By Peter T. Macy
In the recent past, tennis has moved from a flannel pants and long skirt club sport into the major leagues.
Consider that the recently completed U.S. Open attracted 700,000 fans at a minimum price of $62 per ticket. It was also telecast/broadcast to 139 countries and raised somewhere around $400 million.
There are three other similar opens (meaning "open" to both amateur and professional players). These four -- the U.S. plus the British (Wimbledon), French and Australian -- comprise what is called the Grand Slam; that is, win all four in one year and you complete a grand slam.
Additionally, satellite tournaments have sprung up all over the world: Spain, Germany, Russia, China, Thailand, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Austria and Luxembourg, for example.
For the past three years, we, too, have joined the mob, although we still harbor fond memories of the days prior to 1968, when the National Doubles Championship was held at the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline. There, for five bucks and a cold beer, you could sit next to the court and see the top players such as National Singles Champions Stan Smith, Charlie Paseral, Chuck McKinley, Roy Emerson (AUS), John Newcombe (AUS), Billy Jean King and Maria Bueno (ARG). (Note: Rod Laver (AUS), a two-time Grand Slam winner, had turned pro and was ineligible at that time). We also made the acquaintance of the grand old dame of tennis, Hazel Wightman. She probably thought it was rude of us not to offer her a beer.
At the time, we were active players and thought we might learn a thing or two watching these matches, especially the ladies, as their game was a bit slower than the men. Unfortunately, doubles was not our game. However, the players on the clay courts at Melrose gave us all the lessons we needed. We discovered we were not the hot shots we thought we were.
Today, everything is much faster, equipment is better and the players are more fit. The play even at the tournament's entry levels is spectacular. Professionalism, in lieu of the hypocrisy of amateur tennis, is responsible. The establishment of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., provides a huge venue for tennis at all levels: junior, open, senior and handicapped and men's and women's singles, doubles and mixed-doubles.
The impetus for the growth of interest in tennis is probably big-time TV. Perhaps it began with "Breakfast at Wimbledon," a Sunday morning NBC staple for years, which featured the singles finalists of the British Open. Subsequently, the U.S. Open, with its nightly telecasts, raucous crowds and more colorful crowd favorites (in style of play, dress and/or behavior), started growing toward its current popularity.
The game has changed, too. In Rod Laver's era, the strategy was "serve and volley"; that is, hit your serve and head for the net to volley the return. With improved equipment and player fitness and skills, the serve and volleyers dashing for the net saw returns whizzing past, out of reach, landing in the corners of the court. Meanwhile, the big power serve became prominent. The pace of a game and accuracy of the players made for exciting matches and with TV exposure, the audiences kept growing.
For the past several years, we have attended the first days of the U.S. Open. These are the general admission ($62) days when all players are scheduled to play. There are some 17 courts in the Tennis Center, including the three stadiums. General admission allows you to visit any court except Ashe Stadium. However, the Louis Armstrong and Stadium courts have reserved seating, meaning you can take any empty seat but you must vacate if the ticket holder shows up. However, we are looking for the future greats who play in the so-called outside courts. On those courts, you sit close to the action. This year, we wanted to see Sloane Simpson, Jennie Hampton, Simona Halep, Donald Young, Jack Stock and Sabine Lisicki.
We take a schedule of matches off the Internet or buy it at the entrance ($4) and plan our day. We know the only matches that can be seen on schedule are the first matches of the day at 11 a.m. From then on, it's hit or miss because ladies matches (winner must take two of three sets) can go three sets and men's (winner must take three of five sets) can go five. We try to accommodate these overruns by knowing the courts of other matches we might enjoy. It's all part of the fun because you sometimes can see matches that include people you didn't think you would see, such as Venus Williams and Samantha Stosur (former champions), or Tommy Haas (excellent older player) or big servers like John Isner.
Interestingly, as we leave after dark (day tickets are good for any day match that runs after dark), many aficionados are streaming in to just schmooze and sit around watching matches on the big screens that are scattered around the park. They, too, pay general admission.
The U.S. Open just seems to be "the scene" over the Labor Day fortnight. It certainly is a great one for us. Although we did spend the wad one day to get into Ashe Stadium to see Roger Federer, the great champion of the past 10 years, now entering the twilight of his career. His grace and skill just had to be seen.
As we were strolling out of the Tennis Center amid a very pleasant crowd, I thought of the players as modern gladiators and Ashe stadium as our Coliseum. A difference being no blood and guts.
Peter Macy lives in Groton with his wife, Clare.