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.
“Here is your press credential, Mr. Catarevas,” said the friendly, smiling lady in the media center at the U.S. Open, handing me my entrance to the kingdom. “It’s valid for all sessions.”
If she only knew…
First I checked the photo on the laminated rectangle. Yup, that’s me alright. I gently put the hanging treasure over my head, lowering it until the credential was centered like Flavor Flav’s clock. I stepped outside and immediately knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Venus Williams was standing two feet away. The players’ entrance abuts the media center. Should I say hi? Wow, her legs are looonnggg. Before I had a chance to speak, she disappeared inside.
Okay, I told myself, get it together. I’m there to do a story for Tennis magazine, and I have work to do. And c’mon, it’s not like this was my first time encountering pro athletes. As a former long-time editor of fitness magazines, I’d interviewed lots of them, albeit mostly on the phone. I’d recently put together a major section on the U.S. Olympic team. But somehow this was different.
Maybe it was because this was the first time I was totally at ease with the Open surroundings. You see, I’d attended the tournament several times, but under slightly different circumstances (cue the out-of-focus wavy lines flashback effect). Long ago, when the McEnroes, Borgs, and Lendls ruled the world, I lived in Brooklyn, broke but very fit. Buying a ticket back then was out of the question. First, I only wanted to attend Super Saturday, when the men’s semifinals sandwiched the women’s finals, and it was sold out. Second, even if it weren’t sold out, the tickets cost money I didn’t have. So with nothing to lose but transit fare, I packed a lunch and headed out to Queens. Walking the boardwalk in Flushing Meadows toward the Open, I parted ways with the ticket-holding masses once we got close to the gate. My point of entry had yet to be determined.
This was pre-Arthur Ashe Stadium and pre-9/11. Around back, well past the outer courts, a high, schoolyard-type fence enclosed the Open grounds. Other than joggers and a few homeless folks ,there was no one around. People milled about inside the grounds, but there was no reason for them to be this far from the action. You know what’s coming, right? First the lunch bag was tossed over the fence. Then, after a false start or two, it was time. No matter how it appears in West Side Story, climbing over a high fence fast can be dangerous. Getting up one side and down the other isn’t too hard, but going from one side to the other on top, with the sharp, twisted metal coils out for blood, is tough.
Upon landing on the business side of the fence, I immediately did a 360 to see if anyone saw me. No one ever did, except once. On my third Open Super Saturday, the fence won. I lost my grip at the top, panicked and rushed the crossover. After landing on the other side I was too concerned with my bloodied palm to notice someone was 20 feet away and closing fast—Bud Collins. Turned out he’d seen my whole performance, but had no intention of turning me in. Quite the opposite, as he was doing a story for the Boston Globe on the difficulty of getting into the Open. I think he admired my novel, if crude entry approach. He jotted down my name, asked me a few questions, and was kind enough to send me a copy of the article when it appeared.
I went to a few more Super Saturdays via the fence, then moved on in life. A real job, marriage, a kid, and a house back in Connecticut. I hadn’t seen the new U.S. Open digs in person until this year, and went on a nostalgic lap around the outside of the place. Holy cow. Security guards and police everywhere. I took another frantic look at my credential. Phew! The face on it was still mine. Good thing, because I’d never have been able to get in the old way.
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