Monday, September 14, 2015

Attending first three days of U.S. Open was a ball

The retractable roof being built over Arthur Ashe Stadium is scheduled
to be completed in time for next year's U.S. Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Let's face it. Attending the U.S. Open could be a nightmare. The weather is often muggy. It can be crowded.  Prices can be through the retractable roof that is under construction at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The food could be lousy. The staff could be rude.
   Instead, the U.S. Open was very fan-friendly during a visit on the first three days. Tournament director David Brewer and his staff have done a tremendous job.
   The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is located a 30-minute subway ride from Manhattan in Flushing Meadows on Long Island. Fans are greeted by a few of the countless cheerful, polite staff members even before they enter the grounds.
   Tip No. 1:  Bring an empty water bottle and refill it throughout the day at one of the fountains on the grounds. That way, you won't have to pay $4.50 for a small bottle of water or $8 for a lemonade.
Arthur Ashe Stadium, with a capacity of 23,771, is the largest tennis facility
in the world. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Tip No. 2: Try to avoid bringing any kind of bag to the tournament. You'll get through the gate, which opens at 10 a.m. for the 11 a.m. start of the day sessions, much faster. Otherwise, it can take 30 minutes or longer. And no backpacks are allowed. Security is understandably strict.
   Tip No. 3: As soon as you enter, buy the daily program for $5. It has everything you need: each day's schedule of matches, a map of the grounds and all the draws. You also get small back-to-back posters of two different players each day. If you're so inclined, you can buy the glossy tournament program and daily program together for $20.
   The tournament offers every viewing experience to suit every type of fan and budget. Spectators can watch the biggest stars from a distance in 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis facility in the world, or 10,103-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium. They can see lesser stars in the 6,106-seat grandstand, which will be moved next year, or the circular 3,000-seat Court 17. Or they can check out obscure players close up, even courtside, on one of the other outside courts.
The South Plaza serves as the pleasant epicenter of the USTA Billie Jean King
National Tennis Center. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Ticket prices are $30 to thousands of dollars for Ashe depending on the session and seat location, $100 and up for Armstrong (day matches only) and $60 for a grounds pass allowing access to all other courts. A ticket in the nosebleed seats for the men's or women's final at Ashe costs about $300.
   Arthur Ashe Stadium is breathtaking, unlike anything else in the world because of its size. From a distance, with the retractable roof scheduled to be completed in time for next year's tournament, it resembles a huge flying saucer. The interior is symmetrical and tastefully done in two shades of blue with brick and tan trimming.
   The roof actually enhances the stadium, visually and otherwise, making it seem more intimate. Even sitting in the top row is worthwhile.
Commentators Chris Evert, right, and Chris McKendry
appear on the air in the ESPN booth on the South Plaza.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   Tip No. 4: Go to Ashe at night. It's much cooler, and if you're lucky enough to get a dramatic match, the atmosphere is unsurpassed because of the stadium's size and the boisterous New York fans. Even if the match is one-sided, attending a night match at Ashe is a great experience. A late-arriving crowd almost filled the stadium for 2012 champion Andy Murray's four-set victory over rising star Nick Kyrgios at night in the first round.
   Tip No. 5: Don't expect to see a great match at Ashe unless you have enough money to go during the later rounds. The superstars almost always breeze until the quarterfinals and sometimes beyond. In addition to being highly motivated in a Grand Slam tournament, they want to get off the court as quickly as possible to conserve energy for a title run. Go to Ashe at least once for the experience. Otherwise, you're better off watching a competitive match between unseeded players close up on an outside court. After all, they're still world-class players, and you might catch a future star.
   The pleasant epicenter of the grounds is the South Plaza, featuring two large reflecting pools with fountains, a big-screen TV showing matches in Ashe and Armstrong and scores from the other courts, one of the two ESPN booths where fans can see Chris Evert and maybe get a wave from the commentator/legend, and a small park where fans can relax. A live band helps lend a party atmosphere to the tournament.
Left to right are circular 3,000-seat Court 17 and Courts 12 and 11.
Photo by Paul Bauman
  The nearby Food Village offers hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, salads, deli sandwiches, Mexican food, curry dishes, seafood, Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and Lavazza coffee with ample covered seating.
   A good-sized, piping-hot individual pizza costs $9. A big plate of steak or chicken nachos runs $12. For the health-conscious, a chicken salad on flatbread goes for $11.50. All are tasty, and somehow lines were short.
   Tip No. 6: Sit at a table with a view of one of the big TV monitors and catch up on all the scores.
   And, of course, there's a souvenir shop every 50 feet, some bigger than others. T-shirts and caps cost $26 to $30, and an Under Armour polo shirt sells for $74.
   Tip No. 7: Buy souvenirs on your way out when the shops are less crowded and you don't have to lug your bag all day. Better yet, USTA members get 10 percent off on merchandise online only with free shipping for purchases over $50.
   Other than at the entrance, there were only two waits. One was at the men's restroom (I said the heck with it). The other was at a separate Ben & Jerry's stand, and that was only 10 or 15 minutes (it was worth it).
   Overall, you don't have to be Donald Trump to afford to attend the U.S. Open. But it doesn't hurt.
   If you can afford it, go to the U.S. Open. You won't regret it.     

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