When I found out that I would spent the fall semester studying in New York City, my excitement was so high that certainly I wouldn’t succeed in my attempt to describe it with words.
When I chose the exact date to move from Italy to my new home, I opted for a date that would allow me to attend the qualies at the US Open. Partly because there’s free entry, hence I could watch some tennis without spending money – a thing that, for a young student, is fantastic! – partly because the atmosphere at the qualies definitely reminds me why I love this sport so insanely. And, you know, sometimes, in life, you just need a reminder of what you love.
I landed at JFK airport on Thursday evening, at 7 pm local time. Fourteen hours later, I was on my way to Flushing Meadows. A way that, coming from Manhattan, is quite long – and not having a book, nor an internet connection on my mobile phone honestly didn’t help. After something like 20 stops, I finally reached Mets-Willets Point, where you always come across hundreds of people directed to the USTA National Tennis Center.
Before the entrance of the Tennis Center, there are some practice courts, which are accessible without a ticket even during the main draw tournament days. If you are in search of selfies or autographs, then you must go there, particularly during o’clock times, when players end and start their training sessions, and just walk by alone or with their coaches, chatting, laughing and stopping with fans. As the best appetizer, these practice courts increase the hunger for tennis: therefore, it’s time to step into the Flushing Meadows park. A (sad) note: flags are not allowed. If, like me, you are ready to cheer your compatriots, well… be ready to do it without a national flag. And if security tells you that they would keep it for you till the end of the day, don’t trust them.
For a tennis fan, Flushing Meadows is like the best theme park in the world. Particularly during the qualies. The main reason lays in the fact that, even though there is free entry, only people really interested in tennis chose to go there during the qualies. That’s because you won’t see a Federer match, a Nadal match, a Serena Williams match. Sure, you can see them practicing, but you won’t cheer for them, nor take a photo of a Federer tweener on Arthur Ashe to post on Facebook. I honestly don’t think that occasional fans would care for trainings or for matches between players ranked outside Top #100.
I already dealt with the fact that one of the reason why I love Internazionali d’Italia is because the food is great. Well, the Food Village at Flushing Meadows definitely can compete with Rome’s, and trust me, tennis gets you hungry. Moreover, even though the first impact may be that Flushing Meadows is too big, it’s not. Once you orientate, you will be able to move from practice courts to main courts to secondary courts in incredibly little time. Big screens project the schedule for matches and practice, so you won’t miss a glimpse of the players you’re there for! Furthermore, you will see players walking through the Park alone, just like any other fan or on-site worker, you will find an enormous amount of merchandising shops, sponsor’s gazebos with activities and games, children with yellow balls (often bigger than them) looking for an autograph, and atmosphere of general relaxation and genuine love for the sport.
The best players practice in super protected courts, and the reason could be easily understood if one looks at the amount of fans that are just waiting for them to cross the street and arrive on court. The way to watch them is climbing some stairs, till a terrace is reached, from which five practice courts are visible. They are placed next to each other without boundary. Today, I saw Nadal, Fognini, Kvitova, Bouchard and Wozniacki training at the same time. My eyes were a little bit fatigued, in the attempt to follow them all, but I will definitely do it again!
I still haven’t mentioned the main reason why I love attending the qualies so much. Yes, players practicing, players available for selfies or autographs, food, shops, everything. But to me, nothing beats the genuine emotions of players fighting for a spot in the main draw. They need that spot, they want it so bad, they are ready to fight with their heart to get it. They care, far more than how big players care in the first rounds of the tournament. Their tennis season, and sometimes their tennis life, depends also on the qualies of the slam. A participation in a main draw of a Slam is a dream, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that it guarantees a huge prize money, which in most cases can give players the opportunity to play further tournaments during the season. It is what they have been working for for their entire life. They get incredibly emotional, and those emotions are contagious. Here you get Stefano Travaglia lying on the ground after the third, and finally converted match point. Georgia Brescia rushing away in tears after a tremendous match lost after saving multiple match points, with disappointment depicted all over her face. Buznarescu’s team cheering for her after every single point, hyping the player and the fans around. Denis Shapovalov’s backhands lighting up one of the biggest crowds you’ll ever see in a qualies match. Leonardo Mayer smashing his racquet after his loss to Marterer. I could go on for ages.
Qualies are special. I dare to say that they are the quintessence of tennis. If you are planning to go to a Grand Slam, consider going to qualies. As I said earlier… you’ll be reminded why you love this yellow fuzzy balls so much.