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A high-energy US Open like no other is the reward of putting the live tennis experience back in the hands of fans
“The crowd has been nuts here this week”: what it has felt like around the grounds after seven days at Flushing Meadows.
Published Sep 05, 2021
TC Live: Previewing Auger-Aliassime vs. Tiafoe
NEW YORK—“Let’s go, boys, right here!” a man in the front row on Court 5 shouted.
“Vamos chicos!” a man on the other side of the court shouted a few seconds later.
If I had any doubts about whether the US Open would feel the same in 2021, listening to these two passionately vocal fans of different nations go back and forth for the better part of a set on Saturday put them to rest. The sun was out, the air was warm, there was an overflow crowd around a court where you can sit a few inches from the players. Best of all, there was the sound of a tennis ball—one right in front of me, not one on a TV screen—being bashed from side to side. After two years without the Open, it was good to see, hear, feel, even smell live tennis again.
The match didn’t involve any superstars, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm. Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson of California were playing Simone Bolelli of Italy and Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina. In the customary way of a New York sporting event, there was support on both sides, for the American and non-American teams alike. And in the customary way of a U.S. tennis audience, the fans treated the players like old friends. “Here we go, boys!” they yelled. “That’s OK, Stevie, you got this.”
This match won’t leave a trace in the history books, or be a blip on anyone’s radar screen. But that’s what made the fervor for it so much fun. One of the beautiful things about the Open is how transient it is; the players move in and out of New York like a late-summer thunderstorm—not one, thankfully, as dangerous as Hurricane Ida. For two weeks, the event stirs up an irrational excitement that’s contagious. This summer, when the news has been filled with even more doom scenarios than usual, it has felt good to get caught up in the escapist thrills of a circus-style event like the Open.
That excitement is more palpable than ever around the grounds this year. I wondered before the tournament whether the crowds would be as big, or whether people would have lost the habit of coming to tennis tournaments. The Open, after all, is still expensive—the water is still $7.50 and the sandwiches $18—and New York is still a stressful place. But none of it seems to matter. Fans seem happy just to be able to gather en masse. For one thing, it’s nice to find out, after 18 months of semi-isolation, what other people are wearing these days. Chunky white sneakers seem to have gone from unhip to hip, if the Open is any indication.
“The crowd has been nuts here this week,” Shelby Rogers said after hearing the roars for her upset win over Ash Barty in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “Wow, like I’m partially deaf after that.”
It has been loud all around. On Saturday, there was a college-match atmosphere in Court 17 as another Californian, Jenson Brooksby, took on Russia’s Aslan Karatsev. When Brooksby grunted out a “Come on!”—which he did at least twice a game—it felt like he was urging everyone in the arena on, not just himself. “Come on, JT!” fans shouted back, using his initials, as if he were a veteran star, rather than a relatively unknown 20-year-old. Of course, there are always various levels of tennis knowledge in a US Open crowd. A family near me was impressed that one of their members knew Brooksby’s first name. What they really seemed impressed by were Karatsev’s (admittedly impressive) calves. “Look at his legs!” they said when Karatsev bent down into his return stance and flexed his leg muscles.
This summer, when the news has been filled with even more doom scenarios than usual, it has felt good to get caught up in the escapist thrills of a circus-style event like the Open.
As much as people wanted to stick around to root Brooksby on, there’s always a strong sense of FOMO at the Open, especially when you hear roars from other stadiums around the grounds. The most deafening of them on Saturday came from Louis Armstrong Stadium; after each one, half a dozen people around me picked up their phones and started scrolling. What we discovered was that Gael Monfils was mounting a major comeback against Jannik Sinner. When Monfils won the fourth set, fans in 17 couldn’t take it anymore. We bolted out of our seats at the next changeover and started a stampede for Armstrong. “What’s happening?” people kept asking as we streamed past. “Monfeels and Sinner are in a fifth set,” came the answer.
The stampede was worth it. The Frenchman and the Italian put on a show for the packed house. After each exhausting rally, Sinner staggered back to the baseline, while Monfils bent double. The crowd, always sentimental in the States, pulled for the old guy—with correct pronunciation this time. “Mon-fees! Mon-fees!” they chanted. Whenever he missed a makable shot, a woman near me threw her head back and shouted, “Oh my God!” She had seen this Monfilsian movie before, and knew how it usually ended.
If she suspected that it wouldn’t have a happy conclusion, she was right. As with so many of Monfils’ comebacks in the past, this one fell just short. When Sinner set up to serve at match point, the chants for Monfils reached their peak. He responded by hitting big ground strokes and setting himself for up for a point-ending forehand. But just as Armstrong was on the verge of exploding, Monfils hit the ball long. Still, there wasn’t a lot of disappointment in the air afterward. Being part of the circus was what mattered this time, and you couldn’t ask for a better act than Sinner-Monfils.
Along with the noise, though, the Open has always had its quiet places to sit back and unwind, and it still does. The Grandstand, with its high bank of rarely-filled seats that offer shelter from the sun, is that kind of place. Late on Saturday afternoon, as the sun started to descend, Iga Swiatek and Anett Kontaveit were playing there, and fans who were looking for a place to relax near the end of the day filtered in. There’s no sense of intimacy in this court, but that’s OK in a pandemic. You can stretch your legs and keep your distance from the crowd, while still feeling like you’re part of one. Plus, shouting from a distance is something New Yorkers specialize in.
One man with a stack of empty Honey Deuce cups in front of him periodically stood up and yelled, “Come on Anett!” before immediately sitting back down again. A lone Swiatek supporter near the top of the stadium started the match yelling, “Let’s go Eee-ga!” before switching to “Let’s go, Eye-ga!” in the second set. She had her bases covered.
The sun kept setting, the sky stayed blue, the ball kept going back and forth in the distance, people kept filtering in and out. Roars came from other parts of the grounds, but nobody seemed to care; there was nowhere better anyone had to be.. A woman behind me saw Swiatek and said, “Ooooh, it’s the girl from the French Open!” It was good to be back.