THE POWER OF ASHE: An Up-Close Look From Row Two of a Mighty Tennis Arena

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Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Bill Simons

NEW YORK—Courtside on Ashe Stadium is one of the most awesome places to watch tennis in the world. And tonight I sit in row two, just behind the umpire’s stand, in the mighty arena – a vast venue for an intimate game. Here, the din imposes.

A mountain of stands looms high above me. One word comes to mind – power. I feel like a speck. What, I wonder, can really be seen from row Z?

Here, the athlete’s muscles flex – every twitch before your eye. The ball zooms – a yellow blur. TV crews leap into place. Ball persons curl low, then snap upright. Unlike those at Wimbledon, they mumble small talk. Their banter yields muted smiles.

A photographer’s lens protrudes. Madison Keys dominates Kaia Kanepi until her forehand flies long. The 22-year-old winces. Then, when she captures the first set, she yelps, “C’mon!” Behind me, uptown women chat about amazon.com, local baristas, and deals at Macy’s. Accessories baby, accessories.

To my right, the ITF chief sits still in the front row of the President’s Suite, which attracts the usual array of glitterati: Federer’s agent Tony Godsick, his wife Mary Jo Fernandez, Wimbledon chief Phillip Brooks, Jim Courier, Katie Couric, Rosie Casals, Virginia Wade and P.K. Suddan.

Before me, the courtside area is a surprising hodgepodge of clutter. Here, there is little of the minimalist order Wimbledon boasts. Instead we see a maze of wires, bags, towels, ball containers, cameras, microphones and a kneeling ball girl poised and ready to pounce.

Then – OMG – I spot the famous linesperson who prompted Serena’s fierce US Open threat, “I’m going to shove this f—–g ball down your throat!” The lineswoman calls fault. Her voice echoes through the rafters. During changeovers, burly security guards stand strong, with just a hint of menace.

As Boris Becker hobbles into the President’s Suite, I joke to the photographer next to me about the three B’s: Boris Becker, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Peter Bodo, all navigating the Open on crutches. All the while the uptown girls pingpong from shopping chatter to encouraging their fave. “Yeah, Madison! You got it! C’mon – whew! We got your back!” they shout.

All the while, up in Trump’s luxury box, there’s no sign of the power clan. Six seats to my right, Rennae Stubbs offers color commentary, and the match marches on. Madison is in firm control. Her march to victory won’t be deterred. Volley winners, succinct fist pumps, clear focus.

Kanepi drapes her head in a towel. Her realization is clear.

“C’mon Madison, close it out, we’re here for you!” yell the uptown girls. Keys blasts a 97-mph serve – ace. Her coach and her agent, Lindsay Davenport and Max Eisendbud, lean forward in the Friends Box with few hints of tension. All the while the chatter dances on.

There would be little value in the ref telling the crowd to “shush.” The white noise, an audio buzz, is an Ashe fact of life; deal with it. The blunt truth is that during ho-hum matches, fans have more interest in chatting up their friends than following the less-than-compelling action. Ashe is a kind of a party in which tennis occurs.

Anyway, the dominant Keys tidily wraps up the one-sided affair. She lets out her usual yelp of joy and beams. An army of folks swarms before me: cameraman, technician, WTA handler, tournament supervisor, security guard, and an impeccably dressed announcer.

Four Americans are into the semis. Who’da thunk it? And Madison knows how huge it is for her to at last reach the semis of the Open. She says that in late May when she was coming back from the French Open to the US to face a second wrist surgery, she never would have imagined being where she is right now.

And few imagined 49 years ago, when Open tennis began, that there would be a mammoth sports palace – so loud, so powerful and wonderful – to showcase a modest game that humbly began amidst the country quiet of English lawns.

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