The US Open’s joyous many-ring circus

“Can you guys even hear me?” Naomi Osaka asked during Media Day last Friday as the US Open prepared to get underway at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Actually, we barely could, even with the roof closed over the impressive new Louie – as the Louis Armstrong Stadium is affectionately known – due to a soaking early-morning rain. Between the planes passing overhead and the marching band drumming outside, it was an effort. But as Osaka herself might say, “Whatever.” The Open is always a 10-ring circus, particularly with fun, free, frenetic Fan Week leading up to the tournament (now in full swing through Sept. 8). Those who survive and thrive – like Osaka, last year’s women’s singles champion – balance an attunement to others with extraordinary self-possession.

“I love you guys. You’re family,” Osaka said to the assembled reporters. But she was not above shutting her family down when a reporter asked about her relationship with Serena Williams, who tangled memorably with umpire Carlos Ramos last year during their fraught final.

“I think we’ve covered that,” Osaka said in response.

A month shy of her 22ndbirthday, Osaka said that she didn’t think it was a case of too much, too soon – in response to another reporter’s question – for Coco Gauff to be playing in the Open. (The 15-year-old phenom, who wowed Wimbledon, has been given a wildcard.)

“I mean, come on. She’s an American. This is her national tournament,” Osaka added.

Earlier, we had wound our way past Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, paced by that marching band, to make our way to the Media Center and the Louie and were rewarded for our efforts by arriving in time for Rafael Nadal’s press conference. Sporting rolled jeans, white sneakers and an abstract bull T-shirt and cap that evoked his nickname, “the Spanish bull,” the laidback Nadal offered a striking contrast to the preppy Roger Federer, who signed autographs for fans in a crisp olive shirt and jeans as Nadal spoke. The other member of the Big Three, Novak Djokovic, last year’s men’s singles winner, had a commitment elsewhere. But he was a presence in other ways. Outside, two little boys posed for their father with an image of him on a fenced-off area. And on the complex’s center stage, former world number ones Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport talked about how the Big Three’s conditioning has enabled them to play well into their 30s. Superior athleticism is the main difference, they said, between the tennis players of today and yesteryear.

That athleticism was evident in the third-round qualifying match between America’s Caroline Dolehide and Germany’s Anna-Lena Friedsam on Court 12. For many aficionados, the Qualifying Tournament on the outside courts is where it’s at, and we can’t but concur. Shorn of the bigger stadiums and the stars, the seeing and being seen, it’s just two (or four) young people battling it out to get into the main draw, with a constantly changing cast of fans willing them on. Sitting there with your notepad and coffee, watching sharp baseline rallies punctuated by occasional flashes of serve and volley, you realize that this is one of the rare experiences of pure, unadulterated joy.

Although this being the Open, you must also expect the unexpected. A man tumbled from his bleacher seat onto a group of us ladies. Fortunately, the only thing that seemed to be injured was his pride, and he quickly scooted back to his seat as we returned to the match, which was also dotted by a few raindrops and the ritual of the ball boys and girls wiping the lines with towels they held in one hand and stepped on with one foot. (And a good thing, too, as the courts are not only hard but nubby. Slip there and you’re sure to get an abrasion.) The ball boys and ball girls are truly a marvel – maximum efficiency with minimum intrusion.

Taking our cue, we left the match – which Dolehide went on to win 6-4, 6-3 – as unobtrusively as possible, seeking more refreshment. Earlier we had had one of the best beef hot dogs of our life at the Pat LaFrieda Meat Co., one of the many franchises at the US Open. Stupidly, we forgot that the Open generously gives the press meal money on the press credentials. No problem.

“I’ll refund it in cash,” the server said after we paid with a debit card.

“You are a goddess,” we responded.

She smiled before saying, “Hey, welcome to the US Open.”

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 – Georgette Gouveia

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