On August 31, 2009, I’ll board a Flushing-bound 7 train at Grand Central Station. We’ll slip beneath the East River, emerge in Queens, and rattle northeast on elevated tracks that rise above the borough’s gritty, entrepreneurial bustle—scrap yards, light industry, a United Nations of ethnic cuisine. I’ll disembark at Willets Point, prepared (in the spirit of Queens native Donald Trump) to capitalize on an extraordinary deal: a $48 U.S. Open grounds pass.
A year ago, I sat 20 or 30 feet from Patty Schnyder as she contaminated Anastasia Pivovarova’s smooth, powerful strokes with a toxic mix of junk. I saw Bobby Reynolds come back to beat Thomas Zib in five sets, cheered on a by a booze-sodden crew who taunted the trainer when he came to treat Zib for cramps. I basked in the late summer sunshine watching the stylish but underachieving Tommy Haas and Richard Gasquet conduct a master class in groundstroke technique for the thousands of spectators in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
A sports dollar doesn’t go far in the Big Apple. When the New York Giants play this fall, according to the listings on Sutbhub.com, you might pay $75 for a parking pass. To get inside the Meadowlands, you’ll probably need to spend at least $140 more. At Yankee Stadium, it’s possible to drop more than $2,500 on a ticket to a single regular-season game. With a $48 a U.S. Open grounds pass, however, you can watch 10 hours of tennis, played by people who hit the ball as well as just about anyone on the planet, at one of the season’s four most important tournaments.
If you want to see the game’s biggest names in action, you’ll need a ticket to Arthur Ashe Stadium, $54 for the cheapest seats in the monstrous 23,000-seat arena. Not bad, but you’re probably better off recording Federer, Roddick, and the Williams on your DVR and putting the extra $6 toward a down payment on a sandwich in the food court. Unless you have a corporate box, or even a Loge seat, the tennis in Ashe looks like ping-pong played by insects.
And, sometimes, a bad seat is the least of your worries.
Too good to be true
In 2004, I had a ticket to the upper reaches of Ashe. I scaled the summit, peered at the Deco-Turf rectangle in the coliseum’s depths, and figured, Why bother? I descended to the earth’s surface. Fortunately, I’d heard about the U.S. Open’s upgrade policy. I went to the East Gate Ticket office, gave the clerk my 300-level ticket and $5. I walked away with a ticket for 206C.
I stepped off the escalator at the 200 level; the rest of the proletariat moved skyward. I found my gate, and descended. I was practically on top of the corporate suites. Andre Agassi and Sargis Sargsian were warming up. It seemed too good to be true. “Excuse me,” I said, sliding past two women. “I thought we had the box,” one mumbled to the other.
One of the women offered popcorn to the middle-aged man behind her. He demurred. “I’m in training. I’m going to be out there next year.” I intuited the dynamic among my box-mates. He was proud to have scored the tickets. (I didn’t blame him.) The women understood this. They laughed at his self-deprecating quips. They recognized his triumph in the Darwinian struggle for decent seats in Ashe. He looked at me, then left. Later, I’d figure out why.
Agassi raced through the first two sets, grinding down Sargsian’s aging legs with a brutally efficient groundstroke game. He moved him from corner to corner. I was close enough to feel the pain as Sargsian stretched wide to scoop the ball out of his backhand corner, then sprinted cross-court in a futile effort to deflect the next cannon shot.
“Can I help you, sir?” I turned. The voice was big, the speaker bigger. “Can I see your ticket?” I handed it to the usher. His brow crinkled in confusion. Or was it disgust? “This isn’t a real ticket,” he said. “This says $5. These people paid hundreds of dollars for these tickets.”
I explained the upgrade program to him. “I can’t let you sit here!” His voice rose. Heads turned. Agassi was already up two sets, and the crowd was looking for a better fight. “It’s an upgrade,” I said. “Call your supervisor.”
“I don’t have time for that. You’re bothering these people.” The man behind me stared straight ahead, his belly distending a black t-shirt. I followed the usher into the aisle. “That’s my only ticket. Where do you want me to sit?”
“Over there.” He pointed to an empty seat at the top of the 200 section. It wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t concentrate on the tennis. I was too embarrassed, humiliated. I kept replaying the scene in my mind. Should I have refused to leave until the cops removed me by force? Called Al Sharpton?
The story had a happy ending . . . sort of. I complained to the USTA. They apologized and gave me a 200-level seat to a night match at the 2005 Open. I saw Gilles Muller take on Andy Roddick in the coliseum, aglow with money and glamor. Muller played like a man possessed, teeing winners off Andy Roddick’s slice backhand. It was the year when American Express plastered Manhattan with ads about Andy Roddick’s misplaced mojo. Muller beat him in straights.
It was fun, but I never felt at ease. I worried that an usher would ask to see my ticket, that a security guard would give me the bum’s rush. As the night session ended, I exited the stadium, realizing that the U.S. Open is two tournaments. The first takes place in Ashe. It features a small cast of the game’s elite, the competition staged for big wallets and global media. It’s the other open, the one I watch on TV.
The second is a festival of Grand Slam tennis. It sprawls across the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center, each court offering a demonstration of freakish athleticism and mad racquet skills. A $48 grounds pass puts you in the thick of it. The best deal in sports? You could make the case.