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Late summer means the U.S. Open

Action on the outer courts at the US Open
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Action on the outer courts at the US Open

I’ve been losing a lot of sleep lately. The cause of my insomnia isn’t the usual culprit – existential dread. It’s the late night matches at the US Open. The tournament runs at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens through Sunday.

I’ve always believed that one should do as little work as possible, especially in August with summer winding down and the sunlight assuming a wistful air. And the US Open provides the perfect excuse to watch a lot of tennis, whether in person or on TV. It bridges the gap between the indolence of summer and the industry of autumn.

Tennis is the only sport where I’d describe myself as anything more than a fair weather fan. I can appreciate the excitement of an offense marching down the field in a football game, concussions not withstanding. There’s also much to be said for the awesome physics of a baseball being launched over the centerfield fence.

But I rarely engage with those sports before the playoffs or, in the case of baseball, the World Series unless the Mets or Yankees are involved. And both teams are at or near the bottom of their divisions. I just checked.

There was a time when I followed the league leaders in home runs, RBIs, etc. somewhat religiously. It was one thing when the statistics were at your fingertips in the sports section of your local paper. They were a part of everyday life. Having to search for them online requires commitment.

My affection for tennis probably has something to do with playing the sport since childhood, if not especially well. Football, with its helmets and shoulder pads, always seemed like a bad idea. And my ego never fully recovered from the pop fly I dropped at camp the summer I was twelve.

But I’d argue that there’s no sport where athletic prowess, let alone human nature, stand in such stark display as two warriors standing on opposite sides of a tennis net. I’ve always found it amazing that you could start a major tennis tournament with 128 players, all of them highly gifted athletes, and whittle it down to two of them – often the same two -- who through some combination of genius and grit stand above the rest.

Watching that drama unfold over two full weeks, with its plot twists, rising stars, and aging champions, is like a kinetic version of a Dickens novel. The sport is currently blessed with Novak Djokovic, the most winning and perhaps best player of all time and Carlos Alcaraz, a twenty-year-old magician who may be ever better. The hope, since before the tournament started, was that the two would meet in the final as they did at Wimbledon this summer and, as I write this, they seem to be indulging fans and bettors alike.

I like to think I helped raise my children right. The proof is that my older daughter Lucy went alone to the Open on her day off from work. My younger daughter Gracie and I took the subway to Flushing Meadow the following day.

It was hot and muggy, but not nearly as oppressively hot and muggy as the tournament’s second week turned out to be. I prefer the excitement of the Open’s first few days when there’s action on all courts. The optimism of the players that this might be their year, no matter the odds, is contagious.

It’s a palpable energy that runs like electricity through the outer courts and even the food court. The overflow crowds aren’t just living vicariously through the occasional five-set triumphs of unseeded players over the sport’s stars; they’re participants, communing with the athletes and drawing inspiration to outwit defeat in their own lives.

Even though I’ve been attending the tournament since it was held at Forest Hills in the 1960s and 70’s my career as a spectator peaked in the early 2010’s. That’s when I was awarded a press pass and briefly joined the credentialed class – even though every second person at the Open seems to have some credential swinging from a lanyard.

The counterfeit-resistant piece of plastic allowed one to cut lines, travel between the choice press sections at the various stadiums, and perhaps best of all receive a daily food allowance at the media center cafeteria; if one ever felt elect it was being able to skip the long lines and avoid the exorbitant prices in the food village. There was even cocktail hour. Come 5 p.m. whoever that year’s vodka sponsor was would produce pitchers of alcohol-infused punch for the media scrum.

But the beauty of tennis is that the indignity of having to reach into your own pocket to secure tickets is all but forgotten once you settle into a match that with any luck -- and while staying well hydrated and reapplying sunscreen at regular intervals -- will turn out to be an epic five-set contest.

Often between players you’ve never heard of before. But that makes no difference. The drama feeds upon itself. You can even dupe yourself into believing that, with regular lessons and applied effort, you might one day match the elegance of their strokes.

Of course you won’t. But that’s no reason to punish yourself. What you have in common with the players on the court below isn’t talent, it’s hope. As long as you have hope, no matter your age or athletic ability, greatness never feels entirely out of reach.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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