Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 2, 2010

On A Hot Day At The Open, One Dream Moves On To Round Two

It’s a lengthy ride from Grand Central out to the next to last stop at Willets Point. From the deepest subway platform below 42nd Street, the 7 Train rumbles along beneath the East River into Queens. After a couple of stops below ground, the train emerges into the glare of a cloudless and scorching final morning of August. As the train winds its slow way along a fairly serpentine track, I see mostly roofs and gables from my third floor view. Midtown Manhattan is a sea of monuments to the City’s verticality; but the immense sprawl of the outer boroughs reminds one that Gotham spreads out and out and out as well as up and up and up. Early on I lose count of the number of satellite dishes visible out the window.

After nearly forty minutes my destination at last comes into view. Twice before in recent years I have made this trip. On those occasions I was headed for the hulking structure to the left of the impending station stop, or its predecessor. CitiField, home of the Mets and successor to the imploded Shea is a pretty if oddly dark park, owing to its being trimmed throughout in the Mets team colors one of which is black. But today my destination is the complex to the right of the station. It’s Tuesday morning the week before Labor Day, and the two-week annual run of our national tennis championship has just gotten underway.

The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is home to the USTA, the sport’s governing body in this country and organizer of the Open tournament; and a very fine home it is. The Center has thirty-three side courts and three stadium courts; including Arthur Ashe Stadium, it’s 23,000 plus seats making it the largest capacity tennis-only stadium in the world.

The Center also has enough shopping, dining, and sightseeing options to meet the needs of a mid-sized suburban mall. And on this, just the second day of play, the majority of the thousands upon thousands of tennis fans on the grounds seem at least as interested in sampling those offerings as they are in watching the action on the courts. Although even while eating, buying, or just socializing, two strategically placed jumbotrons show the matches being played on the three stadium courts. Also, just as at the major golf tournaments, American Express is distributing free earplug radios that carry the audio feed of the ESPN2 broadcast. So it is certainly possible to keep track of what is happening without being tied down to a seat in one of the stands.

From snatches of overheard conversation as well as fan interviews on the radio broadcast, it also becomes apparent that while I am here just for the day before heading to that familiar Stadium in the Bronx for a night game; many of the people around me will be here if not for the entire fortnight, at least for several days therein. So there will be plenty of time to watch tennis later if at the moment a Mojito or a Panini or a Ralph Lauren shirt has captured one’s attention.

As a decidedly casual fan of tennis, one who might or might not watch some of the final weekend depending on what else is on offer, what impresses me the most is just how much tennis there is to be played. Both the men’s and women’s draws include 128 players. Another 64 teams make up both of the doubles tournaments, with 32 additional teams in the mixed doubles event. And those numbers don’t include the entrants in the boys and girls tournaments (with both singles and doubles fields) nor the various wheelchair competitions. By the time this Open wraps up, more than $22 million in prize money will have been awarded. Tennis is an international sport, and while its fan appeal in this country may be dwarfed by that of the major team sports, don’t think for a minute that it isn’t a big business; and one that’s doing rather well.

By the time in late afternoon that I make my way back to the subway station, I will have been in the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium to see Marcos Baghdatis at #16 and Li Na at #8 become the first men’s and women’s seeds to be defeated. I will have stood above the Grandstand Court to see American Mardy Fish ride the vociferous support of the crowd to overcome a two sets to one deficit and advance to round two. And I will have sat high in Arthur Ashe Stadium and watched the men’s #3 seed Novak Djokivic of Serbia win a thrilling five setter over fellow countryman and best friend Viktor Troicki; followed by Maria Sharapova, resplendent in lime green, successfully begin her campaign for a second Open title.

But I will have also stood alongside distant Court #8 for the match between Jarkko Niemenin and Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Niemenin of Finland and Gimeno-Traver of Spain are equals, ranked 58th and 59th in the world. Court #8 has a five-row set of bleachers along one side, and plenty of room to stand and watch on the other. I am one of perhaps fifty spectators, and it occurs to me as I watch the Spaniard finish off a straight set victory that I probably have as much chance as either of these players of walking onto the Ashe Stadium court. Their middling ranking means that they are unlikely to be scheduled there on their own, but also won’t find themselves under the bright lights as opening round cannon fodder for a Federer or Nadal.

No the Open for these two will almost certainly consist of matches out here on the far courts. And their Open will also almost certainly be done long before the fortnight has run its course. On the surface they will be well compensated for their work. Niemenin will receive a check for $19,000 for losing in round one. Gimeno-Traver is now assured of at least a $31,000 payday. But after one factors in the travel and the coaches and all of the rest of the entourage (and the fact that very few tournaments have either as large a draw or as generous a purse as the U.S. Open), these two strike me as fitting symbols of the journeymen, the minor leaguers if you will, of professional tennis. Unrecognizable to most fans, but essential to the continuing development of the game. And like journeymen and minor leaguers in all sports, they play on because they can still dream.

Then as the winning volley is struck, a young woman in the second row of the bleachers stands and waves a Spanish flag. Gimeno-Traver’s girlfriend? A family member? President and sole member of his fan club? I know not the answer, but I am fairly certain that at that moment, in the mind of the young tennis player from Nules, Spain, Court #8 is the center of the universe. As he gathers his things out here where the courts line up next to each other surely he must think, if only for a moment, that the sole court on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium is waiting for him. He may be #59 in the world, but on this searingly hot August afternoon, his dream continues.

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