It's different out there

BORIS BECKER captured the irrepressible spirit of the U.S. Open when he once observed: "On the court at Wimbledon, you have to be quiet. Otherwise they throw you out. Here you can do anything you want. You can play a saxophone in the stands and nobody cares."

PAUL FEIN

A general view of the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in New York. The centrepiece of the $50 million, four-year upgrade of the National Tennis Center is an entirely new grandstand court, which will have 6,200 brand-new seats for spectators and a complete renovation of hallways and corridors for players. — Pic. EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

BORIS BECKER captured the irrepressible spirit of the U.S. Open when he once observed: "On the court at Wimbledon, you have to be quiet. Otherwise they throw you out. Here you can do anything you want. You can play a saxophone in the stands and nobody cares."

If it's the dignified aura of Wimbledon or the charming elegance of Roland Garros, or the friendly efficiency of Melbourne you want, forget about it at the U.S. Open. This is a Grand Slam, New York style. Just like "the city that never sleeps," the Open is loud, raucous and disorderly and "assaults the senses," as a noted British journalist once carped. But the Open is hustling and bustling, electric and exciting.

Where else are there so many things for a spectator to do besides watching the greatest players in the world compete?

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi pose at the net with Rod Laver before the 2002 U.S. Open men's final. Can Agassi pull off another title at Flushing Meadows in the absence of Sampras? — Pic. AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES-

Arlen Kantarian, the visionary United States Tennis Association's Chief Executive, Professional Tennis, often proclaims his goal to "make the U.S. Open one of the top five events in the world and not just sporting events." Since Kantarian took over three years ago, he's created a fun, friendly and festive atmosphere with one innovation after another.

Whether you're a long time aficionado or new fan, you'll love the newest attraction, the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Through plaques and prose, the 9000-square foot outdoor pavilion will celebrate the greatest singles champions in the 122-year history of the U.S. Nationals and the U.S. Open. You can enjoy reviewing the exploits of "Big Bill" Tilden way back in the 1920s, Open Era pioneers Billie Jean King and Chrissie Evert, and charismatic superstars John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, among others. On-court ceremonies will honour three men and three women selected by leading international tennis journalists as its inaugural inductees.

The centrepiece of a $50 million, four-year upgrade of the National Tennis Center is an entirely new grandstand court. "It's probably the best place to watch tennis in all the world," enthuses David Newman, USTA Managing Director, Marketing and Communications. It will have 6,200 brand-new seats for spectators and a complete renovation of hallways and corridors for players.

Andy Roddick, a semifinalist at Melbourne and Wimbledon, often-touted the "Next Great American Player," has yet to reach a Slam final. — Pic. AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES-

Another fan-friendly addition is a gigantic video screen in the South Plaza where people can congregate, relax and enjoy what's going on at any of the courts.

To keep everyone abreast of all the action, the Open added a new and bigger (16' by 12') IBM match-play update board that also features video capability.

If you get the urge to whack a few balls yourself, go straight to SmashZone. Last year 85,000 tennis fans tested their tennis skills and learned about tennis at this interactive attraction. Measure your serve speed against Andy Roddick's and Greg Rusedski's co-record of 149 mph.

The riveting sport of wheelchair tennis is showcased on September 3 and 4 when four of America's top players stage exhibitions.

Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, a smooth shotmaker often likened to Sampras, rates as a slight favourite. — Pic. GARY PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES-

Live music helps create the Open's unique ambiance and will pervade the 44-acre grounds throughout the two weeks. You will hear it on Ashe Stadium prior to key matches, on the opening night, and before the women's and men's finals.

No Grand Slam bombards you with as much commercialism — after all, a U.S. President famously declared, "The business of America is business" — but scores of spon<147,2,1>sor booths make it attractive rather than alienating. Valuable sponsor giveaways abound. JP Morgan will give away hats to everyone attending the women's singles final, while Olympus will loan digital cameras and binoculars for people to try out. American Express puts radios in fans' hands for live audio pick-ups of the Open. And Lincoln-Mercury, which always has a strong presence, offers everything from tennis exhibitions to complimentary chair massages on site.

Two other can't-miss events coincide with the Open. "Got Play? The 33rd annual USA Tennis Teachers Conference will take place from August 23 to 26 at the USTA National Tennis Center and the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. The TTC will attract more than 700 national and international tennis teachers of all levels to explore demonstrations and presentations of the latest developments in coaching, sport science and tennis as a business.

Guest speakers and clinicians include renowned coaches Dennis Van der Meer and Vic Braden, Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras' long time coach, and French Open doubles champions Bob and Mike Bryan. An intriguing seminar titled "New Teaching Methods Related to Pro players' New Techniques" will be conducted by Leo Alonso, a Professional Tennis Registry "master professional" from Argentina.

The something-for-everybody motif wouldn't be complete without The Tennis Show. Staged on the U.S. Open grounds from August 23 to 25 and sponsored by the Tennis Industry Association and USTA, the Show features nearly 100 worldwide exhibitors of a multitude of products and services. You couldn't ask for a more exciting place to see, review and access the latest rackets and strings, balls, court surfaces, outdoor and indoor lighting, apparel, ball machines, maintenance equipment, air structures/domes, and lots more.

Before the first tournament ball is hit in earnest, the eighth annual Arthur Ashe Kids' Day celebrates the legacy of a great champion and humanitarian on August 24. Exemplifying the inclusiveness that Ashe championed, thousands of kids of different races and cultures have fun in a carnival-like setting. Andre Agassi, James Blake, Roddick and Anna Kournikova will play an exhibition, while multi-Platinum R&B singer Monica, the rock band Smash Mouth, and UK pop singer Daniel Bedingfield will provide the music. Kids also participate in various interactive games and skill challenges, plus clinics with top pros and coaches. Broadcast nationally on CBS and with 1,500 international media people there, Arthur Ashe Kids' Day "is one of the greatest single days of promotion for the sport," says Newman. The finals of World Team Tennis provide still more entertainment.

Not all the celebrities seen at the Open come from the tennis world. Star-gazing rates as a popular activity, too. Famous fans studding the grounds and stands have included former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and wife Iman, Alec Baldwin, Paul Newman, Kevin Costner, Barbra Streisand, Helen Hunt, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Chris Rock, Diana Ross, Chevy Chase, Jack Nicholson, Sophia Loren (a big Jim Courier fan) and Bruce Willis. Actor Tom Cruise had so much fun at the 1993 Open that he wrote the USTA a thank-you note.

Clinton became a big tennis fan after attending the 2000 Open where he marvelled at the spectacular performances. Who can forget his congratulatory phone call to winner Venus Williams? The brash African-American dictated the direction of the conversation and requested, "Can you lower my taxes, please?"

The ultimate reason, though, that the Open ranks as the largest-attended annual sporting event in the world (last year's 628,738 fans were the second-highest in its history) is that it boasts "the world's toughest tennis in the world's toughest town," says Newman. "It requires grit and resilience among the competitors, and it's reflected by everybody who lives in New York. The tournament is played out in Queens, and most of the <147,4,0>players stay in Manhattan. So just getting to the (Arthur Ashe) Stadium is a challenge."

When everyone arrives, they realise "It's different out here" — which just happens to be the tag line for the 2003 U.S. Open. Much of the difference comes from the intense, knowledgeable and occasionally inebriated fans that resemble those yelling baseball crowds at nearby Shea Stadium.

The most successful players embrace that challenge. Agassi, the U.S. titlist in 1994 and '99, says, "The best arena to play a match in is a night match at the U.S. Open." Ilie Nastase agreed and once attended a night match with a chimpanzee. No player ever appreciated and fed off Flushing Meadows fanatics more than five-time champion Connors. "When you play in New York, they come to see two guys kill each other," he used to say. "The crowd here knows I'll go out and spill my guts on the court to win, and they love to see it."

Over the years, the tournament and venue have been ridiculed with all sorts of names. John Newcombe called it "a ****ing zoo"; Mats Wilander compared it to "an airport"; and Jim Courier likened its Stadium Court to "playing inside a toilet bowl." Ouch! Michael Stich, the '94 runner-up, got it right, however, when he said, "At the U.S. Open, it's not just a sport, it's an adventure."

Connors, an aging (39) but raging bull, took us on a terrific adventure at the 1991 Open. Wild-carded in at No. 174 after injuries and wrist surgery had sidelined him for most of 1990 and early '91, Connors incredibly fought his way to the semis with enthralling marathon comeback victories over Patrick McEnroe, Paul Haarhuis and Aaron Krickstein. Neither playing nor acting his age — he swore at, threatened and was generally abusive to cowed officials — fist-pumping, strutting Jimbo, nevertheless, was wildly cheered for his crowd-pleasing antics and against-the-odds courage. Mr. Excitement called it "the best 11 days of my career."

As the 2002 U.S. Open approached, no such happy scenario appeared in the cards for seemingly over-the-hill Sampras, who hadn't won any of his last 33 tournaments.

Lleyton Hewitt, the fiery 2001 champion and former No. 1, remains a strong contender, too, even though his calibre of play and confidence have slipped considerably. — Pic. EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

Written off by virtually everyone, Sampras, then 31, summoned the courage, determination, single-minded focus and athletic brilliance that made him the near-invincible champion he was in the 1990s. Stunningly, Sampras blasted 33 aces and his relentless aggression spelled the difference in his engrossing 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 triumph over long-time archrival Agassi. An ecstatic Sampras, the oldest champ here since 35-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1970, admitted, "This might be my biggest achievement. This one might take the cake."

Ever since 16-year-old Maureen Connolly won the 1951 U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, teen queens have fascinated the sporting public at America's premier tournament. Evert, another sweet 16, quickly won our hearts when she nervelessly reached the semis with amazing comeback wins in 1971. Tracy Austin, tiny but tenacious, captured U.S. crowns in 1979 (over Evert) and 1981 (over Martina Navratilova), at only 16 and 18.

Star-crossed Monica Seles, another prodigy who fearlessly pounded groundies, grabbed her first U.S. Open as a giggling and grunting 17-year-old in 1991. But her most dramatic appearance, in 1995, came 28 months after a deranged fan stabbed her. Her much-awaited and spectacular comeback revitalised her career and the women's game even though she lost the "dream final" 7-6, 0-6, 6-3 to Steffi Graf. While Graf considered her 18th Grand Slam title "the biggest win I've ever achieved," Seles had exorcised the demons that had so long beset her and declared she was "ecstatical."

Nearly everyone had expected Venus Williams to snag a major title before her little sister Serena. But 17-year-old Serena previewed her future greatness at the 1999 Open where she disposed of yet another talented teen, Martina Hingis, in the final while Venus glumly watched. After winning her first Slam, muscular Serena described women's tennis as boring and insisted: "I can beat the men."

Knee surgery has sidelined world No. 1 Serena, so neither she nor virtually retired Sampras will defend their titles. Who then will grab headlines and make history <147,6,0>this year?

With Serena Williams (right) missing the event owing to an injury, sister Venus has a slight edge over the other competitors in the women's section. — Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

Men's tennis is so deep and unpredictable that 11 different players have filled the 12 semifinal spots at the first three Grand Slam events of 2003.

Only Andy Roddick, a semifinalist at Melbourne and Wimbledon, has done it twice, but the often-touted the "Next Great American Player" has yet to reach a Slam final. Still, he's lost only two matches since Brad Gilbert, Agassi's former coach, began guiding him in June, and he's displayed a smarter, more diverse game recently.

Roger Federer, a smooth shotmaker often likened to Sampras, fulfilled his enormous potential by outclassing Roddick and Mark Philippoussis to win Wimbledon. His ability to serve and volley, albeit not as often as Sampras, and upbeat personality endear the 22-year-old Federer to fans young and old. He rates as a slight favourite.

Agassi has racked up six of his eight Slam titles on hard courts and knows his chances improve with Sampras absent. But even if he does gain his sixth Flushing Meadows final, one wonders whether his well-conditioned body can recover from a tough Saturday semifinal at age 33.

Lleyton Hewitt, the fiery 2001 champion and former No. 1, remains a strong contender, too, even though his calibre of play and confidence have slipped considerably. Marat Safin, the heavy-hitting 2000 winner, missed both the French Open and Wimbledon because of a wrist injury and will be hard-pressed to regain his form in time. Juan-Carlos Ferrero impressively captured the French Open, but he lacks the power and versatility to go all the way.

For dark horses, keep an eye on precocious, 17-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal, steadily improving American Robbie Ginepri, and Ivan Ljubicic, an explosive Croat, all of whom should thrive on the medium-speed Deco Turf II courts.

It's hard to believe that Venus Williams hasn't won a major title since copping her fourth at the U.S. Open two years ago. With Serena missing the Open, Venus is a slight favourite — she's an outstanding 51-2 at Slams since the 2001 Wimbledon, excluding the losses to her sister — only if she is healthy and match-tough. But that remains the big question. She's withdrawn from San Diego, Los Angeles and Toronto due to a leg injury and a strained abdominal muscle that she injured again at <147,7,0>Wimbledon and hampered her in the three-set final against Serena.

Kim Clijsters (above) took the No. 1 ranking from Serena because of her amazingly consistent season. An all-Belgian final should provide a touch of controversy and drama that critics claim the frequent all-Williams finals lack. — Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL-

Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, a pair of blonde Belgians entering their prime, rank ahead of Venus. Despite not winning a Grand Slam title, the popular Clijsters took the No. 1 ranking from Serena because of her amazingly consistent season in which she's advanced to at least the semis at all of her 14 tournaments and grabbed a tour-high six titles.

However, the hard-training and more talented Henin-Hardenne whipped her 6-0, 6-4 in the Roland Garros final and packs surprising power, cracking serves up to 115 mph, for a smallish 5' 5-3/4", 126-pound physique.

Although the Belgians have enjoyed a long friendship, they experienced something of a falling out recently. Clijsters has accused her compatriot of feigning injury to distract opponents and kill their momentum when she is losing. After Clijsters took the first set of the Acura Classic final, Henin-Hardenne took a five-minute medical break to change a bandage on her blistered foot. Henin-Hardenne insisted her injury was genuine. But after Clijsters lost in three sets, she charged, "I think she has probably had to do it in every one of our matches. It's a sign that she is not at her best, and so she has to resort to other means to get out of scrapes."

An all-Belgian final should provide both a touch of controversy and drama that critics claim the frequent all-Williams finals lack. But don't rule out an all-Russian final either.

Justine Henin-Hardenne packs surprising power and is also this year's French Open champion. — Pic. AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES-

Rapidly rising Maria Sharapova, a beautiful blonde 16-year-old who reached the Wimbledon fourth round, Nadia Petrova, an immensely gifted all-court shot maker, and ruggedly built, 18-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist, could make career breakthroughs during the second week. And that dynamic trio ranks behind compatriots, No. 10 Anastasia Myskina, No. 16 Elena Dementieva, No. 18 Vera Zvonarova and No. 21 Elena Bovina.

Whoever best handles the heat, fickle fans, ever-present media, the sensory overload and seven tough opponents will stand the best chance of winning the $1 million first prize (out of the total purse of $17,074,000, a high for all sporting events).

"It's different out here," as the quasi-slogan goes. And all those differences make the U.S. Open the best theatre in New York for two weeks.