to the outer courts:  Sitting in a backless chair for hours on end can be uncomfortable, securing a seat can take time and patience, and leaving for the bathrooms or a snack can result in needing to queue up all over again. The scoreboards can be hard to see, and there’s no serve gun. There’s also no challenge system (a.k.a. Hawk-Eye), although that particular shortcoming can produce some old-school umpire-player conflict that never fails to entertain the audience, if not the players. 
But those quirks and inconveniences are a small price to pay for the privilege of proximity. Every visitor to the Open would be well advised to spend at least a few minutes on an outer court, the closest thing on the grounds to the courts we play on ourselves, and at the very least appreciate how remarkable the game can look when witnessed at close range.

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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