Scenes from Queens: Practice Courts

Saturday, September 01, 2012 /by

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.


“That’s Sharapova. I can tell from the height.” Within seconds, the excited fan has a Nikon camera poised on the No. 3 seed, snapping photos of her stepping into a series of service returns. A quality zoom lens is required because Sharapova is probably 75 yards away. Another bystander brings a pair of binoculars up to his to eyes to get a closer look at the court next to Sharapova, where Victoria Azarenka is warming up with a stretch band. Only a few minutes later, Richard Gasquet takes the court next to Azarenka to hit with coach Sebastian Grosjean. Juan Martin del Potro and Stanislas Wawrinka bash balls on the court next to the French pair.

What seems like a dream schedule of play is a typical snapshot of the U.S. Open practice courts. In the early rounds of the tournament, there’s no better place to get an up-close look at the top players. For up to an hour they take to one of the five courts adjacent to Arthur Ashe Stadium for a match warm-up, or to get in some off-day hitting. Fans press their faces to the fence and crowd the benches, some with adult beverages in hand, positioned just outside the nearest court. They get to appreciate the shotgun sound of the ball coming off del Potro's forehand; marvel at how Gasquet directs every twisty, elaborate ground stroke into Grosjean’s backhand corner; and complain that, even from the far court, they can still hear Azarenka’s piercing wail.

Next to the benches, the tournament has set up a monitor displaying the upcoming practice times. Roger Federer is expected to loosen up for his night match in a couple of hours. This is valuable information for Fed-philes and kids with supersized tennis balls looking for autographs. When a player of such appeal takes the court, the real estate around the entrance to the courts becomes prized and contested. Get in the way of someone taking a candid camera phone shot or angling for a signature and the claws come out.

When the draw is still full in the beginning of the tournament, Court 5, located just outside the practice bank of courts, can house some of the practice overflow. Spectators may even randomly find juniors, doubles specialists, and former pros getting work in on one of the teen-numbered courts. There’s no fence separating spectators from these courts, and fans can practically lean over onto the playing surface. For that reason, there seems to be an inverse relationship between a player’s popularity and practice court assignment; the more fans want to see him, the more secluded the practice court. Gilles Simon and Robin Haase are playing on Court 5 and the crowd is mostly indifferent:

“Who is that?” someone asks referring to Simon.

“I have no idea,” is the disappointed reply.

The slight build, spindly legs, and economical strokes do give the 14th seeded Frenchman a vanilla flavor. His serve resembles a delivery from an earlier era, and he backs it up with depth and placement rather than destructive power. Which makes his success in the modern game all the more remarkable, but not to these onlookers who prefer their own conversations over Simon and Haase’s practice points. Otherwise they would be impressed when Haase decides to play a point lefty (he’s not), and offer up a very respectable Rafa impression. About this time, Denis Istomin wonders unnoticed on to the court, save for a few kids clamoring for his autograph. He’s got the court next.

The crowd has grown four deep by the fence next to court P5—Del Potro and Wawrinka’s court. On the adjacent court, Maria Kirilenko has taken Gasquet’s place and is practicing, with NHL superstar boyfriend Alex Ovechkin sitting courtside. The spectators don’t seem to notice him and he’s much more interested in his smartphone than his girlfriend.

“Who’s everyone watching?” a girl passing by asks the guy walking with her. He rears up on his toes and lifts up his RF hat to see above the crowd, but hardly needs to given Del Potro’s unusual height.

“That’s Del Potro,” he says. “He’s the only guy outside the Big 3 to win a Slam in the last 30. He beat Roger here in the 2009 finals. That’s why I hate him.”

It could be worse. He could be Simon. 


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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