The U.S. Open starts today in Queens, N.Y. I’ve covered it for the last six years, usually every day for the entirety of the tournament. Here’s a guide to not having your U.S. Open experience be a sweaty hell.
What’s the boring but important stuff I should know?
First off: The heat, because it will be hot. Bring a hat, and put on some sunscreen. Also, bring some sunglasses. Not every court at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is covered, and in fact the vast majority of them aren’t. Which means that if you only buy grounds admission—admission that gets you access to every court except Arthur Ashe Stadium, for which you must pay more—you’re going to be spending a lot of your time in the heat. (It will be in the 90s for at least the first few days of the tournament.)
Also! Familiarize yourself with the list of banned items (which, hilariously, includes tennis rackets). The biggest one to know is that backpacks are banned, which a lot of people don’t seem to realize, because in between the tennis center and the subway station is a thriving bag check, which will hold your banned bags for a fee of $5. Don’t be a sucker, though! Or bring a small bag if you need to.
Another thing: Your cell phone coverage will be shitty, as it usually is when huge amounts of people congregate in one area and cell towers get overloaded. And by shitty I mean basically unusable. Nothing will load. Texts will not go through. Calls won’t happen at all. So make plans ahead and, if you’re in a group, try not to get separated. At the least, plan to meet like you did in the old days, you know, at 5:00, near the fountain. (There is also wifi, but it can be unreliable.)
Finally, do yourself a favor and take the subway, the 7 train to the Mets–Willets Point station. You can drive, sure, but unless you’re a VIP, which you’re not, it’ll take as long or longer than the subway, which runs more trains than usual to ferry U.S. Open visitors to and fro. (If you are a VIP, you’ll be whisked to the Open by one of their SUVs, and driven to a separate entrance on Arthur Ashe Stadium’s west side, near the practice courts, mostly beyond the prying eyes of the poors trying to get a view from behind security. And you’ll probably be led to a free suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium, because the USTA likes to have VIPs come out. Am I a VIP? You ask. If you need to ask, friend...)
Got it. Now, more importantly, what do I eat?
Eat whatever the hell you want, of course, but I prefer the Indian joint called Curry Kitchen, though there’s also Hill Country, Korilla BBQ, Fuku, Melt Shop, and lots of stands called Franks and Fries if you’ve truly given up on life. You’ll pay a truly outrageous amount ($5) for a small bottle of water, but the concessions prices otherwise are about what you’d expect at sporting events—$12 for a fancy burger, $8 for a fancy hot dog, $15 for chicken fingers and fries. You’ll pay in the same range for alcohol.
The downside to all of the food stands except Curry Kitchen is that they usually have huge lines. But you don’t want to be waiting in line. You want to be watching tennis.
True. What’s the best way to do that?
The best way to do that is to not do what a lot of people do in that first week, which is keep an eye on the scoreboard and dart from court to court, hoping to catch every dramatic finish. Resist this temptation! Not only is it incredibly crowded—and therefore difficult to move quickly between courts—but you’ll often get to the court where you’re expecting to see a dramatic finish and that court will be full of people and there will, in fact, be no seating, and you’ll be stuck standing behind some tall dude from Long Island whose had too many Honey Deuces.
My advice, instead, is to do a little research and mark down some matches that you want to see, and then go and watch for the entirety. Since you’ll be there near the beginning, you’re likely to get a seat, and since you’ll be sitting and watching tennis and not running from court to court like a maniac, you’ll be doing what you came to do, which is watch tennis. And the tennis is amazing, even the nobodies. If you’ve never seen professional tennis in person before, it’s impossible not to be blown away.
Cool, wow, that match I just saw was contested by superhumans cut from steel, now I need a smoke (I know I should quit), how do I do that?
Oddly, and I’ve never wanted to ask too many questions about this, smoking is fine at the U.S. Open. It’s fine! Just shuffle off into a corner somewhere. At the most, someone will tell you to move. Smoking is banned everywhere these days, including in New York City parks (like the one in which the U.S. Open takes place), but the international flavor of the Open seems to open things up. Lots of Europeans come, and Europeans smoke wherever they goddamn want. I think it’s also a function of people, especially for the night sessions, getting extraordinarily hammered. Every day and every night, for two weeks. (I don’t know what they make, but the security staff deserve raises.)
Great, am I allowed to talk during a match?
Sure, but not loudly, and and definitely shut the fuck up as someone’s about to serve, and if you’re close to the players, keep it to a whisper or consider not talking at all. If you’re in the upper deck at Arthur Ashe, regular chatter is fine, but don’t be a jackass. Though you insist on being a jackass, Ashe is the rare party that sometimes rewards going all in. A few years ago, someone who may or may not have been Vivica A. Fox screamed loudly and drunkenly throughout a Venus Williams–Angelique Kerber match from her suite at Ashe. It was all, improbably, charming.
Where should I sit?
The optimal seats are about seven rows back, with the players’ chairs directly in front you, which gives you the best sight lines and gets you close enough to pick up on any profane muttering during the changeover. You’ve got a decent shot at nabbing these seats on the outer courts, especially if you get there early, but you probably won’t be in these seats in Ashe or Louis Armstrong or Court 17, where they cost extra money. In that case, try and get something low and near the middle, and you’ll probably be fine. The only truly bad seats are those in the upper reaches of Ashe. (This problem, incidentally, is structural, and will never go away until they tear Ashe down, since the two levels of suites sandwiched in between the upper and lower decks force the upper deck far too high in the sky. And tennis isn’t a sport like football or soccer, both of which can be profitably viewed from up above. With tennis, like basketball, you want to be close.)
Should I buy one of those giant tennis balls and solicit player signatures after the match?
Sure, if you’re a child.
Should I get the thing for my ear that allows me to listen to TV commentators in real time?
Should I watch players practice, after doing my homework and noting when the cool ones are scheduled to hit?
If you want! Real tennis is always better, though.
Should I watch doubles tennis?
Yes! Yes. Doubles tennis is one of those things that doesn’t translate very well on TV but is hugely entertaining in person. It’s easier to appreciate the angles in person, and you can also pick up on the players’ in-game communication much better than you can on TV. Doubles tennis, you’ll realize, is both chaotic and highly organized, with players adopting roles depending on their positioning on the court. And doubles points have more variety than those in singles, partially because the court is wider.
How’s the new Louis Armstrong Stadium?
I went last week, and I can report that it is good. The old Louis Armstrong was historic, being the primary stadium for the U.S. Open for years before they built Ashe, but it was also very old, and lacked any kind of cover, and the seats were small and designed for children, and it was all very hot. The new one is partially covered, has a lot of screens everywhere, and also has a roof. It’s good.
The tennis center is approaching the end of a years-long rebuild, with a new Grandstand opened in 2016 (RIP the old Grandstand, the best place in the world to catch a tennis match) and Court 17 before that. This is all partially designed to fix pedestrian flow within the tennis center, and the early signs are that it’s working.