|There was some Pakistani interest in the doubles draw in 2011 thanks to Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, our country’s lone flag bearer on the Grand Slam stage. —Photo by author|
I have been losing sleep these past two weeks; staying up late, consuming way too much caffeine, setting my alarm for early morning hours and jumping out of bed at the first bell.
If you are a tennis fanatic, like me, living in any of the Asian time zones, you know exactly what I am talking about.
The US Open.
With the year’s final Grand Slam at the home stretch and my life revolving around the TV screen, I cannot help but reflect on my higher quality viewing experience twelve months ago.
I was at the US Open last year. I made the trip from Boston and did not think twice before spending at least two weeks’ worth of graduate student lunch money to book the tickets.
Located in Queens, the most unassuming borough of New York, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center stretches over 46 acres of land. The neighbourhood surrounding the complex sharply contrasts the grand spectacle inside.
Walking through Flushing’s not so picturesque Corona Park, a massive unisphere welcomes you to the tournament venue. But you don’t need a big sign or an extravagant fountain at the entrance to indicate where the action is. The huge crowd flocking in and queuing up at the front gate, eager to see the tennis, is a good enough indicator.
|The US Open is by far the grandest stage in tennis. —Photo by author|
I waited excitedly in line but once I made my way past security and proceeded towards the grounds, I needed a minute to soak in the atmosphere. Posters of past champions were hanging on poles one after the other, the day’s order of play was up on the big screen and familiar tennis faces were casually walking around carrying their bags.
I referred to the occasion as “Grand Slam Heaven”, as reminded by my Facebook post back then.
The US Open is by far the grandest stage in tennis with the Arthur Ashe stadium, which accomodates more than 22,500 spectators, the largest tennis stadium in the world.
The tournament had built a new thirteen-hundred-seat viewing gallery above the five practice courts and I, for one, could not be happier making full use of it in its inaugral year. Not even my lodge box seat inside Arthur Ashe stadium could beat the front row looking down at the five adjacent practice courts. It was by far the best spot in the house.
One after another top players made their way to the courts, accompanied by their team of coaches, trainers and practice partners. Inches away from the long-limbed Venus Williams, the muscular Serena, a relaxed Roger Federer and stern-faced Andy Murray, I found myself shifting to the edge of my seat, observing their every move and capturing it with my purple Cyber-Shot camera.
Striking the ball so cleanly, they covered the court effortlessly and played with less intensity than we are used to witnessing in a match.
|I reluctantly placed myself in the middle of a mob of aggressive Federer fans and blindly stuck out my autograph book, which the Swiss maestro swiftly signed. —Photo by author|
In the middle of a Grand Slam, I do not recall seeing any player take to the practice court for more than an hour, especially if they had a match scheduled the same day. Acclimatisation to the courts, warming up for a match and ironing out any chinks in the armour seemed to be the order of play for most, at least for the duration of Week One while I was there.
They say a camera adds ten pounds. This assertion could not be any truer for professional tennis players. Those who usually come across as ripped and bulky super-humans on the television screen seemed athletic, lean and toned in real life. They made errors, chitchatted between rallies and appeared human, not just some TV phenomenon, for a change.
For a city that never sleeps, the tournament truly comes to life at night. Inside the stadiums, the atmosphere is electric. It doesn’t matter if you are sitting way up in the bleachers or at eye level with the steely Novak Djokovic, you can feel the energy and the buzz.
The tournament itself epitomizes all that is American: gigantic stadiums, loud music, blinding lights, generous food helpings, commercialisation and passionate sports fans. It strikes a balance between respecting tennis etiquette and appealing to the average American spectator, so accustomed to offering colourful commentary during a basketball play or having snacks thrown at them in the middle of a baseball pitch.
As if world class tennis is not enough, regular big screen attractions like the “Kiss Cam”, where you have to kiss the person sitting next to you once you appear on screen, commercial messages from sponsors, lucky draw giveaways, seat upgrades and dancing drunk spectators, keep the tennis non-purists entertained.
It is a carnival and not just a tennis tournament.
Because the higher-ranked players assume the status of rock stars, insulated from the madness, you will not find them strolling around the grounds without multiple bodyguards. A fenced enclosure right next to the practice courts’ entrance is where the most passionate fans patiently wait in the heat for their favourite players to stop and sign autographs.
I reluctantly placed myself in the middle of a mob of aggressive Federer fans and blindly stuck out my autograph book, which the Swiss maestro swiftly signed.
However, I had to make less of an effort to get a picture with the 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, who I randomly bumped into inside the tunnel of Louis Armstrong stadium. The tall Croat went onto mentor Marin Cilic toward his maiden Grand Slam title the following week.
|With Lindsay Davenport. —Photo by author|
|With Goran Ivanisevic. —Photo by author|
Former world number one and French Open champion Carlos Moya, who enjoyed the tennis limelight in the late 90s and now helps the current Spanish players, only needed shades and a cap to camouflage himself amongst the walking crowd. My friend and I did a double take before we approached him with a photo request.
There was some Pakistani interest in the doubles draw thanks to Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, our country’s lone flag bearer on the Grand Slam stage. Our patriotic spark ignited, my friends and I made sure we let our presence felt on the outside courts with our outrageously loud chants. It was not enough, however, to prevent Aisam’s early exit in both the men’s and mixed doubles events.
After a week of “Grand Slam Heaven”, I begrudgingly had to come back to normal life.
And, as I now resume my sessions in front of the TV screen for the remainder of the tournament, last year's countless pictures, a half-filled autograph book and a US Open shirt constantly remind me of what I am missing out this time.
Saba Aziz is a former Pakistan number one women’s tennis player and Fed Cup team member. She graduated from Boston University with a Masters in Sports Journalism on Fulbright Scholarship. In 2012, Saba was listed in Newsweek’s top 100 women who matter in Pakistan. She tweets @saba_aziz.