Covering the U.S. Open means more than watching matches and writing about the results. There are endless little scenes that play out all over the grounds and facilities , along with people working the place, that make the tournament special. As a first-time credentialed media member, I kept track of the ones I thought were unique.
THE NERVE CENTER. NASA's got nothing on this place. Only when you get a look into the media center do you realize how huge this event is worldwide. There are 10 rows with 262 workstations. Each has a TV monitor showing all the major matches in progress. Headphones, paper, and plugs for computers are in each one. Against a wall are 340 lockers for media members. Printouts of results, press conference transcripts, statistics, draws, and every other bit of information are provided. The writing's up to us.
MAD DOG’S BARK MUTED. There was a startling sight and sound on Day 1 inside the massive media center. Holed up in a corner sat Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, host of Sirius XM Radio’s Mad Dog Unleashed program. Seated on a folding chair with no one else around, he conducted his show, talking loudly into a tiny microphone on a variety of tennis subjects.
The nationally known star, who helped revolutionize sports talk radio with Mike Francesa on WFAN’s Mike & the Mad Dog show in New York City, is a huge tennis fan. So why the no-frills set-up? A flash rainstorm that hit the Open in the morning knocked out all the broadcasting equipment in the show's spacious outdoor set-up. Sirius and Open personnel had to hustle to keep Russo on the air, albeit in less-than-state-of-the-art surroundings.
STRINGS ATTACHED! Oxymoron anyone? I nominate ‘upscale sweatshop.’ One first-week look inside the Racquet Stringing Lab at the U.S. Open and you’d see what I mean. Over 20 stringers worked non-stop to keep the players happy with their equipment. Outside the door, players and coaches stood in line, each with multiple racquets needing work.
“It was totally crazy the first week,” said Joel Disbro, lead technician. “There was quite a back-up to get racquets strung. But as the tournament progressed and players lost, things here got less intense.”
STILL AMERICA’S SWEETHEART. When Chris Evert worked the outdoor broadcast booth at Louis Armstrong Stadium, her back was to the crowd walking the grounds below. During breaks her producer would catch tennis balls from fans, Chrissie would sign them, and he’d toss them back.
SIG FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS LATER. The hunky, jacket-and-tied gent was signing autographs from the raised platform of ESPN's set. Two women rushed over and had their programs inked. “Who is it?” they inquired of each other afterward, not recognizing him and unable to decipher his scribble. Neither knew. Noting my media credential, they asked me. Chagrined, I was of no help, and they walked off. Now I was curious. Turned out it was retired player and current commentator Justin Gimelstob.
HE’S ONE OF US! At the practice courts one day, there was Roger Federer standing alone on one side of the net. His hitting partner was delayed, so the world’s top player proceeded to hit against the wall for a few minutes, just like any other tennis nobody who can’t get a game.
HURRY UP AND WAIT. Coach, commentator, and ex-player Brad Gilbert was stopped along with everyone else in a hallway under Arthur Ashe Stadium. On the other side of the closed door, Andy Murray was about to be interviewed before a match, and no one could go by. Gilbert, in an obvious hurry, needed to go to a room 20 feet past the interview area. No go. Asking how he could get there an alternate way, he was told he’d have to leave the building, go around a large parking lot, re-enter Ashe and come back from the opposite direction. Still fit and trim, he turned tail and sprinted off. Less than 10 seconds later Murray appeared, spoke quickly, and the door was opened.
I KNOW YOU… He was seated in the players lounge, wearing tennis duds and all sweated up. Watching a match on a video screen, he was texting as well. The face was familiar and the body was fit, but not perfect like the other pros. Aha! Golfer Sergio Garcia. Martina Hingis’s ex obviously enjoys the company of WTA stars, because when a tall blonde one approached, up he stood and off they went.
RAFA WAS HERE IN SPIRIT. There's a reason Rafael Nadal is revered by most everyone in tennis. His basic goodness was exemplified by an incident at last year's Open, recalled by a worker at the players' concierge desk. One of his representatives requested 18 complimentary tickets to a hit Broadway show. He was told that the Open did not have a business connection to Broadway theaters. Aggravated and angry, he carried on, saying the theater should be delighted with publicity if Nadal went to the show. Rebuffed, he stormed off.
Rafa heard about it. With the man in the lounge the next day, Nadal appeared and confronted him. Speaking loud enough for all to hear, he told the rep he had no right to represent him that way, and that he (Rafa) could and would pay for anything he wanted. He then ordered the man to immediately apologize to the concierge, which he did.
LIGHTS, CAMERA... After every match, the players must appear in an interview room to answer questions from the press. Joe Maher, a cameraman for the USTA, records the sessions for the archives. He's been on the job for decades. “Tennis has changed; it's not like the old days of (Andre) Agassi, (Jimmy) Connors and (John) McEnroe,” he says. “They had a lot of personality. Now a lot of the guys are like cardboard cutouts. (Roger) Federer's gotten better. He's developed a personality for the press. But it's not easy for the players. To have to answer the same questions over and over is tough.”
Maher's main job is to keep the player centered in the camera. “(Marat) Safin used to drive me nuts,” he says. “He was a 'mover.' I'd have him framed, then suddenly he'd put his head down on the desk. I'd zoom in, and he'd lean back in the chair. Then he'd be twisting and turning.”
Any other 'musts' for a camerman? “Yeah, always keep the (Evian) water bottle in the shot,” he says. “It's a sponsor and they supply it here for free.”
GUARDING THE NET. On the second Wednesday of the Open rain ruled, with no matches played until the afternoon. A security guard fronted the chained entrance to Court 10 all morning. An overhead awning was three feet away, but the guard stood in the rain. “We’re not allowed to move,” he said, water dripping steadily from his chin. “No umbrellas either. We can wear a poncho for our upper body.” He didn’t have one.
NOBODY TOLD ME. On my third day at the Open the cashier in the media cafeteria asked if I had credit left when I handed her cash. Credit for what? After a futile back and forth she simply scanned my credential, which unbeknownst to me was good for a $20 food credit each day. There were no cash refunds for days one and two.
SEE YA LATER ALLIGATOR. Here's why I'll miss Andy Roddick at the Open. Fans under age 30 or so might be oblivious, but not so long ago collared shirts were de rigueur for pro tennis tournaments. Roddick took us back in time with his white Lacoste shirts and shorts. Now it’s mostly all colored t-shirts and glorified gym shorts on men.
DRIVE ON! Players come and players go, and so does Roslyn Bacon. She's an official driver, ferrying players to and from the tournament daily from airports, homes, and hotels. So do they talk to her? “Sometimes they do and sometimes they're introspective,” she says. “I try not to discuss winning or losing with them. Actually I do my best not to drive someone who just lost.”
Bacon is in her fourth year driving players, and says it's for sure not just another gig. “I love tennis, playing and watching,” she says. “I'm an avid fan.”
So who did she favor in that night's women's final between Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams? “The very first player I ever drove was Azarenka. I don't know who I'm driving tonight but I think you know who I like!” exclaimed Bacon.
NO MORE HIGH-FIVES? I watched three men’s doubles matches. The players touched hands on every point in each match, win or lose. Where’s the emotion in that?
AND FINALLY… Can one live vicariously through a tennis ball? At the Open’s MeiGray Group booth, match-used balls are sold. Maria Sharapova second-serve balls cost twice as much as first-serve balls. You figure it out.