I should have seen it coming. After all, I have a history of barely surviving tennis tournaments. Wimbledon, when I covered it last year, left me emotionally staggered and on the threshold of madness, convinced that I was a dream trapped inside the skull of the British Empire. What a jerk, right? And that was Wimbledon, the gentlest meadow on earth!
So yeah, I should have realized. I should have known New York City would be —
But look, it was a plum assignment. Sixteen nights at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, an all-expenses-paid trip to watch the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. I’d be hobnobbing with royalty in tastefully appointed wood-paneled elevators and seeing Serena Williams murder defenseless Estonians in front of a bloodthirsty home crowd. I had visions of marble bathrooms and evil drop shots. The Waldorf was where Lucky Luciano lived in the 1930s, the hotel that invented room service. The U.S. Open was where Novak Djokovic came back from two match points down against Roger Federer in their 2011 semifinal, where John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors to reach the 1980 final after losing the third set 6-0, the site of some of the most savage and beautiful tennis in history. How could I say no?
“Listen,” I said to myself as the plane came in over the city. It was a clear day and I could see the Statue of Liberty below, a keychain figurine propped on a sheet of gray water. “Listen, I know you’re nervous, but you have nothing to fear from New York. New York is the American dream! This is where you go to make it. To realize your destiny. All you need in New York is a knapsack full of hope and the courage to be true to yourself, and nothing can stand in your way. This is it, kiddo. This is the glittering mirage.”
Forty-eight hours later, I lay sobbing on the floor of my marble bathroom, vomiting mucus out of several orifices, sunstruck and with a filthy pizza box open beside my head. My entire body felt like the eyes of a terrified cow. That’s not true. My brain felt like the eyes of two terrified cows. Over the next two days, I suffered the ravages of a disease so vile, so catastrophic in its far-reaching effects, that I might not have withstood it if not for the heroic efforts of my hotel’s personal Kleenex-valet and most of the towel-warming staff. Somehow I had the gall to be surprised.
People throw around terms like “the common cold.” Here’s what I think happens. I think you fall asleep on a New York City subway car. Maybe it’s the 7 headed toward Times Square, maybe you’re on your way back from catching the night tennis in Flushing, who knows, and anyway you drift off for a second. And when you drift off, all the rats come out from the cracks and fissures in the train. And the rats tiptoe up to you, and —
I’m getting ahead of myself. The tournament started out fine. Monday morning I rode the E out to Roosevelt Avenue and then caught the 7 to Willets Point. One of the strange things about watching tennis on TV is that the tournaments all seem to take place in their own sealed worlds — fountains and artful foliage and public benches with no relation to any surrounding landscape. This is a carefully maintained illusion, but it’s also part of the appeal of tennis broadcasts: the idea that if you knew how, or could afford to, you too could pass into this manicured nowhere, with its one gate open on the real world and its other gate open on a Mercedes commercial. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center sits along one edge of a pretty park hemmed in between Citi Field and the Long Island Expressway. To get there from the subway you cross a long pedestrian bridge over an ugly quilt of industrial-athletic parking-lot space and rust bloom from the Long Island Rail Road. Well-trimmed dads in sandals and teenage girls wearing colorful Ray-Bans were streaming across the bridge, past lanyard-sporting guards shouting cheerful instructions about security gates and classes of ticket holder. You could buy programs and frozen lemonade. Scalpers in oversize hockey jerseys nipped at the edges of the herd like weak lions. “Hey, buddy, I got tickets. Tickets here. Tickets, buddy. Hey, buddy. Tickets.” Long, unmoving lines full of wispy boys in seersucker shorts and Pakistani families in matching brand-new Federer-logo hats trailed out from the entrance gate. The Open was initiating new security checks. Metal detectors podded together in the middle distance behind a labyrinth of complicated rope chutes, but there was a problem. Nobody seemed to know what, and nobody was getting in, and nobody seemed to know why. The crowd wasn’t angry, but you could feel the curiosity sharpening. People would be lost in their phones and then look up and crane their necks and scowl.
As a member of the working press, I was afforded access through the President’s Gate, on the other side of the complex, for players and VIPs. Here there was no crowd, only comfortable benches and greenery and — no kidding — a live harpist, playing soothing Roman-senators-at-the-baths music for the big shots and their entourages and me. Having survived Wimbledon, I knew that as soon as I went inside I would encounter my old nemesis, the Apparatus, the massive superstructure of data-collection and -mediation and -transmission that scaffolds every major sporting event. This year, I was determined not to let it overwhelm my experience, so I only ducked my head in at the media center — a hive of CCTV-enabled workstations, reporters flutter-typing, staff printing out quote sheets, photographers shouldering through with tripods, minder-flanked players being led into interview rooms — before I went back outdoors. It was sunny on the promenade, and as the fans wandered among the stadiums and courts, tournament-sanctioned hawkers tried to lure them into bright glassed-in showrooms. “This way, folks. Have your picture taken with the actual Mercedes that’ll go to the men’s champion. Doesn’t cost a thing!” Massive images of Sloane Stephens and Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams hovered above the glass. People were starting to line up for lunch at the food court, at Hill Country BBQ and Fresca Mexicana, for burgers and chicken tikka masala and cheese pizza. It smelled like everything and nothing at once.
I found my way to the press seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the centerpiece court of the tournament. And for the next few hours I sat outside and got too much sun and watched Venus Williams beat Kirsten Flipkens 6-1, 6-2. I watched Nadal beat Ryan Harrison 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 and got rained on. After it had rained awhile I left and bought a cookie. I was feeling remarkably good. Maybe I could do this. Maybe I could handle New York. On the sides of the nets they had these big plush decals for the individual tour sponsors, and between the men’s and women’s matches a couple of brisk guys would come forward and carefully swap them out, detaching the Mercedes logo and affixing the Chase logo or vice versa. At 30-30 in the first game of the first set against Nadal, Harrison hit an overhand smash into Nadal’s ad court, which Nadal somehow tracked down and parried with a high, twisted backhand flick that passed Harrison by curving entirely around the net post. The audacity of it made me laugh out loud. I went to the opening ceremony, where Lenny Kravitz played “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and fireworks sprayed out of the corners of the stadium and Billie Jean King gave Michael Bloomberg the key to the tournament and teased him a little about golf.
I’d been apprehensive, but it was just a good day at a sporting event. Maybe you’re better about this, but I’m so used to watching sports on TV that when I’m at a live match I’m often overwhelmed with sheer detail. Not having the filter put in place by producers and cameramen and commentators and onscreen graphics liberates you to notice everything, and there’s too much happening, you can’t possibly take it all in, you can’t possibly record it. “In the midafternoon, near the food court, a grandfather made his grandkids laugh by rubbing the head of a bronze statue”: That’s not part of the tournament narrative, but it happened, I saw it. The scoreboard at Ashe has a closed-captioning system, and when they play music between matches you can look up and see, splashed up in lights like the world’s weirdest public-address announcements:
IT’S ALL RIGHT
SHE MOVES IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS
LET ME SEE YOU
WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK IT
WHY WE GOT TO DIE AND
KILL EACH OTHER ONE BY ONE.
Anyway, that night I went out with some writers I know and drank too much whiskey. I wound up ordering Domino’s to the Waldorf Astoria lobby at 2 a.m., an event that I am almost sure caused the night concierge to spontaneously learn French. The next evening I was sitting at Ashe, still nursing a small headache but feeling OK, when a school of fish went shooting through my intestines and bad neon started happening in my head and I realized I had better get back to the hotel as soon as possible.
I was hunched over on the subway when 17-year-old American and tiny hero Victoria Duval upset 2011 champion Sam Stosur, the biggest narrative event of the tournament up to that point.
Here’s what I think happens. You fall asleep on a subway car, maybe the 7 headed toward Times Square, maybe you’re on your way back from watching tennis, and while you’re asleep all the rats slip out of their hiding places on the train. They tiptoe up to you, and then they just start licking you in the face. You don’t wake up, because you’re exhausted and maybe slightly immuno-compromised. And after a minute or so during which the rats bathe you in rat germs, Donald Trump slips out of his hiding place on the train. And because this is possibly a dream, and thus possibly more real than reality, Donald Trump has four spiderlike legs, and it is on these four oddly jointed and nimble legs that he skitters up to you. Donald Trump juts out his lips like a jellyfish and brings his head close to your head. And welcome to the jungle, baby, because now you have subway plague, because Donald Trump has just nightmare-licked you in the face.
So, yeah. People are gonna tell you stuff. People will say I “had a cold” or “felt a little under the weather.” Heck, when I’m well, that’s probably what I’ll say, because part of the horror of subway plague is that it erases your memory of what subway plague feels like. Don’t listen to those people (slash future me). What I have is evil. I have spent the last two days watching the U.S. Open on TV, from atop my giant white bed at the Waldorf, shivering and sweating at the same time, ordering $60 room-service breakfasts so I don’t have to go outside. The hotel staff has come to think of me as a tennis-hypnotized shut-in, perhaps with a certain fondness. I am good for a lot of up-charges, after all. There is something weirdly beautiful or luminous about watching Serena Williams win, or Vicky Duval lose,1 on a hotel TV unalterably set to the wrong aspect ratio2 while half out of your head with a fever, but I would not describe myself as an adequate tennis correspondent at this point. I will try to do better, and I imagine I will fail. It’s just … if the U.S. Open is made up of the discrete experiences of all 700,000 fans and 1,500 reporters who attend it, if it exists in crowd scenes and what you overheard in the security line and the taco you hated and the Nadal shot that brought you gasping to your feet from the particular location and angle at which you saw it, then what is this thing I’m seeing on television? Where is this broadcast from?
Well, I’m sure that’s a trivial problem for a philosopher, and when I am myself again I’ll try to pay more attention to backhand stats. This is America, right? It’s never too late! I’ll be on my feet again soon, and then, boy. New York, look out.