I know next to nothing about tennis.
So it was something of a surprise that I let myself be talked into buying a ticket to board a bus for a nearly seven-hour roundtrip to the US Open in Queens, N.Y. I hate bus trips. They make me nauseous. And I’m not fond of crowds. They don’t make me nauseous, but they might as well, given how uncomfortable I feel when surrounded by a sea of people.
I’m also something of a whiner.
But after three decades of essentially ignoring the sport, I decided to pick it back up again. Gone, apparently, are the wooden rackets, which were totally cool, replaced with homelier composite ones with giant heads. Gone, too, apparently, are Stan Smiths and Tretorns, and Le Coq Sportif. And nobody seems to bother wearing white anymore. Which is something of a shame. Can’t say I miss the teeny tennis shorts with the sansabelt fasteners, however. Or those goofy sweat-catching headbands that some giant Swede once wore. Didn’t see a single visor all summer, either. Then again, my accountant doesn’t wear one anymore. Then again again, he never did.
The bus left early. As in 7:15 a.m. early. Seated near me was the grand doyenne of Lee tennis — Bunnie Lahey — who not only revived the tennis scene in Lee over the course of several decades, but who prides herself on introducing hundreds of people of all ages to the sport. Before the bus crossed the state line, Bunnie was already mapping out the day, which matches she would see, which athletes she would be sure to see. She ticked off a dozen names, none of which I recognized. Apparently McEnroe, Jenner, and that big Viking no longer play professionally. Billie Jean King, neither. But Bunnie, who has arranged for this annual bus trip to the US Open for 21 years, knows about all the current players.
When the bus arrives in Queens, the door opens and Bunnie is off and running. No tour guide waiting for her flock to gather and walk en masse. No. Bunnie steps off the bus and it is all I can do to keep up with her and her two new knees. “I was handicapped last year,” she says, as I try to keep up, a bit unnerved that nearly everyone else on the bus is receding into the distance. So much for spending the day with neighbors. Keeping pace is Bunnie’s tennis partner, Steve Kerner, who maintains a bemused smile.
And then it happens. As we race towards the playing fields and a thickening throng, I see a bathroom. It was a 3.5-hour bus ride after all. I ask Bunnie if we could pause for a moment. At first it’s as if she didn’t hear me. Then I notice that she’s thinking it over, despite it being a rhetorical question. On my end, I have little choice. Thirty seconds later, Steve walks in sheepishly. “Bunnie’s getting worried,” he says. “About what?” I ask. “She’s in a hurry,” he says. I’m left speechless. Can’t say such a thing has happened to me before. Back outside, I ask her what the rush is. She responds with a nonsensical nonsequitur. Something about how it’s important to know how to move around the playing fields in such a way as to beat the crowds. “But it’s an all-day event,” I manage, turning to Steve. “How is there a rush when it’s an all-day event? We’re here for eight hours or more.” Steve shrugs. Bunnie is already ahead of us. I jog to catch up. Bunny turns around and is surprised to see me. “Good, you’re still there,” she says. “Good job.”
If you’ve never been to the US Open, the first thing you notice is how it’s akin to an amusement park along the lines of Universal Studios or Disneyland. There’s an entrance with a big gate, and once inside, you’re surrounded by an endless choice of amusement venues, each with a corresponding long snaking line. After a few hits and misses, Bunnie gets us into a smaller arena. A match between American Donald Young and some German guy. Apparently our seats are good ones, because they’re on the baseline. Now that we’re watching a match, Bunnie begins to relax. As for myself, I have no idea what to look for. I watch the yellow ball bounce back and forth. I watch the players strike the ball with great force. But what should I look for? I ask Bunnie.
“Their agility, how they move,” she says. “Like that last shot. It was pinpoint perfect. And I like to see how tough the players are. Can they hold the lead, or do they start to fade? Are they playing the long game, or just trying to win a few sets? Can they grind it out and take the match?” Just then, Donald Young spikes the ball. The German doesn’t have a chance. The crowd yells “Go Donald! Go buddy!” A few games later, Donald takes it home, pumping his fist, hamming it up for the crowd. I start to cheer as well.
We move to another arena. Unless you’ve been to the Open, it’s hard to imagine how many tennis courts and arenas are packed into such a small space, all at odd angles. But that’s one of the cool things about the Open — you can get lost in tennis. There’s seemingly no end to venues and games to choose from. There are great athletes playing topnotch games everywhere. And all you have to do is walk over and check them out, coming and going as you please as the large crowds are somehow absorbed by the venue.
Next up is a fierce match between two Italian players. There’s plenty of drama, including a thrown racquet, a kicked ball, and some curious body language. From our seats, we can see a women’s match across the way. I’m drawn between the two matches. Despite the drama unfolding beside us, the women, I find, are more interesting to watch. One woman leaps across the court with the grace of a gazelle. The other, I learn from Steve, is strategically wearing her opponent down with one sliced ball after another. And it works. Eventually the gazelle is taken down by the patient lion.
“Women have less power,” Bunnie explains. “So they compensate for that by using more craft.” She’s right. The men’s games are a showcase of pure power. The green ball’s practically a blur. But the women seemingly play with more grace and strategy, although not always with stereotypical grace, as I would soon learn.
As a match pauses for the ceremonial “changing of the ballboys,” Bunnie expresses her surprise that we haven’t seen anyone from the bus. “But you ran away from them,” I say. “And they passed us because you stopped,” she counters. “To pee,” I plead. Bunnie shakes her head. A blot on my record.
We move on to an area where the lower-ranked players compete. They’re still amazingly good, and one can sit just feet from the court, which is frankly jaw-dropping access. It’s here that we watch a Bosnian take down an Uruguayan, and U.S. teen Taylor Fritz take down a veteran player from Cyprus who is nearly twice his age.
Then it’s off to the practice courts. Since when is it fun to watch others practice? As if I need to watch others perform repetitive drills that I myself suffer through each week in group lessons. It’s like listening to your little brother doing scale drills on his cello, voluntarily. Except it isn’t like that. It’s more like listening to Yo Yo Ma do scale drills. The women we are watching are ranked number three and five in the world. That’s interesting.
The evening ends in the big arena, the Arthur Ashe Stadium. I’ve never seen such a giant arena built around a tiny little thing at its center. There’s no ball field, gridiron, racing track. There’s simply one lonely shoebox of a court in the middle — with tens of thousands eyeballing it. On the court is none other than Maria Sharapova playing a Hungarian woman by the name of Babos. And these women are warriors. Fierce. Brilliant. Relentless. And hungry for victory. Being a novice, I didn’t know that Sharapova, who at 6’2” resembles an Amazonian, would grunt with each and every stroke. Not some of them. Not occasionally. Not when she’s really worked up. But each and every one. At some point in the match, Babos begins vocalizing as well. The sound echoes across the stadium, impossible to ignore. The alternating cries of anguished concentration and power become rhythmic, almost hypnotizing, yet oddly irritating. As the match reaches a crescendo, these warriors resemble fisher cats howling in the Berkshire night.
Bunnie turns to me and we both smile. This game is awesome. And we both know it. The woman who prides herself on introducing people of all ages to tennis has succeeded in adding another notch to her racquet. I’m hooked. The only time I can take my eyes off the game is when I check my newly downloaded US Open app to read about the players and follow the day’s scorecard. The players I watch — Taylor Fritz, the gazelle, the Bosnian — are like new friends, and I want to learn all about them and track their progress.
We strategize with Steve, one seat over, figuring out how long we can stay for the match without being late for the bus. We set firm deadlines, but are glued to our seats.
It’s happened — I’ve come to love the US Open. Where else can you watch endless games played at the highest levels all day long? The Super Bowl? The World Series? Phooey. A measly two teams. By comparison, at any moment, there might be a dozen matches played at the Open. All one has to do is stroll around and meander across one.
As Bunnie’s husband Ed explained to me over the phone when I inquired about the day trip, “you’ll be so saturated with tennis, it’ll hold you until the hockey season.” He’s probably right. But then again, I’m not much for hockey. All that crowded ice. The puck landing in the net by accident, the push of a skate amongst a huddle of sweaty guys. No thank you. I’ll stick with tennis.