When John Rocker began the still-ongoing process of blowing up his life, it was in part because of a long, bigoted bitch about the things a person will see on the 7 train. "Imagine having to take the 7 to the ballpark," he told Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman, "looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing." Which is certainly one awful, ignorant way to look at it.
Rocker made some noise about quotes being taken out of context, because of course he did. (He has also reiterated those sentiments, because of course he did.) But Rocker's comments exist essentially in their own context: New York City's 7 train, which is the train that travels east through Queens. It stops every few blocks along Roosevelt Avenue before arriving at the station now named Mets-Willets Point, where the Mets play baseball and the world's best tennis players are currently playing the U.S. Open.
What you'll actually see on the 7 train -- whether you're going to the U.S. Open or getting off at any of the stops before reaching the honking, livid Chinatown around the train's terminus at Flushing Main Street -- is Queens. There are improbably dense ethnic neighborhoods all along the line, all manner of strange and delicious foods and old and new communities that are variously permeable with the rest of the city. Scores of dialects are spoken along avenues with ill-fitting fancy old New York City names.
On the way to the Open, I heard passengers speaking Chinese and Hindi and German and French and Spanish and Russian and British English and American English and the weird rolled-r English specific to women who preach the gospel on mass transit and Queens English. This last was spoken by a teenager who complained about being bumped by a woman's luggage, then refused an offer to trade places with her and escape the bump zone because she "should've waited for the next train," and then spent the rest of his trip sighing as her suitcase nudged his knees.
It was not depressing, contra the former a-hole closer, at least not to me. That's because I like Queens, and also because it works, and works beautifully, actually, in a leavening and leveling way. In order to get to the zipless clockwork luxury sports experience of the U.S. Open, pilgrims must pack ass onto a humid subway train, grumpily smelling and finally, horrifyingly taking on the spicy smells of their temporary train-neighbors. This does not sound enjoyable, I know, and on a soupy humid late-summer day it is decidedly uncomfortable and increasingly aromatic and not really fun.
It is, however, inescapable, and so not really worth trying to escape. What you should do is take the 7 all the way to the end of the line to Flushing's Chinatown. The sidewalk will smell like strange gourds and sound like shouting. Keep going and walk downstairs into the Golden Mall. It is also assaultive and low-ceilinged and crowded and close, but there you can eat various things -- diaphanous dumplings filled with melting pork and dill, dense congee rice, chewy hand-pulled noodles served with mountain vegetables or under cumin-y braised lamb or seared in red-flecked chili oil. Then swipe your MetroCard again and travel back one stop to the leveraged mass elegance of the Open.
What else are you going to do? You cannot get to the U.S. Open without being in the bigger, ruder, more vital New York. Even the famous people who came to their boxes at Arthur Ashe Stadium Court via chauffeured sedan must have spent a few long blocks winding through Willets Point, a corrugated-steel wasteland of chop shop shanties and nameless pockmarked un-roads. The long-haired dude from Maroon 5 did not look much worse for wear when he showed up on the stadium's JumboTron, but it was still nice to think of him stuck in traffic for a bit, near a dodgy, spark-spewing chop shop with a sign that read Beware Of Big Dog.
The U.S. Open is played at the U.S. Tennis Center, on painstakingly maintained hardcourt tennis rectangles, all of them banked by tastefully curated Luxury Sponsors -- globo-brands like Emirates Airlines and Heineken and Mercedes-Benz and Evian that scan as The More Expensive Option the world over -- and the bigger ones patrolled by swooping ESPN cameras on cables strung above the court. But the U.S. Tennis Center is very much located in New York City.
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Which is, to be clear, not quite the same as saying that the U.S. Open is some sort of populist sports experience. The crowd features a greater mix of ages and skin colors and nationalities and orientations than you might expect from a sport so stereotypically clubby and elite, although those in attendance are people who don't mind paying $60 for distant seats and many times that for seats lower down. On a Monday night, for a fourth-round match pitting Rafael Nadal against 22nd seeded Philipp Kohlscrheiber, the crowd was diverse -- nearly all those 7 train passengers speaking those various languages got off at the U.S. Open stop -- but also very much and very identifiably a tennis crowd.
This is sort of a silly thing. There were posh families taking selfie after selfie, couples preppy enough that their outfits were effectively unisex. There was this one Russian couple that I kept quite literally bumping into: a boyfriend in a skintight Armani t-shirt taking photos of his girlfriend and her Instagram smirk in various hilariously inconsiderate locations (the top of an escalator, a crowded concourse, on a view-obstructing landing during an actual point).
But also there aren't really all that many Populist Sports Experiences out there to be had, at least in the sense of paying $10 and getting a sports-related experience that feels worth it. The price of a ticket reflects what the market will bear, and the U.S. Open happens just once a year, and rich people like it enough to pay for it, and there we are. This is New York, yes, but it's not just New York.
Here, as everywhere, you pay too much to get what you can only hope will be enough. The sponsors and beer mark-ups -- the only beer is Heineken, and it's $8.50 a pint -- and various unapologetic stratifications at the U.S. Open are palpable. Even among this crowd of scrubbed Have's there is always the simultaneous presence and distance of a pearlier few who Have More, and then, way down at courtside or hidden away in some double-secret champagne tent, those who Have Most. This, too, is very New York -- the city is punitively, remorselessly extractive, and cast in the long shadow of the obscenely wealthy Other New York that makes nearly all the money. But also, increasingly, this is just what going to sporting events is like.
Which sucks, surely, but which is also not an ending -- an $80 ticket is an investment like anything else, and so can indeed pay off. If you like tennis, and want to see very good players play it up close and the greatest players play it from a somewhat greater distance, the U.S. Open is more than worth the cost.
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The first experience, of watching matches on the various sub-stadium courts, was only available to me because bad weather had pushed the afternoon's matches into the evening. The crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium Court sighed and whooped futilely as Roger Federer lost in straight sets to Tommy Robredo, and a smaller crowd sat with eyes cast up on a massive screen watching it happen. On the smaller courts, ones with numbers instead of names, various postponed doubles matches wound down.
Doubles is a strange thing to watch up close -- the court is crowded, and the ping-pongish volley exchanges at the net are intense, but lack the grace or pace of a singles match. More interestingly, the players' weird interiority and fidgeting is right there, a few feet away. On what was either court 13 or 14, Mikhail Youzhny and Sergiy Stakhovsky lost a doubles match in front of two dozen spectators. Stakhovsky doinked a ball off the rim of his racket into the not-quite-crowd, and a spectator smilingly, wordlessly returned it to the ball boy. Later, Youzhny would smell the ball before serving, warily and not a little suspiciously.
In Arthur Ashe, all this fussy human oddity is much further away, and feels much more observed. And also Rafael Nadal was playing, which means that most of the rules of spectatorship were effectively null. He changed shirts during the first set and the crowd whooped like the "ooooohhhhh" track from Saved By The Bell, then sort of chuckled at having done so. Whatever basic human rule dictates pulling for the underdog was suspended, and while Philipp Kohlschreiber managed to win over a portion of the crowd -- and a long first set -- with a hugely game effort, Nadal was too spectacularly good.
And so things sort of flattened out into happy ritual. Nadal faced just one break point, and beat it back. He got to everything, painted impossible crosscourt shots and hit little spinning drop shots that splashed unreturned into little fuzzy yellow puddles on Kohlschreiber's side of the net. People yelled "Vamos Rafa" and "Let's go Rafa," but while one fan bellowed unintelligible Rafa exhortations throughout -- per my notes: "Ronk a lorf homp ROFFO!" -- things settled as the match rode the shoulder down from the ultra-close first two sets towards Nadal's inevitable victory.
But if the excitement ebbed, there was no diminishing the general good will and sense that everyone, even poor sweating Philipp Kohlschreiber, was delighted to be there, at the center of this dense city night and at great expense to watch what they watched. Which is an odd thing to see and feel at a sporting event, at any price -- where there is usually an edgily overinvested unease or wobbling shitfaced aggro-bonhomie or at least stressed-out partisanship, there was here just a sense of pleased fulfillment, of people getting something like what they paid for.
The assembled were loud when they were allowed to be loud, and quiet when they were supposed to be quiet. They showed up on the JumboTron and danced, they applauded when the camera found the low-wattage celebrities in the crowd -- supporting players from Dexter and The Good Wife, a grinning mountainous Warren Sapp wearing an American Express-branded radio earpiece. A man charged down the stairs between sets to dance goofily to Billy Idol's cover of "Mony Mony" and the crowd -- giddy moms and kids, especially, but also starchy preps nearby -- roared with glee as they watched him on the stadium's big screens.
This was not new. The dude was a fantastic dancer, but he was planted, part of the show. But if everyone knew this, or figured it out quickly, it didn't register. He stripteasily peeled off one U.S. Open t-shirt after another and the moms whooped and the kids clapped, before he finally got down to an I (Heart) New York. Everyone who has been to a sporting event has seen in-game Silly Dancing Guy entertainment like this, it's a trope and a thing and familiar. But it was possible, surrounded by all those people happy and high on Nadal and just being at the U.S. Open, to believe that this was new, that they'd never seen or felt anything like this, and that they felt lucky and supremely, unself-consciously glad to be there for it.
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