For two weeks every year, the U.S. Open turns tennis into a contact sport. It's a festival of the down and dirty. Only the street-smart survive. "Watchyerback! Comin' through."
Forget the amenities. There aren't any. Jet planes sound as if they are strafing the stadium. Subways rattle already frayed nerves. And it smells like New York, too. Sidewalk pretzels and Chanel No. 5. Summer in the city.
For 50 weeks a year, tennis players are among the most pampered creatures on the planet. Not here. You play it as it lays or you don't play at all.
"You think we're spoiled?" said JoAnne Russell. "Ever try to play a match next to the garbage dump? We're not talking about Chris Evert Lloyd. We're talking JoAnne Russell. I play next to the garbage dump. We're tough."
The Open came to Flushing Meadow in 1978, having abandoned the confining gentility of Forest Hills. The second part of the name -- Meadow -- is misleading. The U.S. Tennis Center occupies 16 acres of Queens County asphalt, interrupted by patches of green barely large enough for a picnic blanket. "Please, keep off the grass," the sign says.
For 11 months a year, ordinary people with ordinary tennis elbow play ordinary tennis here. For two weeks, beginning at the end of August, scalpers, celebs, players and even some regular people mingle in sticky proximity.
For a player of note, the walk from the stadium to the locker room can be treacherous. "Mr. Arias! Mr. Arias! Nice match, Mr. Arias." "You moron. He lost." "Yo, Martina. Can I have your autograph, Martina?"
"It's a victory just making it to the locker room," she said.
Middle-aged women in Fila shorts come to rub elbows with tennis players in Fila shorts. Kenny Rogers, the singer, who is sponsoring a young player named Lisa Spain, came dressed in Adidas and brought Kirk Douglas along with him. Rogers politely declined to sign autographs. "If I sign one, I'll never stop," he said, and thanked everyone for understanding.
Steve Garvey, the San Diego Padres' first baseman, snuck away from Shea Stadium where the Padres were playing a weekend series with the Mets. He complied with every request for a picture or an autograph.
"You must hate this," said one teen-ager as she snapped away. "No," he said, smiling. "Who is he?" someone asked. "Sometimes I don't know myself," he replied.
It's not all polite society. One day a couple of years ago, when Russell was playing doubles with Virginia Ruzici, "Ruzici looked over at me and said, 'JoAnne, there is this man looking at me very strange,' " Russell said. "I said, 'Well, yeah, your skirt is mighty short.' You never know what's going to come out of the crowd."
It's a clear case of survival of the fittest. You fight the place, it fights you. Go with the flow -- you might even win.
"Wimbledon is more precise, much more peaceful," said Hana Mandlikova. "Here is like a zoo."
"They come here, they eat popcorn, have a hot dog or a cheeseburger, and if you mis-hit a ball toward the stands, they think it's a fly ball at a baseball game," said Ivan Lendl. "They reach out and catch it in their soda cups and everyone claps."
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mandlikova and Lendl have lost in the finals twice. Jimmy Connors, who revels in New York, has won five times. The other day, during his first-round match with Matt Mitchell, a high-pitched shriek emanating from Mitchell's girlfriend pierced the air. Mitchell had taken an early lead. "It's still early, honey," Connors told her. "He's got a long way to go."
Connors speaks the language. "The New York crowd loves to see you spill your guts," said the old gut-spiller. "In Paris, they love good tennis. But really, they get behind you and want you to spill your guts like here. In Wimbledon, if you spill your guts all over the court, you get to clean it up yourself."
"Yeah," said Russell, who lives in New York City. "Here, they'll pick 'em up and sell 'em. They'll be out there on the boardwalk along with the scalpers. Guts, guts. We got guts."
"Tickets, tickets, who needs tickets?"
It was Saturday morning and business was slow. "These people are not paying," said one scalper, who preferred to remain nameless. He already had received a summons to appear in court next week to explain why he was asking twice face value on a $12 ticket. No one was nibbling. "We come here, we pay $25 and we get $30. It's like coolie wages."
The boardwalk connects the tennis stadium to Shea Stadium and the Flushing Line. The No. 7 train takes you to Manhattan. The skyline glitters on the horizon. In the dusk, with the sun setting behind the Empire State building, the view is sublime and benign. As the fiery red ball fell below the rim of the stadium Friday night, a bag of garbage tumbled down the steps toward the court. "I guess that's the difference between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open," television commentator Bud Collins said.
In the early light of morning, things looked different. "I thought it would be all hustle and bustle," said Betty Wright of Columbia, S.C., who had never been to New York before. It was 11 a.m. and the stadium was almost empty and almost clean. "This is nice and calm and quiet."
Maybe she should have been at the side court Friday night, when 1,000 people waited to see Evert and Billie Jean King play doubles and a very proper, very adamant woman slapped a security guard who wouldn't let her through. But there is etiquette. Decorum is maintained during practice sessions. Nearly 100 people watched Evert practice this morning. The only sound was the click of 100 camera shutters. The hush would never have been permitted during a match.
There is sentiment laced with realism. A good crowd gathered to see Rosie Casals play doubles this morning, even if not all of them knew who she was or what she had done. "She used to be real good," a man said. "Which one?" asked his friend.
"That girl with the black hair. She used to be like Billie Jean King, one of the best, but she's heavier now."
Heavier and a bit older but just as game as ever, Casals reached high and grunted low after every lob sent her way. She is still 5 feet 2 1/2 and opponents still try to lob her to death. After she put away the last of them, she came off the court, showing off her new tennis dress, a Ted Tinling original. "Three hundred bucks," she said. "Three hundred for the dress and three hundred for the jacket. The kids get them for free. I've got to get past a couple of rounds to pay for my dress."
Opulence is everywhere, in the corporate boxes populated with Louis Vuitton handbags, in the concession stands where you can pay $20 for a plastic Fila pen. "We've only sold three," said the saleswoman, Lee Brennan.
"There's a lotta money out there," said the saleswoman in the Ellesse booth. "Some people come by and drop $600. Some buy a pair of socks for eight bucks."
A couple of years ago, Russell was playing doubles with Ruzici here. She turned to Russell midway through a tie breaker and said, " 'JoAnne, I feel faint,' " Russell said. "So I tell this guy, 'Get me a candy bar, Ruzici is feeling faint.' He says, 'They don't have candy at the U.S. Open.'
"It's too cheap. So I say, 'Ruzici, you want some cake?' She says, 'I'll eat anything.' So they got her a piece of chocolate cake from the patisserie. Hey, this is New York. We got patisseries. She always gets faint in tie breakers."
You tell yourself to block it all out. But that can be difficult, Russell said, especially when she plays on Court 5, adjacent to Court 6, and two matches are going on simultaneously and the balls from the other match -- the players from the other match -- end up on the wrong court.
"You begin to worry when there are four people on your court and you're only playing singles," she said. "I said, 'Excuse me, this is my court.' But this is the Open and anything can happen."