The biggest tennis tournament in America has an enormous support staff: ushers, trainers, media coordinators, security guards, statisticians, equipment managers, court attendants, and more. But at 10:30 Thursday morning, what the U.S. Open doesn't have is anyone to clean up the big puddles on Court 6. The umpire pulls a half-dozen towels from a bin near the players' seats and starts mopping up the water herself. Three ball boys and a ball girl mill around, then quickly form a line and assume the familiar ball-boy stance, hands clasped behind backs, as the two players approach the court. When the match begins, the 11 people on the court outnumber the crowd of eight. So begins another day on the satellite courts of the U.S. Open.
Most U.S. Open matches are played outside the National Tennis Center's three big stadiums, on rows of ground-level hardcourts lined with bleachers. On Thursday, these 15 small courts are filled with a jumble of juniors matches, wheelchair tennis, and made-for-the-fans exhibitions of aging former stars. It's a small-time day of tennis in the midst of a big-time event.
The match on Court 6 is between 17-year-old American Ashley Weinhold (world rank: 567; career earnings: $6,624) and Sacha Jones (world rank: 752; career earnings: $1,572). Weinhold takes the first set 6-2 by cannily changing angles and elevations. But Jones, a power hitter from New Zealand, pounds her forehand increasingly harder as the match wears on. She wins the second set, 6-2.
Weinhold calls for a trainer for an upper-thigh injury early in the third set. While she's off getting taped up, the 15-year-old Jones sits in a chair, bouncing her legs up and down like the fidgety teenager she is. Her mother, Judith, who's made the trip from New Zealand with a family friend, shouts, "Let's go, Kiwi!" When Weinhold returns from her medical timeout, both players seem exhausted; neither can hold serve, and they exchange breaks all the way to 5-5. After finally holding, Jones wins the match with a ferocious overhead. Amid the cheers—the crowd has grown to more than 100 now—she jumps around and waves to her mom while Weinhold glumly unwraps her thigh.
Over on Court 14, boys' singles player Jonathan Eyserric gets some help from a heat-addled ball boy. The second-seeded Eyserric, a talented French lefty, is a set up on unseeded Michal Konecny but seems like he's about to give away the second. As Konecny serves at 4-2, 40-30, the ball boy, overwhelmed by the bright sun, loudly barfs all over the court at the foot of the umpire stand. He then stands up straight, hands behind his back, as if hoping that no one will notice. Then he leans over and barfs again. The ball boy is led off the court while an obviously grossed-out court attendant cleans up the chunks. Ten minutes later, when play resumes, Konecny double faults and Eyserric takes the game. He celebrates with a Tiger-esque fist-pump, while the court attendant behind him holds her hands over her face, trying to ward off the smell.
On Court 10, Mary Joe Fernández and MaliVai Washington are playing Gigi Fernández and Andrés Gómez in an exhibition mixed-doubles match. The former pros play to the crowd, clowning on the court. When Mary Joe Fernández's towheaded son yells, "Go, Mommy, go!" from the stands, the fans awwww in unison. On the next court over, wheelchair singles competitors Shingo Kunieda and Maikel Scheffers are well into the second set, and the more agile Kunieda is having his way. It takes a lot of impressively coordinated pivoting and braking to play wheelchair tennis—the crowd claps appreciatively at Kunieda's efforts to reach a lob. When I ask him after his win if this is his first Grand Slam, he shakes his head. "No, I won Wimbledon. … Well, doubles."
Far out on Court 15, six ball boys goof off, unobserved by their bosses. Not only do the outer courts have no U.S. Open muckety-mucks, there are no security guards. During Tuesday's rain delay, I walked onto Court 10 and ganked an Evian from the players' beverage cooler. Hey, they cost $4.75 at concession.
"The first few days on the outer courts are the best," a freckled ball boy with braces says. "On center court, it's the best players, but they're playing qualifiers, so it's like 6-0, 6-1. Out here you get number 40 against number 50, and it's a great match."
"I like working on Arthur Ashe better," his tall, floppy-haired buddy proclaims. "At least there you might be on TV."
It's 5 o'clock, and Ashley Weinhold is back, playing girls' doubles on Court 8. I'm sitting alone in the bleachers, writing in my notebook, when a thin man with wispy hair and a huge camera plops down next to me. "Taking notes on the girls, huh?" he asks. "She's nice." He shoots about a hundred rapid-fire photos of Ashley's tan, leggy doubles partner. Then he puts his camera down and says, "Nah, I'm just joking. But she's got that Dementieva serve going on, serving almost sidearm? Someone's gotta fix that pronto."
Creeped out by this only-in-tennis mix of lechery and technical expertise, I climb the bleachers to sit with Guy Weinhold, Ashley's father. "Sacha played great, don't get me wrong, but Ashley's body is just breaking down on her," he says. "Before the U.S. Open she played the U.S. Hardcourts in San Jose. … [S]he made the final. Then here, she played singles qualifying, where she lost in the third round. She played mixed doubles and women's doubles. Plus, juniors singles and doubles. She's pretty tired."
After she and her partner win, I tell Weinhold that her game reminds me of Justine Henin-Hardenne's. She nods eagerly: "I model my game after hers." I tell her that Henin-Hardenne was warming up two courts over while Weinhold was playing her singles match in the morning. "That's awesome," she replies, grinning.