The Surreal Early-Round Night At The US Open When A 15-Year-Old Stole The Show
I attended the US Open in Queens last night — Thursday, Aug. 29, 2014 — because my parents bought the tickets. Thanks parents. It’s become something of a tradition, because it has happened more than once. I went last year and saw some good tennis. This year, I went and also saw tennis, but the most exciting thing that happened to me was standing in a very large crowd of people and craning my neck to see a large TV screen placed behind a tree.
Here’s the deal: Going to the US Open in the early rounds is kind of a crap shoot. Last year, as I mentioned, I saw good tennis — Lleyton Hewitt bounced Juan Martin del Potro in five sets, and then Serena Williams came on the court and wrecked shit — but your odds of seeing good tennis in the early rounds is slim. Perhaps I should switch out the word “good” for “compelling.” Your best bet for compelling tennis is when an upstart nobody upsets an established name, but for the most part, established names beat nobodies. Lots of three and two set matches.
Last night, I saw Andy Murray dispatch a German guy named Matthias Bachinger in three sets. Murray didn’t even have time to become furious and scream at nothing in particular, like he usually does. He wore a hat, and my dad commented, “I think he got his face fixed — he doesn’t look as ugly as he used to.” I agreed. That was probably the most remarkable part of the match.
What else can you do when you have tickets to the US Open but the play on Ashe isn’t worth sitting around for? Here are your options.
Buy overpriced food. The food stands at the Open are an odd mix of “gourmet” sandwich options (this Pat LaFrieda steak sandwich set [my dad] back $17) and pizza that was clearly thrown out by the LaGuardia Airport Sbarro’s. Pro tip: Bring snacks.
Look at attractive people. For some reason, people who watch tennis are, generally speaking, hot. I spent about half of the Murray match pretending there was a crick in my neck so I could look at a girl wearing a tablecloth-print dress in the row above me. She was there with a guy who wore a Livestrong bracelet but was otherwise impeccable. I hated him and loved her and they were both gone before the end of the match, ostensibly to have attractive sex in their expensive house.
Walk the grounds and find more tennis to watch. One of the fun things about the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is that you can simply buy a grounds pass and walk around, staring a large TV screens featuring live tennis or eating the above-mentioned overpriced food. You can also check out the tennis being played on the smaller, numbered courts. The royalty that can afford tickets to Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong can also engage in this plebian practice.
Rather than watch Eugenie Bouchard and whichever unestablished name was to be her victim warm up, I took my dad for a walk to Court 17 — where, as I heard over one of those little earpieces you get for free if you’ve got an AmEx card, CiCi Bellis had just dusted Zarina Diyas in the second set, 6-0, to send the match to a decisive third set.
Earlier in the week, the 15-year-old Bellis had become the youngest player to win at the US Open in two decades. But beyond reading the headlines, I didn’t know anything about her, and had considered her a flash in the pan. I figured a match relegated to a numbered court wouldn’t pull the same numbers as the main stage and patted myself on the back for my quick thinking — maybe I’d get to catch some history and see Bellis reach the third round.
Apparently, against all odds, I was not the smartest person in Queens last night. As dad and I exited Ashe and headed in the direction of Court 17, I saw crowds streaming out behind us, headed the same way.
By the time we arrived to the court, we had been handed “Chia Pods” — free snacks that consisted of chia seds covered in flavored phlegm that were destined for the garbage can — and Bellis was already down 3-1 in the third. We turned the corner and saw a line that snaked its way around the perimeter of Court 17. This match was three games from ending.
A gap in the seats allowed me a sliver of a glimpse of the court and the occasional flash of white (Diyas) or blue (Bellis). It was like watching TV through a crack in the wall, which in turn I watched through the gap in my fingers. At second glance, the large line was actually half mob of people crowding around tiny TV screens to watch the match and half people holding out hope for a seat on 17. These “free” courts were first-come, first-serve, and people had reportedly camped out on the court since 10 a.m. to catch Bellis’ night match.
As one or two poor souls trickled out of the stadium to hit a bathroom, line-goers quickly jumped in and replaced them. Knowing this wait could end without entering the stadium, dad and I walked back towards the courtyard and found a large screen, blocked partially by that large tree, surrounded by tennis fans on all sides.
A reminder: At this point, Bouchard vs. Unnamed had begun at Ashe. Bouchard is a top-10 women’s player, playing on the court that costs the most money to attend. Instead, hundreds were crowded around a screen to watch 42nd-ranked Divas take on 1,208th-ranked Bellis. The earpiece was tuned to Bellis, not Bouchard. The crowd grew. The tree blocked most people’s view, but we all stood, swaying on our toes for a glimpse of each winner.
With each point for Bellis, cheers swelled, first in the distance from 17 and then around the screens. As Diyas inched towards victory, the cheers turned to groans. Soon it was 4-1 Diyas. Then 5-1. Bellis made a final push and took a game, but Diyas closed out and shrieked as the 15-year-old’s last return sailed past the baseline.
I felt bad. I clapped. I yelled “Alright, CiCi!” No one joined in. Within 15 seconds, the entire patio area had cleared out. Those at nearby tables returned to their overpriced food. The disappointment in the air was palpable. Just like that, Bellis’ remarkable story was over, almost as quickly as it began.
Part of the quick dissipation, clearly, was sadness — let’s move on before we feel the pain. But while tennis also has plenty of diehard fans, it’s hard to hold much of a personal stake in any one player. Tennis fans — at least the aging, high-waisted shorts-wearing, attractive Baby Boomer ones — just want to see good tennis. At the Open, when other matches are always taking place and other favorites are constantly competing, there is little time for nostalgia or remorse. It’s on to the next one.
But Bellis’ forehand winners — shockingly powerful for a girl her age — entranced people more than anything else I saw at the Open that night. I wandered back to Ashe to see Bouchard drop the second set, but by that point our taste for tennis had been washed out — also, I was with a bunch of old people who were tired. (Love you, dad.) I couldn’t tell you if Bouchard vs. Whoever (okay, fine, her name was Sorana Cirstea, from Romania) was a good match. Everyone still in attendance by the third set was drunk or primping themselves in case they were shown on the big screen between games. A guy danced and took off five shirts, one after the other, and threw them into the crowd in what must have been an act of guerrilla marketing. Otherwise, talk of Labor Day Weekend plans permeated the grounds.
Everyone had already moved on. A blip on the radar had disappeared. More attractive people eloped with their attractive spouses. The expensive food stands closed. We milled out of the grounds and onto the 7 train, with another year ahead of us until we had the chance to catch history, or another three/two set trouncing, again. Sadly, on early-round nights, there is little in-between.
Photo via Getty