Capturing the Chaos: A photographer at the Open

by: Chris Nicholson | September 04, 2011

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NEW YORK—I’m in Flushing, New York, midway through the first week of my home country’s Grand Slam, and I’m thinking about numbers.

The number six is what starts my rumination. Then I think of 16, because that’s how many U.S. Opens I’ve photographed. I think of 46, because that’s how many gigabytes of images I’ve shot through the first six days. (A few years ago, that would have been about 60 rolls of slide film.)

I think of 14, the number of side courts at the National Tennis Center, all alive with matches almost every minute of every session during the first week of the tournament. That’s a lot of tennis to try and shoot.

I think of 29, the number of players I photographed in one day in 2009. I don’t know if that seems a high number to someone who’s not a tennis photographer, but when you’re carrying 20 pounds of Nikon cameras and lenses around 46.5 acres of tennis courts under a 95-degree sun for ten hours, it’s honest work.

I’m not sure why I finished that day with an odd number of players; I don’t know what happened to the 30th. He or she must have been here, but somehow eluded my lens. Perhaps it was Gael Monfils—he’s pretty quick.

Anyway, 29 is my record, followed by a 28-player day and a 23-player day last year.

And that brings me back to six. That’s how many players I photographed on Day 4 this past Thursday. Six. I spent six hours in the sun sustained by one bottle of water and five Twizzlers, all to shoot only half a dozen players. (One of them was Monfils. Got him!)

I’m not generally concerned about quantity, though I should be. I do most of my business selling stock—that is, I generate a catalog of photos of different players so I can offer them to publications that approach me throughout the year. The more players in my catalog, the more likely I can meet a request.

Still, mostly I’m concerned about quality. At this point in my career, I just want to make good photos. I chase the pretty light, the interesting shadows, the dynamic players.

That’s what brought me to Andrea Petkovic and Zheng Jie on the Grandstand at 1 p.m. Lunchtime is about the worst time to shoot under the sun, because the light is harsh and falling from almost straight above. Combined, those qualities create unflattering shadows on the players, especially those who wear hats. For instance, Andy Roddick always wears a hat. That’s why you see few good photos of him in daylight. Venus Williams, who wears a visor, is even more troublesome. The shadow it casts on her already dark complexion completely hides her face on a nice day.

Andrea PetkovicHowever, midday is a great time to photograph the action from high up. From an aerial angle, the shadows that fall on the court become artistic elements for creative compositions. At the Grandstand, from the overhang behind Louis Armstrong Stadium’s east seats, you can look almost straight down on the action. It’s a perfect spot for photographing players stretching for serves and lunging for returns, their shadows mimicking their form on the vivid green and blue courts below. I didn’t even care who was playing the match—I just wanted to capitalize on that hard light.

After an hour of women’s shadows, I moved to get some men’s. The 30-second walk to the upper reaches of Armstrong brought me to Monfils and Juan Carlos Ferrero. I intended to stay for only six games.

But the trouble with shooting Monfils is that he’s so great to photograph, you never want to stop. You’re disappointed when his matches end; you’re crushed when his tournaments do. He looks great on court. He wears clothes that look great in print. Most important, his athletic improvisations make for fantastic action photos. (He’s what Venus could be if she’d ditch the visor.)

So you shoot him, and shoot him, and shoot him. You generate more photos of backhands and forehands and serves than you could ever need, all because he looks so good hitting them. But those are just the cake—the icing is those occasional acrobatics. He channels Michael Jordan when jumping for an overhead, Lev Yashin when diving for a volley, Usain Bolt when chasing down a deep forehand.

Even when Monfils goes through long stretches of a match without hitting an “impossible” winner, you still want to wait for it. You feel like you’re sitting at a slot machine—the longer you lose, the closer you feel to a jackpot.

So I stayed, and stayed, and stayed. Eventually I decided I would stay until the end, which was a good decision. In late afternoon, the light in Armstrong gets fantastic. It’s not just “creative fantastic,” but traditionally fantastic. By about 4:30, sunlight at this time of year starts to get very warm in tone, and the shadows grow long, and that’s the light that photographers daydream about. Landscape photographers get this light twice a day, because they can shoot in the morning, too. We get it once. And that’s when Monfils finally gave me a great stretch volley.

Unfortunately, he also then lost his almost-five-hour, five-set match. I’m glad I stayed. It was my last chance to photograph him in 2011.

Gael Monfils

I left Armstrong to chase the light onto the side courts. If you’re a photographer and you want to come shoot the Open as a ticket holder, here’s my primary suggestion: At 5 p.m., start roaming Courts 4 through 10. This is the best spot and the best time of day to be photographing U.S. Open tennis—better than Armstrong, better than Arthur Ashe Stadium. At 6:30 on Day 2, I covered Daniela Hantuchova and Pauline Parmentier on Court 10, and got to shoot in some of the best light I’ve ever seen in Flushing.

I began to finish my day just as I’d started it: not caring who was on court, just looking for the nice light. I found a spot on Court 7, where Alexandr Dolgopolov was beginning a four-hour-plus, five-set win over Flavio Cipolla. Dolgopolov looks great in a photo, too. His ponytail and his intensity marry well in an image. Those are usually the best players to photograph—those with energy, athleticism, bright clothes and free-spirit hair. Combine that with warm back-light streaming in from behind the court, and you can do some wonderful work. And if you can get that light to interplay with backcourt shadows, that’s when the stuff of portfolios is made.

Six hours, six players, three matches. Over 450 photos (though I keep only 268).

The next day I was back to a nearly more regular pace, photographing 14 players (all without hats) on Ashe, Armstrong and the side courts, not making enough stock but still enjoying chasing the best light. In the second week I’ll need to attend more of the big matches, to ensure I have photos of all the names on the flatter end of the draws. But for the next couple of days I can still focus on the creative possibilities of the good light, trying to maximize the opportunities before the predicted clouds and rain roll in.

Then the overcast light will come, which will open other photographic possibilities. You know all those hat-cast shadows I complain about? They’re not such an issue when the sun is gone. That’s when I can finally get serious about photographing Roddick.



Chris Nicholson is a former editor for TENNIS magazine and author of the upcoming book Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches & Fans (

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