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Watching Ben Stiller play tennis

Last Sunday night, I and my 12-year-old son and his 12-year-old friend Pepe got to watch Ben Stiller play tennis. He played against the world’s 16th ranked Diego Schwarzman, who I’ve learned has a friendship with the well-known comedic actor. To be fair, they didn’t play anything like a match, but just volleyed for a few minutes before Schwartzman went back to a more rigorous practice session with his coaches.

For context, this all happened in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second largest show court at the US Open in Flushing. It was the evening before Monday’s start of the Open, when fans can come to the grounds for free and watch a ton of players practice against each other and often play a set. Granted, you’re still going to pay $30 for parking and a small home down payment on food and drink. But compared to the real thing, it’s a bargain. We decided to spend the day out there because other tennis fans said it was really cool, and you could really see tons of players and sit much further down in the stadium. And for the kids, they get all kinds of access to players for things like signatures on tennis balls. Generally speaking, all of that was true. Elliot and I got there around 1 and left at almost 9 and saw a bunch of players we knew and a whole lot more we’ve never heard of. That is one of the many joys of professional tennis. Unless you’re 100% in the loop, you might not realize you’re standing next to someone who’s 30th best in the world. Finalists on America’s Got Talent get noticed more often.

As for the Ben Stiller sighting, essentially Elliot and his friend Pepe decided we should stay until the bitter end of the day, which meant watching Schwartzman’s practice and then getting his autograph on a tennis ball. And somewhere halfway through the session, Stiller walked down the steps of the nearly empty stadium and sat down on the court. Which lead to the few remaining souls to ask him to play, which led to Ben Stiller rallying against the 16th best tennis player in the world in an empty Louis Armstrong stadium at 8:30 on a Sunday night. After the rally, Stiller signed Elliot’s tennis ball, which leads to what will forever remain an interesting story of how he got Ben Stiller’s autograph at the Open. For the record, Pepe then got Schwartzman’s sweaty towel, which he vowed never to wash, that’s added to Elliot’s towel that he got from fourth seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas, which he got at an earlier session. And I will be honest, I secretly feel guilty about Tsitsipas losing his first-round match Monday night because I assume it’s because he gave Elliot his lucky towel.

Perhaps most exciting part of the day wasn’t the tennis – although I could literally sit and watch tennis players practice for hours on end. It’s the only thing I find as addictive as episodes of House Hunters International. The best part was watching the wonderment of kids around world class athletes they grew to idolize, at least in some fashion. Most young sports fans, my kids amongst them, rarely get close to their athletic idols. And if so, only for a fleeting moment, maybe on a parade or from a distance in a stadium. But Sunday, Elliot and Pepe and a bunch of other kids were mere yards away for hours on end. Sometimes getting a spare tennis ball or towel. Or even better, having a short conversation, like Elliot did on a side court when a doubles team couldn’t find a missing ball. For at least that small moment, larger than life figures went from TV characters to human beings. It reminds me of when I used to watch summer basketball back in a Houston gym growing up when NBA players could just get some run in for a local crowd before the Jordanized world of celebrity megastars. It’s probably why I fell in love with sports and the characters that played in the first place. Not because they were superhuman. But expressly because up close, they actually weren’t.

This weekend, Elliot and I will go to the Open for real, 3rd round matches that count with big money on the line. We won’t be able to get as close to the court, and there won’t be any towels or signatures. And I’m guessing no games with Ben Stiller.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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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