The Open: Noise, traffic and terrific tennis

© Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

NEW YORK — Yes, if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere. It’s New York, where the heat isn’t bad this year — only in the mid-70s Tuesday — the traffic heading to Billie Jean King Center is terrible and the tennis is terrific.

One night we have the Williams sisters, calling down some echoes and pounding memorable serves, the next afternoon there was Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old backhand ingénue who could be America’s next star, rallying to beat Anastasia Potapova, 3-6, 6-2, 6- 4.

Not that everyone can make it here. Two of the men’s top seeds, No. 4, Dominic Thiem, a French Open finalist, and No. 8, Stefanos Tsitsipas, were upended in their first-round matches. Thiem was worn down by a virus, and Tsitsipas blamed the umpire he referred to as “a weirdo.”

Insults fly around here, as do the jets heading into or taking off from nearby LaGuardia when the wind is in a certain direction.

Noise? That’s New York. Where rumbling trucks and pounding from constant construction — they’re going to tear down the historic Grand Central Hyatt soon and build another high rise — fills the air.

Noise? That’s the Open. Where fans who can’t get into 23,000-seat Ashe Stadium or smaller Armstrong Stadium pack a courtyard, cheering while watching on huge TV screens.

The Open is as much a party as a sporting competition, a farewell to summer since it’s always over the Labor Day weekend. “Autumn In New York,” that Vernon Duke song done so perfectly by Sinatra, would be a perfect accompaniment.

Music is big at the Open. During change-overs at Wimbledon, you basically hear the sound of silence. Quiet is the rule and occasionally an admonition from the chair umpire. But when there’s a break at the U.S. Open, there’s music playing. Hey, this — well, Manhattan across the river — is the symbolic headquarters of Tin Pan Alley.

The decision was made a few years back to turn the Open into another New York attraction. Not everyone is a tennis purist. Sometimes it seems the tennis is secondary. But what does it matter if the stars come out — the Federers, Nadals, Djokovics and Serenas are here — and the fans do too?

Bill Veeck was the baseball owner who said if you had to depend on fans to fill the ballpark you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day. He meant a team had to draw people who barely knew a baseball was round. The same idea is relevant in tennis.

How many of those 68,000 spectators Monday night have ever hit a tennis ball? What counted was that tennis has become a hit for them. Drop shots? Just don’t drop the beer.

That was brilliant, beginning with Serena Williams against Maria Sharapova, even thought the match itself was less than brilliant. Two champions — did you forget Sharapova has, like Serena, won each of the Slams? — to start it off.

On the marquees, it was Serena vs. Sharapova. How could that go wrong? It went very right, particularly for Williams, who won, 6-1, 6-1. And because Sharapova, with her endorsements and her history, was getting remarkable exposure — the ESPN telecast drew record ratings — she also benefitted.

That Federer stumbled a bit in the next match, losing the first set to someone nobody had heard of, Summit Nagal, before winning, provided a little drama. And on the same card, as they say in boxing, if not prime time, Venus Williams proved that despite losing early in recent tournaments, she could win at the Open.

Strange things happen in sports, as you know, particularly in tennis where an unseeded player can — as in Federer’s match — get on a roll, albeit a very short roll in that instance. But by the end of the day, which because it was approaching midnight is more than a phrase, the better player was the successful player.

Federer berated the media for the doubts expressed in the post-match interview.

“I just wanted to pick up my game, really,” said Federer, “start to play better. Maybe it’s not bad to go through a match like this.” 

If you win, it’s not bad at all. And he won.