A Tennis Reporter on Familiar Grounds

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As a reporter who covers tennis for The New York Times, I am often asked which of the four Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open — is my favorite.

I admit I’m biased, as I’ve lived in New York most of my life. But my answer has never wavered: the U.S. Open.

I’ve been coming to the tournament since 1978; I was a 9-year-old tennis-head who grew up in Westchester County during the American tennis boom. The tournament had just moved from the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills to what is now the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

I remember scant details about that first tournament. My parents took my two brothers and me. We sat way up in the red bleachers of Louis Armstrong Stadium, the venue’s main arena. It was hot and breezy, as it often is when you’re a stone’s throw from Flushing Bay. Roscoe Tanner was playing. He could serve the ball 150 miles an hour in spite of racket technology that is now considered ancient.

The coolest thing about that stadium, which was later renovated, and then torn down and replaced, was that if you climbed to the top of the bleachers, you could lean over a railing and watch the action on the Grandstand court about 150 feet below. It seemed incredibly unsafe. But it was also awesome in the way that so much of New York in the 1970s and ’80s was — it felt dangerous and wonderful all at once.

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One year, my brother and I snagged seats a few rows up from the court on the Grandstand and watched Vitas Gerulaitis win an epic match in an early round. Gerulaitis, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1994, was one of the great New Yorkers, a Long Island boy with shoulder-length blond curly hair. The little bandbox of a stadium was teeming with fans screaming their lungs out for him.

Like Gerulaitis, John McEnroe, another tennis great, grew up playing at the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island. I knew people who knew them. An older cousin used to tell me stories of leaving Studio 54 at 2 a.m., just as Gerulaitis and his posse, which sometimes included Bjorn Borg, were entering the club. New York felt like the center of the tennis universe.

In my 30s, I became a sportswriter and eventually a specialist who mostly covers tennis and the Olympics. Most people think I have one of the world’s greatest jobs. They’re not wrong. I typically spend about three months a year on the road, covering the major tennis tournaments and a handful of other sporting events. The two weeks when I get to sleep in my own bed in Manhattan and cover the U.S. Open are extra special.

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All the Grand Slams are great in their own ways, with many wonderful people, including new and longtime volunteers, who make them possible.

I’m not sure any nation’s fans relish sport as much as the Aussies. The French Open has those beautiful red clay courts. Wimbledon has the tradition, but there is also the Royal Box, where princes and queens sit. But monarchies aren’t really my thing.

Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

The U.S. Open is how I think tennis should be: welcoming, with limited emphasis on staid decorum. The tournament is largely removed from its reputation as an elitist sport for the rich.

We have Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, the Williams Sisters, Frances Tiafoe, Coco Gauff and many others to thank for that. It also helps that the country’s signature tennis event happens in a public park, rather than a private club.

The stadiums aren’t hallowed grounds but utilitarian concrete boxes. Yes, there are some fancier, corporate enclaves and very pricey cocktails, but there is a lot about the space that signals inclusion; the complex is named for King, a woman who proudly identifies as lesbian, and its main stadium honors Ashe, a Black man and civil rights activist. Look around the grounds on a busy day and the place somewhat resembles the city that hosts it.

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Shortly after the tournament ends, you can reserve a time and play with your buddies on those same courts. I’ve hit plenty of balls there. I’ve watched one of my kids practice and play matches there. Try doing that at the All England Club.

This year’s tournament is steaming toward the finish. So many of the big names have played deep into the tournament: Djokovic. Alcaraz. Gauff. I will be in the lower bowl, about 10 rows up from the court, for the men’s and women’s finals — two of my favorite days of the year — though the other 12 days of the tournament are sometimes even better.

Shortly after the tournament ends, I will be shifting to The Athletic, the sports website that The Times owns, which will take over the traditional sports coverage for the company this month.

I don’t know how many years I’ve attended the Open since 1978. Most would be a very safe bet, including in 2020, after New York had become a hot spot for the coronavirus, when I was one of a tiny handful of journalists permitted on site for the Open. It was like reporting from the surface of the moon.

Thankfully, at The Athletic, I’ll continue to do what I do, including, of course, covering those other Slams and the U.S. Open every year, chasing the stories of agony and ecstasy that this beautiful and cruel sport always produces.

Tennis, anyone?

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