Day Nine: The Best Laid Plans

I had an idea of what I’d say in my WordPress post today.  I didn’t want to talk about tennis matches every day … but here I am at the US Open.  What can I say with a different slant?  I could talk about a pioneer, someone who has led, broken new ground.  “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Actually, a woman – Billie Jean King.  She fought for women to be recognized in the world of tennis, and for female players to be paid as much as the men.

But dear Billie Jean, the time is not right to talk about you.  I will do that later.  You have been nudged aside momentarily by Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian winner of the 2019 US Open.  She was playing against Greece’s Maria Sakkari, another charismatic player.  Their match started last night at 10:45 and ended at … 2:15 am!  I was going to write about Bianca developing a cramp near the end and grunting it out anyway, hobbling from side to side, trying to reach Maria’s laser shots.  Then I’d mention getting home at 3:00, and the precious few hours of sleep.

But dear Bianca, the time is not right to talk about you.  I’ve just come out of a match on Arthur Ashe – Canada’s Leylah Fernandez versus Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, the fifth ranked player in the world.  Elina was in masterful control, just as she has been for years.  She is seen as one of the two best players never to have one a Grand Slam tournament (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open).  The other player knocking on the door is Karolina Pliskova.

All Leylah has done so far in the tournament is beat two players who have been number one in the world – Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber.  Anticipating this afternoon’s match, one tennis journalist had this to say about Leylah:

Svitolina’s gift of a draw continues.  Fernandez looks like a star of the future, but she’s also way over her head at this stage.

The two warriors went toe-to-toe.  Three long sets, totalling almost two-and-a-half hours.  Many long rallies of more than ten shots.  Leylah finding severe angles to pull Elina off court and then blasting the ball into the empty corner.  Elina fluidly finding the open spaces with her controlled aggression.

I was enthralled with the speed of the shots, with Leylah throwing her arm to the sky after hitting a winner, drawing the crowd into a massive roar.  And we thousands of human beings filled the space with noise.

As a match duration of 2:23 ticked over to 2:24, a final shot sailed long over the baseline, and the contest was over.  We rose as one and bellowed our approval.  The miracle continues.

Leylah Fernandez

Day Eight: Laughing Faces

One of the coolest things is seeing people waving and jumping around on the big screens in Arthur Ashe Stadium.  When the players are resting between games, sneaky photographers are capturing spectator antics for 20,000 of us to see.  I love the sudden jolt from placid to animated as the stars of the show realize that it’s all about them for a few seconds.  Young, old, in between … the human spirit is on display.

Late afternoon I was sitting high in Louis Armstrong Stadium, waiting for my dear Canadian hero Leylah Fernandez to begin play.  My heart was jumping up and down, which could make it difficult to sustain life.  When you’re so full, you just have to turn around and share the joy with the folks sitting behind.  I had to make sure they were cheering for Leylah, rather than the German player Angie Kerber.

A young woman and two young men seemed quite happy to clap for Leylah.  Good.  Our little cheering section.  They were most willing to talk to an old guy.  I found that refreshing.

Interlude: It’s now the next morning, just before the first match in Louis Armstrong.  We’ve just been asked to stand for the national anthem.  It’s time to sing, and I do, even though it’s not my anthem.  Feels good.

Back to yesterday.  As Leylah fashions another improbable comeback, I enjoy the “Go Leylah!”s coming from my new friends.  They’re into it!  As a matter of fact, so am I.  I stand up and yell a lot as Leylah hits winner after winner.

As Kerber’s final ball smashes into the net, the stadium explodes!  Decibel heaven.  Leylah prances around the court, arms held high.  Did she really beat Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber in consecutive matches?  Two former Grand Slam champions?  Yes, this lovely about-to-be 19-year-old did exactly that.

Areeka, Eshan, Rohan and I go out for dinner after the match, each of us choosing our fare from the food court.  Areeka and Rohan live in Texas, while Eshan calls Massachusetts home.  We are soon joined by their friend Ronak, who lives in New York City.  The four became friends while students at the University of Texas.

We talked tennis as if I’d been part of their lives for years.  Really we were talking about life, disguised as tennis.  I thought of the US Open ticket for Friday’s day session.  “Just give it to one of them, Bruce.”  Ronak was the only possibility, since the others were heading home soon.  He beamed a “Yes!” at me.  It only took a few minutes to cancel my attempt to sell and transfer the ticket to Ronak.  He gets to see the first men’s semi-final on Friday!  And so do I … with my friend Carolyne.

Okay … it’s time to watch Belinda Bencic from Switzerland go toe-to-toe with Iga Swiatek from Poland.  I’ll see you tomorrow.

Day Seven: Old and Young and Everything Else

We’re all here.  Think of any trait that would describe a person, and it’s alive and well at the US Open.  The veteran of forty Opens, armed to the teeth with tennis statistics and history, looks across the stadium at a 10-year-old kid who’s dreaming of meeting her hero and someday playing on Arthur Ashe.

The US Open is played in New York City’s borough of Queens.  Here’s what Google has to say about the place:

Queens holds the Guinness World Record for “most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet”, and it’s also the most linguistically diverse, with at least 138 languages spoken throughout the borough.

Clothing, personality, sexual orientation, race … we’re one huge diverse family on the grounds of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center.  I love moving through the crowds, seeing parents and kids hugging each other, couples holding hands, and a fellow off by himself, apparently meditating.

I love being welcomed to the Open in the morning by smiling employees and being asked to “travel safe” by the Louis Armstrong Stadium usher as I begin my journey to the subway at night.

I love eating my eggplant sandwich at a shaded picnic table and welcoming Toby, who needs a place to sit.  We talk about … tennis!  Imagine that.  He knows more than I do on the subject.  Good for him.  I offer him a free ticket for Friday, September 10 but sadly he says no.  He has to be back to work in Vermont.  I’ll find some other nice person.  My friend Carolyne is joining me on Friday so I needed to find two seats together.

Life is good.

Day Six: Twin Roars

It was mid-afternoon.  I was watching a tennis match and wondering why I was so tired.  Then it hit me – I hadn’t had a coffee today.  Ah yes … my caffeine addiction.

Ten minutes later I was sipping the hot stuff in the open air, facing a big screen.  It was a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium (the big one), featuring Stefanos Tsitsipas, the number three player in the world.  His opponent was an 18-year-old “kid” from Spain – Carlos Alcaraz.  I’d never heard of him.

As my head slowly returned to the land of the living, I watched the match unfold.  It was tied two sets each, and they were well into the deciding one.  How is this young guy keeping up with Tsitsipas?  Alcaraz was blasting shot after shot into the corners.  Woh!

I sipped faster and then launched myself towards Arthur Ashe.  The score was something like 6-5.  This could be over in minutes and I still had escalators and concourses to navigate.  A delicious race against time.

I finally found a seat way up high, breathing heavily from the stairs.  My butt went down, my head came up, and there were two warriors facing off.  The score was 6-6 and we were starting the tiebreak.  First one to seven points, having to win by two.

We the crowd cheered after every point.  So loud!  Here’s a pic:

Who doesn’t love an underdog?  Thousands of us were urging Carlos on.

Suddenly it was match point … for the young guy!  Waves of sound rolled through the stadium.  A serve, then back and forth, and then a missile from Alcaraz that Tsitipas couldn’t reach!  It’s over!  Carlos is lying on his back on the court, stunned by what’s he’s done.  The roar from the crowd probably was heard atop the Empire State Building, many miles away.

I’m wiped.  Along with everyone else, I file out of Arthur Ashe, a process that took at least 15 minutes.  The stadium crew has to clean the stadium before welcoming new fans to the evening session.

I sit outside on some steps, trying to absorb what just happened.  An epic upset, and I was there.

And now for dessert.  I’m not only a day fan.  I’m an evening one.  My hero – Leylah Fernandez – is playing Naomi Osaka, formerly the number one player in the world, and now third.  Leylah is Canadian (like me!) and is about to turn 19.  She’s a huge underdog, playing an elite player, and for the first time playing in Arthur Ashe, the biggest tennis stadium in the world.

I climbed hundreds of steps (it felt like that) and gazed at maybe 15,000 souls, most of whom no doubt expected an easy match for Naomi.  Leylah had other ideas.

During the match, I stood up and cheered a lot, after brilliant Leah points.  Eventually I turned around and said hi to the couple sitting behind me.  Terry and Gavin are South African, now living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  We chatted on and off about Leylah, Naomi, Canada, the US, South Africa, Senegal and … beer.  Thoroughly nice human beings.

Naomi was serving incredibly well, and so was Leylah.  It was close but Naomi prevailed in the first set, as expected.  I was pleasantly surprised that Leylah was hanging with her.

Well into the second set, Naomi was inching towards victory.   But then Leylah really turned it on.  She won point after point.  Naomi smashed her racquet on the court, and then a minute later, threw it.  Both big no-no’s in tennis.  The crowd started booing her.  Leylah seemed unfazed by all the kerfuffle.

Leylah came up with the clutch points to win the second set.  As she walked back to her chair, her arm was raised.  The crowd cheered this young unknown tennis pro.

Third set – both players pressing for victory.  The crowd momentum clearly with Leylah now.  Brilliant shots from her, and some from Naomi.  I turn to my new friends and ask “Is this happening?”  It was.  Could two 18-year-olds engineer massive upsets on the same grand court, one after the other?

The answer was YES!  Naomi’s final stroke sailed wide.  Leylah threw her arms in the air and started bouncing around the court.  Arthur Ashe rang with decibels, with human beings standing and cheering.  Including this one.

O Leylah

O underdog

O Canada

Day Five: Almost Around

I sat on the steps of the New York Public Library, knowing that a dear friend was about to appear.  And here she comes … our arms open wide to each other.  Carolyne and I hadn’t seen each other for two years.  The moment was sweet.

We were off on a cruise that would encircle the island of Manhattan.  Once on board, we learned that Wednesday evening’s storm had dumped tons of debris into the Harlem River, blocking our way.  We weren’t shortchanged, however.  The ship took us up close and personal with shining skyscrapers and classic old apartment buildings.

At one point, Carolyne and I were joined by a gracious lady.  She was very tall and had a lovely green complexion.  For some reason, she kept her arm raised for the whole trip.  I didn’t catch her name.

Tim was the announcer on our trip.  He was full of good spirit as he told us story after story about NYC.  My favourite was when he pointed out the huge neon Pepsi-Cola sign on the east side of the East River, across from Manhattan. It was built many decades ago.  The story is that the Pepsi folks knew that the Chairman of Coca-Cola had a Manhattan penthouse that faced east.  So they put up the Pepsi sign that would greet him each morning.

You could tell that Tim loved his job.  He laughed a lot.

Carolyne and I had dinner at Jacob’s Pickles on the Upper West Side.  Speaking of which, I told her that I’d been using basic terms like “north” and “south” when talking to New Yorkers, and getting a few blank stares in return.  Carolyne educated me: the proper terms are “uptown” and “downtown”.  Who knew?

Anyway, back to pickles (fried that is).  Delicioso, especially when accompanied by honey chicken, a honey-laden biscuit and grits (a cornlike mush).  Praise the Lord and pass the chicken!  My stomach sang, until it got too tired to do much of anything.

I loved our wide-ranging conversations and our walk to Central Park.  We  passed ancient walkup apartments with scroll work on the stairways and walls.  And … on one little porch sat a husky, his head poking through the wrought iron railing, ready to be petted.  We did, and I’m sure the dog was smiling.  “He’s out here all the time,” Carolyne said. Talk about bringing happiness to the world.

Oh … and here’s a pic of a friend:

Day Four: Indoor/Outdoor

I’m sitting in Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open.  It seats 14,000 people but the ranks have been considerably thinned out tonight.  New York City is experiencing one heck of a rainstorm, and Louis Armstrong is … dripping.

There’s a squad of employees armed with 3-foot-long blowers, trying to demystify the court.  Seemingly a hopeless task.

The architect had a good idea to cope with the city’s sweltering summers.  Have two facing walls be louvered – like blinds.  So metal pieces are angled – low to the outside and high to the inside.  The cross breeze will cool off the spectators, and of course no rain can get in.

Except during this evening’s monsoon.

News flash!  The bowl of the stadium has been evacuated.  I put my umbrella up fast when the rains really busted through the levers, and within seconds it was inside out and angled to the wind.

Now I’m in an entrance to a washroom, huddled with about ten other folks … and not being rained on.  Convenient if ever I need to pee!

Now we’ve been ushered down to a lower level.  “It’s not safe up here!” says a staff member.  I consider that an exaggeration but who knows?

I figure that there’s no way that play will resume tonight so maybe I’ll mosey over to the subway.  Of course I haven’t looked outside recently.

Downpour!  Hundreds of us splashing through puddles and holding fast to our umbrellas.  Perhaps a thousand of us swishing our MetroCards and squeezing onto the subway platform bound for Manhattan.  No exaggeration.

Next in line for the day’s events is an announcement: There’s so much water on the tracks that we have to move to another (safer) platform.  So we slowly proceed there.   No shoving, and even a laugh here or there.

When I climb the stairs, I’m greeted by a subway train as full as you can imagine.  I have no idea how they’ll get the doors closed.  And – get this – the sardines on those cars stayed that way for a good twenty minutes, packed in, train staying put.

Finally the doors closed, squeezing folks in even more tightly, and they were off to the west.  Soon another train appeared and it was my turn.  We were pleasantly full but not within kissing distance.

I asked my neighbour how I would navigate the flow of humanity between me and the door when it was my stop.  She smiled and told me no problem – “New Yorkers move over.”  She was right.

There’s a pub called PJ Horgan’s a few doors down from my Airbnb and I’d wanted to visit. I walked in, talked to the bartender for a minute or two and then realized … “You’re soaked through. You’re cold. Go home.”

I followed instructions.

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Day Three: Size Matters

One of the reasons I wanted to come to the US Open is that the center has the largest tennis stadium in the world.  Arthur Ashe Stadium can seat 23,000 people.  I wanted to hear all those folks cheering the world’s best players during the evening sessions.  Nighttime in New York!

My seats in Arthur Ashe are about as high as you can get.  So far I have been directly behind the baseline, looking almost straight down at the players.  It’s a weird angle, and they’re so tiny.

As the Open enters its second week, Ashe will get more full.  But right now it’s half or less.  Hope springs eternal that the roar of 23,000 fans will blast my eardrums in the days to come.

Now … consider Court 17.  Here’s what it looks like:

Twenty-five hundred folks, and it was rockin’!  I could see the sweat and hear the breathing as Federico Coria or Gael Monfils lunged for the ball.  Yes!  This is what I want.  Small is beautiful.

Speaking of which, one of the matches on 17 featured Emma Raducanu, a teen from Great Britain.  A tiny girl in the front row held up a homemade sign for Emma.  As the breeze tossed it around, I could read the word “Love”.  Emma smiled back.

At the end of the match, which Emma won, she spent at least ten minutes signing programs and giant tennis balls.  Selfies abounded, always with that giant smile.  Every little kid who came up to the low fence bordering the court was “seen”.  Lovely and just what the world needs.

I’m happy.

Day Two: Sweat

I was standing on the platform of the Mets – Willets Point subway station yesterday – dripping sweat.  It was 11:30 pm.  What an adventure to be bathed all day.  The players were shining in the sun, and so were my 50,000 viewing companions.  At home, I’ve mostly lived in my air conditioning bubble, but not so in New York.  I have a fan in my Airbnb room and I have it on full blast all night.

My day started with a woman, and ended with another one.  Rohina and I met in the Airbnb kitchen.  She works for Unicef and will soon be off to Africa for a short-term posting.  There’s a gentle smile and a love for New York City.  “It doesn’t matter that I’m brown and a woman.  It’s New York!”  I felt the instant connection. 

Since Rohina leaves in a few days, and I get home around midnight each day, it’s likely we’ll never see each other again.  Ah … the moments.  I told her about one of the passwords I use: “lasttime”.  You never know.

At the end of the day, I got off the subway at the 52 Street station.  I was face-to-face with a old woman wearing a head scarf.  She was crying.  “I missed my stop!”  I know all about being frazzled for a reason that other people might find frivolous.  Such as me getting back on the bicycle.  Compassion is needed.  The woman told me the stop that was hers and I walked down the stairs with her and then back up to the other platform.  “Get on the next train and then get off at the first stop: ‘Woodside – 61 Street’.”  She asked me to wait with her on the platform, and I did.  As the train inched away, we waved and smiled through the pane of glass.

At the US Open, the crowds were ginormous.  I loved it!  As we filed out of the tennis center in the late evening, at one point we were funneled towards a narrow stairway.  We advanced slowly to the stairs.  No one pushed.  A woman to my left paused and let me go first.  Lovely.

See?  I wrote an entire post without mentioning tennis matches!

Day One: To New York City

The blog posts I’ve most enjoyed writing have been part of a trip.  And here I go again.  I’m heading to the US Open tennis tournament.  Adventures will abound over the next sixteen days.  And I’ll try not to write about tennis all the time!

Toronto Airport is where I sit.  I hadn’t driven the two hours from Belmont, Ontario to Toronto for eighteen months.  This morning I welcomed the 401 highway as an old friend.

The airport is quiet.  Only passengers and employees are allowed onsite.  I wait happily in the departure lounge. 

As I walked the long halls to Gate F98, the moving walkway hummed beside me … empty.  Until two little girls on their scooters came rambling along – going the wrong way on a one-way street.  And here came a young couple entering the walkway, masked up like all of us.  They noticed the sliding kids at the last second, and I think their faces tightened.  It definitely looked different than when folks smile under their masks.  I wanted them to celebrate the exuberance of childhood.  I guess they had other ideas.

And now the plane. I was thrilled to have a window seat. Minutes after sitting down, however, everything shifted. I started talking to the young woman who had joined me. She mentioned her husband, who was sitting two rows ahead. Bam! Window seat out the window and I heard myself offering to switch so they could sit together. No thought … just a flooding of words. I marvelled how something so important could shift to meaningless.

My new seatmate was another woman, maybe ten years older than the first. We talked briefly about visiting New York. I told her about two of my local favourites: the Circle Line cruises around Manhattan and McSorley’s Pub. I was super duper enthusiastic, and she went quiet. Memories of “You’re too much, Bruce” came for a visit. I decided to be silent and see if she’d initiate more conversation. She didn’t. So we just said goodbye on landing. Should I tone it down? Am I scaring some people? No and yes. Marianne Williamson appeared in my brain:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?”  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us.  It’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

And that’s enough for tonight.

The Little Girl and the Doll

Christmas morning 1952.  Light drizzle was falling as my sister Jill and I ran out of the Methodist church, eager to get home and play with the presents Santa had left for us and our baby sister Sharon. 

Across the street from the church was a Pan-American gas station where the Greyhound bus stopped.  It was closed for Christmas but I noticed a family standing outside the locked door, huddled under the narrow overhang in an attempt to keep dry.  I wondered briefly why they were there, then forgot about it as I raced to keep up with Jill. 

Once we got home, there was barely time to enjoy our presents.  We had to go off to our grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner.  As we drove down through town, I noticed the family was still there, standing outside the closed gas station.  My father was driving very slowly down the highway.  The closer we got to the turnoff for my grandparents’ house, the slower the car went. 

Suddenly my father u-turned in the middle of the road and said “I can’t stand it.”  “What?” asked my mother.  “It’s those people back there at the Pan-Am, standing in the rain.  They’ve got children.  It’s Christmas!  I can’t stand it.”

When my father pulled in to the service station, I saw there were five of them: the parents and three children – two girls and a small boy.  My father rolled down his window.  “Merry Christmas,” he said.  “Howdy,” the man replied.  He was tall – had to stoop slightly to peer in the car. 

Jill, Sharon and I stared at the other three children and they stared back at us.  “You waitin’ on the bus?” my father asked.  The man said they were.  They were going to Birmingham, where he had a brother and prospects of a job.

“Well, that bus isn’t goin’ to come along for several hours and you’re getting’ wet standing here.  Winborne’s just a couple of miles up the road.  They’ve got a shed with a cover there, some benches,” my father said.  “Why don’t you all get in the car and I’ll run you up there?”

The man thought about it for a moment, then he beckoned to his family.  They climbed into the car.  They had no luggage, only the clothes they were wearing. 

Once they were settled in, my father looked back over his shoulder and asked the children if Santa had found them yet.  Three glum faces mutely gave him his answer.  “Well, I didn’t think so,” my father said, winking at my mother, “because when I saw Santa this morning, he told me he was having trouble finding y’all, and he asked me if he could leave your toys at my house.  We’ll just go get them before I take you to the bus stop.”  And all at once, the three children’s face lit up, and they began to bounce around in the backseat, laughing and chattering. 

When we got out of the car at our house, the three children ran through the front door, straight to the toys that were spread out under our Christmas tree.  One of the girls spied Jill’s doll and immediately hugged it to her breast.  I remember that the little boy grabbed Sharon’s ball, and the other girl picked up something of mine.

All this happened a long time ago but the memory of it remains clear.  That was the Christmas when my sisters and I learned the joy of making others happy.

My mother noticed the middle child was wearing a short-sleeved dress so she gave the girl Jill’s only sweater to wear.  My father invited them to join us at our grandparents’ for Christmas dinner but the parents refused.

Back in the car on the way to Winborne, my father asked the man if he had money for bus fare.  His brother had sent tickets, the man said.  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out five dollars, which was all he had left till the next payday, and pressed the money into the man’s hand.  The man tried to give it back but my father insisted.  “It’ll be late when you get to Birmingham, and those children will be hungry before then.  Take it.  I’ve been broke before and I know what it’s like when you can’t feed your own family.”

We left them at the bus stop in Winborne.  And as we drove away, I watched out the window as long as I could, looking back at the little girl hugging her new doll.

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