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Wed, 11 Sep 2013

The US Open—a report from your man in Flushing

With the end of the US Open yesterday, it seems past time that I post the results of my fact-finding trip to this intriguing tournament, which I carried out a little under two weeks ago. Being well-versed in lawn tennis as played in Britain, and expecting no less of my readers, I will simply highlight the few important differences which distinguish the sport on this side of the Atlantic.

The grass is blue, and incredibly short—so much so that it is very nearly impossible to see. Of course, the brilliant blue hue of the courts reminds us that it is there. Blue grass is a popular variety native to certain parts of North America, having been cross-bred in Appalachian areas from British and Irish strains. (Of course, it also gives its name to the music which also flourished in these areas. As I will report shortly, in America the worlds of tennis and music have more than just the colour of their grass in common.)

Tournament colours are blue and white, with occasional red—a welcome nod to the British and French origins of the sport of tennis. However, the towels provided for the players exhibit an intriguing secondary colour scheme: of white on white with white text on a white background. In contrast to the overpriced souvenir towels of Wimbledon, this colour scheme decision reflects an admirable audience-minded, do-it-yourself spirit. To make your own US Open souvenir towel, one can do do as follows. Firstly, simply buy any plain white towel. Secondly, enjoy!

Pimm's is nowhere to be seen. At first, this absence might seem horrifying. However, it is explained by a little consideration of timezones and some simple logic. In this more westerly timezone, Pimm's o'clock occurs before the sun is past the yardarm. As such, tempting as it might be, it would simply be improper to indulge in such a drink during play at the tournament. This loss might seem hard to stomach, but as any tennis fan will know, other beverages can approximate the experience not too shabbily. As a tribute to Louis X of France, cooled wine is available at the Open from certain vendors.

Overarm throws are the technique used by ballboys-and-ballgirls to transfer balls among each other, instead of rolling balls along the ground as practised in Wimbledon. This reflects the wider North American preference for air travel over surface travel—at least since the decline, in the middle decades of the 20th century, of North American passenger rail travel and green-grass-court tennis.

Piped music is a very noticeable presence. It is one of the US's many under-recognised achievements to have developed the world's most extensive and sophisticated music plumbing infrastructure. Music is piped to practically all commercial buildings. (Another little-known fact, however, is that like the grid pattern and the underground railway, Glasgow was an early pioneer—but, in an unfortunate lack of foresight, its pipes were made with too small a diameter, making them suitable only for piped pipe music.)

Musical connections more generally play a strong part at the Open. It may surprise European readers, but here, tennis and music have often gone hand-in-racquet. One of the grandstand venues is the Louis Armstrong stadium, named in recognition of the remarkable double singles career of the great jazzman. Seeking to avoid confusion between his musical achievements and his tennis career, Armstrong played under the moniker Satchmo “Lefty” Gonzales, and won a number of minor singles titles before an unfortunate recurrence of his “trumpeter's elbow” forced him to quit the sport at the height of his powers. Decades later, Michael Jackson would immortalise tennis artist Billie Jean King in his smash-hit single. In the world of tennis she was already immortal, and indeed, the US National Tennis Center in Flushing is named after her. The depth of these musical connections are doubly humbling to us Britons ever since Tim Henman's charity single version of “The [Semi-]Final Countdown” so infamously failed to capture the nation's imagination.

Salesmanship and sponsorship are more prominently featured than at Wimbledon. Thankfully, this is done in an earthy and unpretentious manner. The street-talking salesmen of elaborate video gadgets for multi-court viewing were refreshingly familiar and will be comprehensible to anyone who has viewed The Wire. (They seemed puzzled when I inquired whether they had a “burner” version on offer.) On the court, large companies have generously donated unwanted banners in the tournament colours, along with assorted unwanted adornments which the tournament organisers playfully use to decorate the net, lending a likeable “scrapyard feel” to the ambiance.

The Line is surprising, since it does not exist. One would surely expect this fine American equivalent of that Wimbledon landmark, The Queue, but there is none to be found. In a remarkable piece of innovation, paying customers simply walk in, having already bought their tickets, since patience is not a criterion by which tickets are apportioned. Depth of pocket rules supreme. Sadly, the higher ticket prices do not seem to lessen the overpricing of “optional extras”, meaning food and drink. In fact, they seem even more inflated. Unfortunately, your correspondent was unable to purchase anything to evaluate its value-for-money more closely, having been caught unawares by the surprising finding that pounds Sterling were not acceptable currency.

Etiquette is every bit as established as at Wimbledon, but the rules are somewhat different. At the US Open, it is very poor form to clap except for a winner by your favoured player, or an error by the other player. Never clap at good play from the other player! Although this will feel counter to the sensibilities of most well-brought-up Europeans, a little reflection will reveal the equally upstanding American perspective: that to applaud for an action one finds displeasing is, above anything, dishonest. Besides this, it is also an unnecessary noise that might potentially disturb others.

That is all I have to offer you, dear readers. I hope it has been an enlightening experience, just as attending the tournament was for me. In my next report, I'll be sharing my experiences contrasting the factories of bustling Keswick with the “graphite belt” of Lakeland's new-world rival—Pennsylvania.

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