I arrived at the corner of 53rd and Fifth Avenue at 9:46 a.m. today, 14 minutes before I expected to meet Novak Djokovic at Uniqlo. This was a mistake. I am not used to meeting athletes at retail stores. You do not arrive a mere 14 minutes early if you expect to meet an athlete.
The line sprawled out the store, down 53rd street. I took my place at the end, where a Uniqlo representative told me I was the 152nd person in line. Probably I should have tried harder to go in as a member of the press, reporting on the business proposition that is Novak Djokovic's new sponsorship deal with the Japanese casual-wear emporium. But Patrick Jones from Agentry PR did not get back to me. Screw you, Patrick Jones. It was a public appearance. Here was the public (Update down below in Kinja on the PR matter, if you care).
Back at this end of the line, the public was getting anxious. "He's only going to be here from 10 to 10:30, so I'm scared," one person said to a friend.
Rumors started spreading up and down the line: "Someone got here at 5 a.m.!" "Oh, God."
At 10 a.m., in lieu of Djokovic, there came consent forms for getting our photos taken with Novak. No autographs, the Uniqlo rep distributing the forms told us. No chit-chat.
Who in New York came out to wait for Novak Djokovic at 5 a.m.? He was huge here after his 2007 U.S. Open final; Grace Hightower and Robert De Niro instantly became his no. 1 fans. But the city has been ambivalent about him since. There was that terrible episode in which he pouted his way through a post-court interview in 2008 about something mean Andy Roddick said about him (and was booed off the court). And then in the last two Opens, Djokovic ruthlessly defeated Roger Federer in a pair of five-set semifinals, making New York the only Grand Slam host city that has never seen a Roger versus Rafa final. The crowd was in the Federer tank both years.
But right: This was summer in the city. Deep tans, washed-out jeans, novelty T-shirts, smoking. These were tourists.
"Maybe if I go out the tonight, you can recommend the place?" asked the lady behind me, with a heavy accent.
"I'm from Jersey. I stay in and drink," responded the guy next to her. He was 23.
"We go to this place called Costco," said someone in the line, bouncing me out of my trance.
"How much do you make as a nurse? It must be really difficult making it in the city," said a lady.
"I live in Fort Lee," her conversation partner responded.
At 10:15, the line moved a few inches. Maybe Novak will stay past 10:30, I said to no one in particular. Being line member No. 152 also didn't feel so bad, either. There were at least another 50 people behind me.
"She's dating Skrillex, what would you expect?"
At 10:26, we hadn't moved any more. A Uniqlo rep delivered the inevitable news to my part of the line.
"Guys, sorry, 99.9 percent chance, 99.9 percent chance, 99.9 percent chance you will not get a photo. 99.9 percent."
I bailed the line and made my way into the store, like a regular customer. There was an oversized photo of Djokovic overhead, but no sign of the actual tennis player. I ran into two scruffy, lean New Yorkers. They'd met Novak.
One of them was named Adam, and he had a septum piercing. His buddy was named Blake. "A year ago I went to see Michelle Branch at the Soho Apple store, I'm obsessed with her and he tolerated me," Adam said. "So when I heard about this, I told him we should definitely go and make it up to him. I don't know who this tennis guy is."
Well, what did it look like meeting him? The three-dimensional Novak?
"He didn't look at attractive as this photo of him," said Adam, gesturing at the picture overhead. "I guess I have to see another photo of him, really. I didn't really get to see him. It was really quick."
"We walked up to him from the side," said Blake. "Yeah, it was really quick."
They'd gotten there at 9 a.m., they said.