The U.S. Open Is Open Once Again

There were nearly thirty-one thousand people on hand Monday for the first day session of the U.S. Open. That’s about ten thousand fewer than attended two years ago, the last time spectators were in the stands. Last year, on account of COVID-19, there were no tickets sold, and the ongoing pandemic was likely a factor…

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There were nearly thirty-one thousand people on hand Monday for the first day session of the U.S. Open. That’s about ten thousand fewer than attended two years ago, the last time spectators were in the stands. Last year, on account of COVID-19, there were no tickets sold, and the ongoing pandemic was likely a factor in the fall-off in this year’s attendance, with fewer foreign visitors, and uneasiness among people—particularly older, affluent people, who make up many of the spectators at tennis majors—about being at large gatherings in close proximity to others. Still, nearly thirty-one thousand ticket holders is a lot of ticket holders, enough to include the variety of fans who come to the day sessions of the big tennis tournaments. There are fans of particular players, fans with a friendship ritual of attending with the same few people each year, fans who once aspired to tennis greatness themselves, and fans eager to see the game up close—convinced, as I am, that seeing the game live deepens their understanding of a game that they mostly watch on TV or stream on their devices, as fans of all sports do now.

A few thousand of these fans, as best I could tell, were at the Mets-Willets Point stop as I got off the 7 train in Queens late Monday morning: a motionless sea of antsy couples and teens, families and friends, on the worn boardwalk that crosses an M.T.A. yard and leads to the East Gate of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. The United States Tennis Association, which oversees all operations at the Open, would release a statement a few hours later maintaining that the long lines were because of more ticket holders arriving later than usual and too many of them carrying an “inordinate” number of bags that had to be checked. But one suspects that a late-breaking safety regulation contributed to the slowdown: adult ticket holders were required to show proof of having had at least one COVID vaccination shot, a policy that was formulated only late last week. Mayor Bill DeBlasio and other city officials were understandably worried about what would happen if weather required the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Open’s largest venue, to be closed, turning an outdoor throng into an indoor one. They pressured Open officials to allow only the vaccinated to attend matches in Ashe and in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the other court on the site with a roof that can be closed. Open officials decided, instead, to go all in and make proof of vaccination mandatory for any adult spectator entering the grounds. It made for a striking contrast with the more lax approach that the women’s and men’s tours have taken with players, about half of whom have reportedly not been vaccinated.

Once inside, a fair number of fans, especially those with general-admission passes, made their way to the smallest outer courts, eager for a chance to see fine singles’ tennis on the most intimate terms. Here were players to watch outside the Top Twenty—on the way up, the way down, or the way out. “You think we can get a little closer?” I heard a man quip to his wife as he sat down next to me in the first row of aluminum bleachers on Court 14, one of several high-school-like courts along the edge of the grounds that abut the trees and scrub greens of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. About fifty or sixty of us were watching Canada’s Leylah Fernandez play Croatia’s Ana Konjuh. I’ve always made a point during the first few day sessions of the Open to watch promising players I’ve never seen live. Fernandez is eighteen, and, like almost all of Canada’s remarkable crop of hopefuls and fresh stars, a child of immigrants—a Filipina Canadian mother and an Ecuadorian father. She won her first W.T.A. title in March, in Monterrey, Mexico. Konjuh, twenty-three, was on a similar trajectory five years ago, before sinking outside the Top Fifty. She tends to rely on one of the bigger serves in the women’s game to yield a weak return. But too many of her first serves were landing out, and too many of her second serves, too: she eventually committed ten double faults. Fernandez won a tiebreak to take the first set, and then, calmly and commandingly, she took the second set, 6–2. Fernandez gets her smallish body low to better absorb pace and finds depth with her flat groundstrokes; there’s a serene confidence to her court presence that belies her age.

As she was securing her second-set win, there was a sudden, violent boom from the court directly behind me. It was Benoît Paire: the Frenchman had smashed his racquet on the umbrella above the chair of his opponent, Serbia’s Dušan Lajović. It’s the kind of thing that people expect from Paire, who alternates extraordinary play with half-hearted outings that have sent his ranking—once inside the Top Twenty—drifting down, and whose temper is equally volatile. But his dazzle and his occasional bursts of anger have their fans, including many tennis bros who, like Paire, sport beards that would be unremarkable at a club in Bushwick but stick out at a Grand Slam tennis court. Paire’s fans were crowding Court 13.

Paire contracted COVID just before last year’s U.S. Open, and was forced out of the tournament. At this year’s Australian Open, where he lost in the first round, he complained of the “shameful” treatment of players who faced a number of COVID-related restrictions, and described the tournament as “shit,” which contributed to his being barred by France from participation in the Tokyo Olympics. His beef today wasn’t with Lajović, but with someone in the crowd who had shouted during a point, loudly enough to cause Paire to stop playing, perhaps expecting that he could earn a replay. But Lajović did not stop playing and won the point, and so Paire’s beef was expanded to the chair umpire, who knew the rules: no do-overs. Paire lost the point and the match—quietly, by the end, his movements weary. The chants of his name had dimmed, but his fans stuck around, some of them approaching him for selfies as he made his way off the court. He obliged.

A different group of fans gathered not long after on Court 5, across the grounds. They were filling the bleachers to say farewell to Spain’s Carla Suárez Navarro, who’d announced that the Open would be her last tour tournament. She will turn thirty-three this week, but a larger factor in her decision may have been that, for months, until this past spring, she’d been undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was a Top Ten player five years ago, in possession of a one-handed topspin backhand that she could drive crosscourt with firmness and grace—and she hit a few of those against the American Danielle Collins, as the sun broke through and fans broke out caps and sunscreen. But it was clear from the opening moments of the match that this was where her tour career would end. She lost in straight sets, and, as she waved goodbye and left the court, the fans stood as one and gave her an affectionate and prolonged ovation.

Soon, fans who’d spent the morning outdoors on what were now hot and sun-splashed courts began filling a shadier Louis Armstrong Stadium to watch Cori (Coco) Gauff. Tennis fans like to cheer on their compatriots, and Gauff, at just seventeen, is the American tennis star at the Open, with neither Williams sister competing and no American man of comparable stature. There was a friendly warmth to the vibe inside Armstrong, the hassles of getting on the grounds fading with the afternoon light and a sense of normalcy restored, if only temporarily. Gauff is a feel-good story, a precociously talented player on the way to becoming world class: if you count only ranking points earned this year, she’s edged into the Top Ten.

Gauff had a tough opponent in Poland’s Magda Linette, a twenty-nine-year-old who lacks the one big weapon to be a top-ranked player but who brings speed and consistency to every point. A textbook counterpuncher, she’s hard to put away. Linette managed to save a number of break points and win enough baseline rallies to eke out the first set 7–5. But she also had to have her left ankle taped during that set, and Gauff’s confidence appeared to grow—glances toward her father, who coaches her, diminished—as the match went on (and on and on, for more than two and a half hours). Gauff served big; she sneaked in drop shots, stepped into balls hit to her backhand, and redirected them down the line. She fought and fought and came back to win the last two sets and the match, thrillingly. In her post-match interview, she choked up as she thanked the people in the stands—capturing, not just for the players, how it felt, once again, despite it all, to be part of such a crowd. “You guys really, really, really helped me, and it almost brings me to tears,” she said. “With everything going on in the world, the support means a lot, so thank you guys for coming out.”


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