Over the past two weeks, the U.S. Open put any number of pampered athletes in our midst – though “in our midst” might be an overstatement when they’re shuttled by limo from midtown suites to swank restaurants and escorted from air-conditioned locker rooms to the enclosed practice courts at the U.S. Tennis Center in Flushing, where fans can get a peek at their seeded heroes only by pushing through the shrubbery and eyeballing a gap in the windscreens. So why, this year, did Pete Sampras sneak down to the Brian Watkins Tennis Center courts on the East River just south of Houston Street to pound serves with his hitting partner? It’s the equivalent of Michael Jordan’s turning up at the cage at West 4th Street to practice free throws.
But maybe Sampras was just displaying the same savvy that has helped him capture more Grand Slam singles titles than any guy who ever touched a racket: Where better to prepare for the tour’s most notoriously distracting tournament – from the flight-path locale to the historically boorish fans – than down in Loisaida? Just outside the rest rooms, the Hispanic evangelists blare salvation through a massive P.A. system in Spanish and English to a crowd of mothers and children from the Bernard Baruch Houses. Pancho, the resident rooster, stalks about the court entrance, jabbing at a bowl of spaghetti mixed with cat food. A band of urchins swoops in on skates and circles the courts, poaching balls from the unsuspecting.
You can play the same people here for years without knowing their names: The older Chinese guy who slices all his shots, dropping everything maddeningly out of reach. The young woman with the gray hair who always plays the guy who covers all his tattoos in zinc oxide. The Samoan fellow who plays in blue jeans. The tall, bald, shirtless black man in aviator shades whose service motion uncoils as slowly as t’ai chi yet produces a flat, nearly untouchable missile. With that perverse pride particular to New Yorkers, these acolytes thrive on distractions that would send most club players home in tears. The ambient noise level is just shy of punishing. With the roar of the FDR feet away on one side, the cigarette boats churning up and down the East River on the other, and the cacophony of the Williamsburg Bridge vaulting overhead – its traffic washed out by a peculiar high-pitched shriek associated with construction slated to last another four years – even the most ardently shouted scores are lost in the mix.
The players are equally undeterred by the aberrant aromatics, from the exhaust of the FDR and the garbage barges wafting by to the raw sewage escaping from the manhole cover on Court 11. Even full-on projectile assaults merit only a raised eyebrow; the vintage-poster dealer with the bum elbow likes to recall the hubcap that came flying onto the court from the bridge above, nearly decapitating his opponent. I’ve been pelted with rocks and bottles hurled over the windscreen in mid-match by the idle delinquents prowling East River Park, and, once, almost beaten up for asking some picnicking revelers to turn their boom box down just a couple hundred decibels. The Newport Lawn Club it decidedly isn’t.
We know that most of the country would laugh at – indeed, would pave over – our idea of a place to “get in the game,” in the USTA’s parlance. But looking up from the drubbing I’m taking from the Chinese nephrologist who pummels the ball in perfect inverse proportion to his slight stature and affable nature, I can’t help being cheered by the sunlight lingering like rust on the girders of the span above. The domino sugar sign lights up across the river, where the hubris of the Open unfolds. Right here, however, a train is squealing overhead and a shouting match is erupting on the next court – the kind of cross-training that even Sampras, it seems, would dodge a few rocks for.