For two Southern tennis fans, exploring the U.S. Open was like being in an episode of I Love Lucy!

By Michelle Segrest

FLUSHING MEADOWS, New York (29 August 2010)—It was a whim.

It was girls’ night out with my tennis partner, Rhonda, and I don’t know…somewhere between her third beer and my second apple martini, we just decided to go. Let’s go to the U.S. Open!

It was a week away.

I have frequent flyer miles. I have Hilton Honors points. I have a passionate and ridiculously innate urge to watch tennis, play tennis and drool over handsome, sweaty men in shorts thrashing a tennis ball with all their might.

I jumped on Ticketmaster and quickly found two tickets for Labor Day weekend. Section 317, Row X, Arthur Ashe stadium. Hmmm. This shouldn’t be too bad.

My first experience at the U.S. Open was three years before. I went with my mother, Patti, also a tennis fan. But that was different. My sportswriter ex-husband had scored us tickets in the Sports Illustrated box, which put us basically in the players box. We literally sat with the Serbian tennis posse and watched Novak Djokovic win his breakout, marathon, five-hour, five-set match over Radek Stepanek in Louis Armstrong stadium. We were so close to Rafa Nadal in Arthur Ashe stadium, I could have reached down and picked the panties out of his perfect bum for him. I could literally hear an Andy Roddick serve screech past my ears and felt the wind almost knock my head off.

This would be a different experience. Section 317, Row X. Fine. Let’s go!

We arrived in Queens, dumped our luggage at the local Hilton Garden Inn and caught the shuttle directly to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

One caviat. We had tickets for the evening session that day, and for every session throughout the weekend. But we didn’t have tickets for that afternoon. And we couldn’t wait.

We worked our way across the bridge to the ticket counter. Just in case. But of course, all tickets for the afternoon session were sold out. Everywhere on the grounds were signs about the punishments and penalties for scalping tickets anywhere near the Tennis Center. We began walking back across the bridge toward Citi Field where the New York Mets play.

Police officers were patrolling the grounds with intent to arrest. We are talking about tickets to a tennis match, not a conspiracy to take over a small country. How could getting tickets to a tennis match be considered a crime?

We are sweet Southern girls who just want to watch a little tennis, so we decided to play the “We’re-from-Alabama-and-don’t-know-any-better” card. We walked straight up to two friendly police officers and asked them directly. “How can we get tickets for this afternoon’s session?”

“Everything is sold out,” they told us without blinking an eye or cracking a smile. They were completely immune to our most sugary Southern drawl. “And if we see you solicit tickets from a scalper, we will take you directly to jail.”

We were not convinced. “So…if we head that way (pointing toward a gang of skateboarders who were obviously scalpers), we could possibly get tickets?”

“I think you need to walk away,” the bigger one said. But then he winked and looked the other way.

I think I will choose to interpret that as go ahead and we won’t arrest you. Let’s go to the U.S. Open!

We walked down to the skateboarder scalpers, but they only had tickets for that evening. We already had those tickets covered. Section 317, Row X. We passed a lot of people asking for tickets but no others selling them.

Time for Plan B.

We went back to the same police officers. Yes. The same ones.

“We weren’t able to get any tickets,” we told them. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“I think you should give up on this,” they warned. “Go to a bar and watch The Open on TV until you can get into the night session.”

Hmmm. Good idea. 

One of the officers actually broke a little smile, finally succumbing to our Southern charm. “Ok, there is a Ruby Tuesday that way (he pointed), and it’s a pretty good neighborhood. That way (he pointed the other way) is downtown Queens and maybe not the safest place for two girls from Alabama. I would not recommend going that way without an escort and perhaps a weapon.”

I don’t think Rhonda heard him. Her answer was simple and quick. “I’m not a fan of Ruby Tuesday.”

So off we went in the direction of danger.

We roamed a bit, then found a sweet elderly lady and asked for directions. She was blind. Maybe not our best resource. So we winged it.

We finally found a bar and instantly made friends with other tennis fans, stayed a couple hours and then headed back to the tennis center with our legitimate tickets. Section 317, Row X.

At the U.S. Open, there are three different kinds of tickets you can purchase and in deep contrast to Wimbledon and the French Open, these tickets are easy to score.

  1. Tickets to Arthur Ashe Stadium (center court) range anywhere from $50 to $500-plus. This buys you a reserved seat, but you can also use this ticket for unreserved seating on any other court. This is the greatest bargain and unless you just have hundreds of dollars to burn, there is no real need to get the expensive tickets. More explanation about this later.
  2. Tickets to Louis Armstrong range from $50 to about $350-plus and give you a reserved seat at the second largest court with access to any other unreserved seat on any court except Arthur Ashe.
  3. A grounds pass can be purchased for a song. This gives you first-come, first-served seating on any court except Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong. You can see some fantastic matches from the front row of the Grandstand and any outer court. You just have to get there first, park and stay seated. If you get up, you can lose your seat to the next guy. So you should eat, drink and pee before you sit down.

Finally, we had made it to the tennis center with our legit tickets, and we were in luck. Two Americans were playing at Arthur Ashe—veteran Andy Roddick and newcomer Jack Sock.

But first thing’s first…we needed to snap a photo to prove we were there.

We ran to an outer court that was between matches and practically empty. We strolled in and walked straight to the court. This was before cell phones were the camera of choice and I don’t think “selfies” had been invented yet. So I was walking around with my huge Nikon SLR D70 strapped around my neck and my two extra lenses and extra battery in my very heavy bag.

There was only one other person on the court. He looked really official with a lanyard and credential around his neck. He must work here, we thought. We walked up to him and asked if he would take a picture for us. This seemed like a usual request for him, but I wondered why he looked confused when I handed him the camera.

So Rhonda and I stood by the court and smiled like stupid Southern tourists in the big bad city. He took several pics, and I checked each one for approval. Then, still confused, he handed us back the camera. “That’s all you need?” he asked, still puzzled.

“Yep. We’re good!”

Meanwhile, the court seats were beginning to fill, so we thought, hey, we have a front seat, let’s watch a little. We were in tennis heaven!

We started to notice that our photographer was getting a lot of attention. Masses of people were asking for his autograph and taking pictures WITH him. This must be the most popular court official on the grounds. Now, we were confused.

We asked a random fan who was completely thrilled with her autograph, “Who is that?”

“That’s Patrik Kühnen, the German tennis player and coach,” she told us. “He’s pretty famous!” He was Boris Becker’s doubles partner and the current Germany Davis Cup Captain.

We felt so stupid…like we were in an I Love Lucy episode. Remember when Lucy and Ethel asked John Wayne to take their picture? But John Wayne wasn’t in it. The super famous guy was the one operating the camera.

Yes, it was just like that.

We will forever be able to tell our friends, “Look at this great picture of Michelle and Rhonda that a famous celebrity took for us.” It didn’t occur to us to ask him to get in the picture WITH us. Nope, we were the celebrities that day!

I guess I can brag that a famous tennis celebrity touched my camera.

I bit embarrassed and humiliated, but still excited, we made our way to center court.

Arthur Ashe stadium is massive! It’s the largest tennis venue in the world, accommodating more than 22,500 people. And every match is like a rock concert! Loud music plays on the changeovers and tennis fans dance in the aisles. Fans display posters and drink alcohol. Lots of it! They loudly and proudly cheer for their favorite players and are not afraid to boo and hiss at the opponent. It is the antithesis of the ultimately polite Wimbledon experience.

Unlike Wimbledon, which has pages and pages and pages of rules and regulations, the U.S. Open is the ultimate tennis party. The energy is electric—especially for night matches, which can often last into the early morning hours.

We easily found Section 317. It was in the top tier of three levels. We then began to climb the steep stairs up to Row X. Think about the alphabet. Only Y and Z come after X. This means our seats were three rows from the top (some 518 feet into the clouds).

Our sweaty, travel worn, crime-escaping bodies had finally made it. We sat down and then looked down. Now this is not an exaggeration…we were looking DOWN at the TOP of the Goodyear Blimp. Yes, we were higher than the Goodyear Blimp.

Andy Roddick and Jack Sock looked like little ants running around on the electric blue court. We could hear the ping, ping, ping, so we knew that they were most likely hitting a fuzzy, yellow ball. But we couldn’t see it.

We sat in our assigned seats for about five minutes. That was about enough. It was time to find better seats.

So the deal at the U.S. Open is that if you have a ticket into a main court, it is your reserved seat no matter what. However, if others do not show up, or they move, or for whatever reason simply are not there, you can sit in their seat. A better seat than the one you purchased. Of course, if the ticket holder of that seat shows up with the reserved ticket, you have to move.

Fair enough.

We ventured down, a few rows at a time. We would sit and then look around and over our shoulder as if we were invisible and the other 22,000 people couldn’t see us stealing the empty seats.

We got away with it.

We became a little more comfortable and a little more clever. We made it down to the first row of the top tier. Now we could see some tennis! It was awesome! It wasn’t as close as my mom and I were three years before in the luxury box, but it was still pretty extraordinary!

We still had to move a few times as ticket holders began to show up, but the musical chair game was fun. Ticket holders were very understanding when they arrived, and we would kindly move to another empty seat. And we got to make even more new friends!

This would have been close enough to make most tennis fans happy. But not Lucy and Ethel.

We decided to be brave.

And . . . perhaps a little greedy.

We decided we had gotten fairly expert at this game and wanted to get even closer—the bottom tier.

Now the bottom tier has guards on every aisle. But sometimes they abandon their post. It’s all a matter of timing.

We were able to sneak past one of them and found two empty seats on Row 5. We looked up at our lonely little seats in the upper level, Section 317, Row X. It seemed like a mile away and we were feeling good about ourselves.

“Now, this is the way to go to the U.S. Open,” we were bragging on ourselves and proud of this accomplishment. We were no longer paranoid about getting caught. No longer looking over our shoulder because we were now pros at attending the U.S. Open. I mean, let’s face it. We have this whole thing figured out. Buy a $50 ticket and then work your way into the expensive seats.

I was so proud! I boldly said, “We should write a book about this.”

The words had barely left my lips and were still hanging in the air. Just hanging there like a bubble quote on a cartoon strip.

Not even one second later… a tap on the shoulder. It was the aisle guard. “This is not your seat. You need to move.”

Book deal over. Back to Row X.