— THE READERS
U.S. Open memories: Readers and players tell their stories
From in the stands and on the courts, here are some of their stories. Player moments were gathered by Simon Cambers. These submission have been edited for clarity.
Arrwin Yip, Manhasset, New York
During my high school and early college years, I spent two weeks of every summer as a ball boy. I will never forget the first match of my fourth season as a proud ball person. I was already late so I quickly laced up my brand-new unbroken-in sneakers and ran to one of the outer courts. I just made it before the first point and took my position at the net. After a few points of no action, a serve was hit into the net — this was my cue. Like a sprinter launching out of the blocks, I take my first steps to retrieve the orphaned ball. As I take two large steps forward, I realized my right foot (socks and all) were now touching the bare court leaving one of my shoes where I had once stood. My foot completely slipped out of my shoe leaving me with a split decision on whether I should go back to retrieve my shoe or continue hobbling to the ball and potentially making it onto SportsCenter. After both scenarios played in my mind for what seemed to be an eternity, I ultimately decided to go back for my shoe rather than skipping across the court like a kangaroo. After a few chuckles from the spectators, I retrieve my lost shoe to its rightful owner (foot). I get back into position ready for my next launch — laces tightened.
Debra Altman, Culver City, California
My favorite moment was on the way to Forest Hills when Rod Laver got off the train carrying two uncovered tennis rackets and walking along with me. I was so surprised he used the train! He was so humble. Such a gentleman. No entourage. I didn’t say a word. Just smiled at him and he smiled back at this teenager who just got off the bus. I loved the intimacy of that place, and when I recently had the chance to visit, I spent some time thinking about that day. Talking to Stan Smith and Margaret Court after practice. (I think there were five of us not 500.)
Rob Shapiro, Ardsley, New York
1993. My friend and I stand looking up at the big tournament bracket just inside the gates. I spy Bud Collins doing the same 12 feet away. We walk over, strike up a conversation, and upon leaving, Bud turns to us and calls out our last names as if we had been lifelong friends. A legend as there ever was one.
Jennifer Petito, Delray Beach, Florida
Pete Sampras valiantly overcoming sickness, warnings of “time” from the chair umpire immediately after vomiting on court, and sheer exhaustion to beat Alex Corretja at the 1996 Open. Seven months pregnant and not feeling too well either after a day of sitting in the blistering heat, no complaints from me after watching this awe-inspiring match. Everyone, including Corretja, left the Open that day feeling like we witnessed true greatness.
Marc Lowitz, Chappaqua, New York
My favorite memory is probably from the 1976 U.S. Open at Forest Hills when I was 10 years old and watching an early round Manuel Orantes, the 1975 U.S. Open champion, was playing on the grandstand court. I was standing directly behind Orantes’ chair while he was warming up with his opponent when all of a sudden Orantes came walking toward the chair and gently tossed his racket in my direction. I thought he was simply changing rackets but he walked over, picked up the Slazenger and handed it to me saying “for you, the racket is for you.” I was shocked and he quickly became one of my favorite players. Almost 42 years later, the racket hangs on a wall in my house in a frame along with credentials I have from the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, Roland Garros and other tournaments while working for the WTA Tour in the 1990s.
Robert Kaufmann, Glen Rock, New Jersey
In 1976, the Open was still in Forest Hills, and there was not as much security as there is today. We had clubhouse passes for the finals, and we walked past the guard at the staircase, and found ourselves in the locker room with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg! Connors was loose as a goose, and we watched the Giants football game with him, laughing and joking. In the far end of the locker room, Borg sat by himself, looking tense, alone and dejected. When it came time for the match, Jimmy said goodbye, bounced up from the TV set and went out to play the match. Borg, much more subdued, joined him for the march to the courts. You could tell by the demeanor of both men, who was going to win that day, and Connors did in fact win, in four sets.
Jeff Linderman, New York
Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. Court 5, doubles match with Fabio Fognini, who is newly married to Flavia Pennetta (reigning U.S. Open women’s singles champion at the time, and newly retired). We’re sitting in the bleachers behind the baseline at an angle, partially blocked by a huge lighting pillar, and my girlfriend says “I wonder if Flavia is up here, watching her husband?” To which I respond “She’s a U.S. Open champion, I’m sure she’s not sitting behind a light pole!” Match finishes, we get up to leave, and guess who was discreetly sitting two rows in front of us, with the same partially blocked view? Congratulated her on the marriage and got her autograph!
Judith Adessa, New York
In the mid 1970s I had an apartment in Rego Park, Queens, adjacent to Forest Hills. During the Open many tennis celebrities were spotted in the neighborhood. Since I could not afford tickets, friends and I were always on the “lookout.” We had just about given up and decided to go into Baskin Robbins for ice cream but couldn’t see the counter because a very tall person blocked our view. Annoyed, we finally asked that person to move. It was a very tall Renee Richards!
David Wieder, Miami Beach
In 1977, my friend and I decided to fly up to New York from Miami to the last Open at Forrest Hills. The only problem was that we had no tickets. So my friend made up the name of a bogus tennis publication, I strapped three Nikon Fs around my neck, one with the longest telephoto lens ever, (I was the photographer) and we arrived demanding press credentials. Achieving admission, we sat all over the place, mostly at courtside, we talked to Billy Jean King until she shooed us off, and saw Jimmy Conners lose to Guillermo Vilas, I think, in the final. We were young, and it is the memory of a lifetime. Needless to say, security was not so tight back then, and the West Side Tennis Club bore an unparalled charm.
Andrew McKeon, Brooklyn, New York
The last year at Forest Hills, 1977, I grabbed a few rackets and went to the players entrance. The security was comprised of an old man sitting on a bar stool checking IDs. I told him “I’m in the doubles,” and he waved me on. I proceeded to walk through the clubhouse, the men’s locker room and the grounds — all the while carrying my three rackets with me. A young kid asked “Can I have your autograph?” and his sister immediately said “He’s not anybody.” To her I replied, “I am so,” and grabbed the young boys autograph book. My name now appears alongside those of Guillermo Vilas, Wojtek Fibak, Tracy Austin and other luminaries of late 70s tennis.
Jason Pontillo, New York
My first U.S. Open was in 1991. I was only 10 and my Dad had gotten first-round tickets to the night session, which featured the Jimmy Connors and Patrick McEnroe match. It was fun but uneventful. With Connors down 2 sets to love, down in the 3rd set 3 games to love, my Dad turns to me and says “Let’s get going home, this is over,” and so we left. Got in the car, headed the 30 miles or so east and listened to music on the way home. It was maybe two hours later, after all the traffic of getting out of the USTA and on the LIE, when we opened the door to hear my Mom yell across the house after hearing us come in, “What are you doing home? Jimmy Connors is up in the 5th set.” We missed one of the most improbable early round comebacks that sparked one of the best runs in U.S. Open history! I have never left another sporting event since early, no matter how outrageous the margin of victory might be. You never know what you may see!
— THE PLAYERS
It takes some time to get used to it, because it’s so different from the other slams and I think it takes time to get to like it as well. Because of the whole living in New York City, the travel out, it’s noisy. Once you get used to that it’s extremely fun. Playing there is extremely fun because the crowd is more involved somehow — I don’t know if it’s because they drink more beer — or because the American tennis fan is maybe more of a sports fan, possibly. It actually smells of hamburger and you hear music on certain courts as well but it has its own atmosphere which is really cool.
I loved it from the juniors, already. I won junior doubles there. I loved the vibe. For some reason I always loved the color of the background in the court, it always made me see the ball clearer. I liked the surface and just the energy, it’s different. It’s the loudest, for sure, but the buzz you can create on court there, it gives you energy.
I’m a little biased because I grew up about 15 minutes from there and that was my dream to play there. I used to go as a kid to Forest Hills and I was a ball boy at the U.S. Open when it moved to Flushing Meadows. It’s changed a lot, changed for the better. The facilities improved a lot. It’s always been more than a tennis court, it’s been a happening. To me, night tennis started in New York. Sometimes it can be a hassle for the players because there’s so much going on but I think it’s gotten more player-friendly over the years. The best match I ever played was losing to Boris Becker in the quarterfinal once. The crowd can be tough, they can get into it.
Trying to win it. New York, it’s the city, it’s the energy. Playing at night, being able to play in those big matches. I think it’s one of the toughest slams because there’s so much going on. I just always looked forward to that kind of energy, it’s the last slam of the year, everybody wants to play well. And it’s chaos. It’s big and it’s loud. That was part of the challenge, trying to embrace that. And for me, it was going to the theater as well, because coming from Louisiana, that’s not something I got to do very often.
Space, that’s what I liked. It felt very restricted at Forest Hills. What I did not like was the noise in the very beginning. I played one of the first matches on Center Court and during rush hour, from La Guardia, and in those days, the planes were a lot louder. It was impossible to hear the linesmen or the umpire. You felt like the stadium was vibrating. And since the planes were coming every two minutes or something, we were looking at each other asking if someone called or something. It was a bit special. At the very beginning, it was pretty chaotic.
I remember playing there, originally, when the jets used to fly over and I remember hearing, for the first time ever, the strings moving on my racket, because I couldn’t hear the ball. It was such a weird feeling. But I loved playing in New York, just an amazing atmosphere, the razzmatazz, a kind of fever, the American, loud, music and burger smoke. I remember I was sitting on the old Arthur Ashe Court and the stewards were shouting to each other across the gangways, and people carrying trays of beer in. It couldn’t have been more different. The night matches, it’s so glamorous. It has a New York energy about it.
First couple of years of my career, I hated the U.S. Open. I never really understood why people liked all the fast-paced hustle of the Open and all the stuff that goes round it. Andy Roddick loved it, he loved it. I said, dude, I don’t like it that much, why do you like it so much? He said, “Have you played a night match in Arthur Ashe? Come to me after you’ve played one night match.” Sure enough, the next year, 2008, I played a night match against James Blake, who’s obviously a great friend, and I fell in love with it. I beat James and then played again in the quarterfinals against Nadal, and that was after the Williams sisters played each other. It was a big night, the atmosphere was amazing, the stars and celebs in the crowd, you just knew right then that I was going to have a different appreciation of it. From then on, I did really well.
Forest Hills was the major I grew up on, as did a couple of other kids from Queens, New York — John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis. It’s where we first saw Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court.
My mother would allow me to miss the first days of every school year so that I could go to Forest Hills and watch my heroes. Parenting at its dodgiest best, I’m thinking.
I would come home from Forest Hills with grass stains on my clothing — back then you could watch matches on your belly through the fences of the courts. When a ball rolled near us, some of the kids would shove a hand through the fence and abscond with it.
The very best part of the move to Flushing quickly became the night matches. The first one to stir me was McEnroe versus Ilie Nastase, a match where John somehow was the good guy. I still consider it to be the most chaotically bizarre tennis theater I’ve ever witnessed.
The Ring Walk was another grand sight — the players would leave the building that housed the locker rooms and make their way into Louis Armstrong Stadium, creating the atmosphere of a heavyweight fight. No one walked that walk like Jimmy Connors.
The players don’t make that great walk any more. They’re cocooned inside that enormous building. A lot of little kids can’t get near their heroes the way I used to be able to get near them at Forest Hills, when the grass really was greener.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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