There are many ways to see the US Open tennis tourney in New York. When do you attend the two-week event—beginning, middle or end? Where do you stay — near the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the borough of Queens or in Manhattan? How much do you want to spend and how close to the action must you be?
Here is one and one experience only. It was fun, reasonably convenient, and moderately priced by New York standards, and allowed close proximity to the players.
We purchased the 2009 US Open Mini-Plan for $206 per person. The mini admits you to events the first three days of the tourney — Monday (day and night), Tuesday (day and night) and Wednesday (day). There are limitations where you can sit in the two largest stadiums, but just about everywhere else is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
We arrived about 9:45 every morning to ensure our preferred seating. Admission into the facility begins at 10 a.m. and tennis at 11 a.m. There are two lines — one for bag carriers and one for no bags. Though the former was long — every bag is checked by security and must not exceed 12 x 12 x 16 inches — we waited no more than about 15 minutes to enter the tennis center with bags in hand. Limit: one bag per person.
Advice: Upon entry, walk briskly to your favored venue to reserve your seat! More on venues later.
By the way, if it rains, you lose. No rain checks — not with our tickets, anyway. Fortunately, we lucked out with superb weather.
Lodging: Manhattan Connection
We wanted to stay in Manhattan to sample some of the city’s activities prior to the US Open. Example: We spent much of Sunday transfixed by the Van Gogh paintings and ancient Egyptian artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the world’s finest. Afterwards, we took a long walk around sunny Central Park, watching the thousands of bicyclists, runners, and roller-bladers, paying respects at the Strawberry Fields memorial dedicated to slain Beatle John Lennon, and listening to the numerous impromptu musicians while munching gelato and soft pretzels garnished with mustard.
We had no desire to stay in the noisy, crowded Times Square district, so instead chose a peaceful section known as Murray Hill on Manhattan’s Midtown East side. Found a 12-story, recently renovated Ramada Inn of brick construction at Lexington and 30th St. The hotel was clean and the rooms nicely decorated, cozy and comfortable, exceptionally quiet, with an ample continental breakfast of cereal, bagels, toast, juice, coffee, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Price was about $150 per night on the late-August nights but rose to $200 as seasonal rates changed on the first of September.
There are many homes, small businesses, everyday workers, students, and a fair number of restaurants in Murray Hill. Lots of Indian cuisine, a barbecue place, a health-food restaurant, Chinese, and an exceptional deli with small grocery store — the Murray Hill Market at 34th and Lexington. And you’re still within walking distance or a short cab or subway ride of major city attractions.
From LaGuardia Airport to the hotel by cab was about a 20-minute drive and cost $30 on a Saturday.
Our Daily Regimen
Here was our tennis agenda each day:
- Eat breakfast at hotel about 7:30 a.m.
- Use computer at hotel business center to print US Open matches and venues for the day.
- Fill water bottles. Don’t make the mistake of buying a bottle of water at the tennis center—that’s about $3.50! Each person is allowed to bring one water bottle. Refill at the water fountains.
- Pack the sunscreen and wide-brim hat. Temperature was in the 80s some days (though later in the tournament, long after we had departed, daytime highs were sometimes in the 60s with wind and rain.). There is hardly any shade in the entire tennis facility, save for one precious respite. More on this below.
- Leave hotel on foot by 8:45 a.m.
- Stop at deli to buy healthy panini sandwiches, fruit, snacks, etc., for lunch. Warning: Only limited food quantities can be brought into US Open.
- Walk about 20 minutes (or take cab) to Penn Station to catch Long Island Railroad train from Manhattan to Flushing Meadows. The train leaves about every half-hour and the ride is 20 minutes. Buy your train tickets well in advance to get lower rate for multiple trips and to prevent delays at departure time. The ticket lines and trains can get crowded! Note: Lots of people recommend the #7 subway from Times Square to the tennis center, but from the Murray Hill area, the train is much faster and more convenient and only about $8 per person, round trip.
- Exit train and walk some 100 yards to enter tennis center. For possible exploration of Queens or other areas when leaving the tennis facility, note that subway is conveniently located next to train station.
- Watch tennis throughout the day and into the night until eyes bulge like big yellow balls and neck won’t turn.
Which Stadium, Court?
While waiting to enter the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, we studied the matches and venues and marked preferences. What were our preferences? To get as close as possible to the best players in the most competitive match ups. This strategy is hugely dependent on venue selection:
- Arthur Ashe Stadium: With a capacity of 23,700 and assigned seating in the nosebleed section with our ticket plan, this was a vacuous venue from which we predictably felt detached from the players and excitement. Too big, too far away, for an opening match, anyway. Early Ashe matches usually feature a star against a lowly ranked player or no-name, like #1 Roger Federer against an unknown qualifier. Unless you have seats up close or simply must see your favorite player, consider a smaller venue.
- Louis Armstrong Stadium: Holds about 10,000 and can be a much better location to more closely view name players, without binoculars. Our ticket plan provided access to most seats, but not the closest (those were reserved). A decent array of early matches included #17 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic vs. Wayne Odesnik, USA, and eventual US Open Champ Kim Clijsters of Belgium vs. #14 Marion Bartoli of France. Armstrong was also the site of Marat Safin’s last Open match before retirement—thumped by Austrian Jurgen Melzer.
- Grandstand Stadium: Our favorite! With 5,800 seats, Grandstand makes it possible to intimately experience the intense action. Nearly all seats were available to us with our Mini-Plan package, including some that were literally first-row courtside. Another bonus: SHADE! We estimated that 20 percent of the seats at Grandstand are in precious, rare shade — practically the ONLY shade in the entire tennis center. We often opted for the shady east side of the stadium, which is excellent for visibility and comfort in that there are individual tapered seats. In some areas of Grandstand, there are only butt-flattening bleachers with no back support.
- We watched Gael Monfils, 13th seed from France, vs. fellow countryman Jeremy Chardy from the first row, so close the 125-mph serves sometimes overshot the short wall and threatened to decapitate the long lens from my camera. We saw #7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France dismantle Chase Buchanan, USA. Watched #16 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia win a tight match against spirited American Ryan Sweeting. Cilic would go on to bump #2 Andy Murray from the tourney. On the women’s side at Grandstand, there was #4 Elena Dementieva of Russia, US upstart Melanie Oudin, and #7 Vera Zvonareva of Russia vs. — who else, another Russian — Anna Chakvetadze, and more. We could easily see and feel the pounding, the pace, and the emotions from the Grandstand seats. We began to call it “our stadium.”
- The Outer 16 Courts: In addition to the three major stadiums, there are 16 “outer” courts, where seating capacity ranges from about 100 to 1500. These, too, are intimate spots and we found them especially inviting during the evening hours when the intense sun had faded. Again, the earlier you arrive, the better your odds of getting a great seat. We were in the first row of Court 4, just a few feet away from Croatia’s #27 Ivo Karlovic — the biggest server in the game — as Spaniard Ivan Navarro pulled off a two-tiebreak, straight-sets upset. In contrast to that unusual (for today) serve-and-volley fest, we witnessed fierce baseline exchanges amid loud Latin chants a few yards away at Court 6, where Nicolas Lapenti of Ecuador charged from two sets down to eliminate Federer’s Olympic-winning doubles partner, #19 seed Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland. Sat about four rows up for that one. But, in some cases, we were denied entry to matches because we arrived late. An apparent endless line was a clue that we would miss Germany’s #20 Tommy Haas four-set victory over Alejandro Falla of Colombia. Lots of doubles matches on the outer courts too.
Practice courts are accessible all the time but we found plenty of action elsewhere and did not attend the workouts.
Securing Your Seats
Ok, you arrived early at the venue of your choice and claimed your seats. But what happens when you need a restroom, snack or walk? Protect your investment! Have someone save your seat if your absence will be brief.
Also be advised that ushers carefully monitor out-of-seat movement during play and will demand you sit immediately to avoid player distractions. When play stops, start walking but realize you cannot reenter the playing area until the NEXT break in play. Ushers block entrance ways while spectators line up to reenter the playing area between every third game, after each set, and at the conclusion of matches.
Food & Drink
We are not keen on expensive food or fast food, which is largely what we found at the outdoor "food village" — expensive fast food. Figure about 10 bucks and up for a personal pizza, sandwich or other selection from one of about 14 diverse concessions. A soft pretzel was $3.50. Beer is $7.50 per cup (domestic or Heineken). We brought in what we could for lunch and snacks and ate lightly at dinnertime. There are also upscale indoor restaurants on-site but we did not sample those.
One late afternoon we decided to walk for food immediately outside the tennis center. The friendly local cop advised us that a left turn onto Roosevelt Ave. would lead to a town of "trucker food" and a right turn to East Asian fare in Flushing. We flipped a coin and ventured left for a half-mile or so and found the small Hispanic-dominated town of Corona and its many Mexican restaurants. We agreed the atmosphere was definitely “trucker.”
If you must leave the tennis facility, good advice is to do a little research, hop on the subway and head a few stops in either direction to find a restaurant you like.
Lots of folks line up at the conclusion of each match to get the victor’s signature. Many kids carry pens and those overgrown tennis balls and most of the players are accommodating. Probably some good opportunities at the practice courts too.
If you like photography and are ambitious, you can have fun snapping action photos of the players. We used a Nikon D90 digital SLR camera with 70-300mm telephoto lens, which was quite serviceable near the court, though a little short in higher locations.
As novices to tennis photography, we experimented a bit. For most action shots, we used the fastest shutter speed available, with wide apertures to help soften the background and emphasize players in the foreground. We snapped many photos from 1/500th to 1/4000th of a second, depending on time of day and lighting, and used continuous shooting mode for up to four shots per second. Also took a few exposures at slow shutter speeds for creative motion blur.
But even if you have only a cell phone camera, you can frequently get close enough to shoot a memorable photo of the match winner at the Grandstand Stadium and outer courts.
Another promising location for occasional player photos is the area you see on TV interviews near the entrance of Arthur Ashe Stadium, where hordes of waving spectators are behind announcers like the McEnroe brothers. I got a candid of Federer waving to the crowd there, along with a few frames of commentator Brad Gilbert.
We congratulated ourselves on organizing a successful first trip to the US Open and concluded that every serious tennis fan should try to attend at least one. You can spend moderately, like us, or as extravagantly as you like. You can participate as an early-riser, like we did, or go nocturnal.
Finally, New York City itself was surprisingly pleasant. Not once, day or night, did we feel threatened or in any way uncomfortable while walking or using public transportation in the areas we visited. All were safe and sanitary. And contrary to what we might have heard — the city natives were friendly and helpful wherever we went. Really, we could find no fault with our US Open experience.