I had the night off on Wednesday, September 5, 2001. After covering night matches on Ashe for a good part of the 2001 US Open for usopen.org, I had taken the day shift that day so that I’d be able to see the Agassi vs. Sampras quarterfinal match under the lights.
I was 21 at the time, fresh out of college, freelancing as a researcher and reporter for a few sports publications and it was the first time I had ever been to the US Open and saw tennis live after a lifetime of watching it on television. Obviously, that match was the first time I had seen an Agassi-Sampras showdown in person. (For the record, I was rooting for Agassi, who I had always loved for playing tennis and living life like an overgrown kid, for better or worse.)
And damn if I didn’t feel like the luckiest rookie reporter alive. A four setter. No breaks. A competitive tie-break in every set. Andre playing classic Andre. Pete resurrecting classic Pete. And the crowd. The crowd was in it from the coin toss. Holding their collective breath on cue. Erupting with the typical New York over-enthusiasm at all the right times. Everyone aware that they were privy to one of those moments, one of those matches, that would show up years later on highlight reels and HBO specials. That they would be able to lay claim to their own sliver of immortality by being able to say, “I was there!”
Yes, it was that kind of tennis match, that kind of atmosphere.
And I don’t remember every single point of that match, though I remember a lot of them, and whatever I don’t have a clear memory of, YouTube can fill in the blanks. But I do remember with a clarity that is reserved for moments in life that are epic - sealed in a special vault called childhood, and savored for eternity as the “very first time” - exactly how I felt as I watched that match and throughout those two weeks. Pure, perfect wonder. Awash in the dewiness of a new career, and the start of my own life. The world dangling at the end of a string.
Not so incidentally, that same day, I had left for work in the morning from the apartment I grew up in on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and while I was in Flushing Meadows reporting on tennis for this site, my parents had moved to their new residence downtown in TriBeCa on West Broadway, on the same avenue and seven blocks north of the World Trade Center. So that evening, following witnessing the greatest tennis match I have ever seen in person, I rode the 9 train downtown from Times Square/42nd Street to the Franklin Street exit instead of the uptown 1 or 9 I usually would take, and I walked a few blocks south along West Broadway to my family’s new apartment, my eyes taking in the towers, with plenty of fluorescent office lights still aglow with workers burning the midnight oil, in front of me in my new backyard.
We all know what happened just six days later, on the Tuesday following the men’s final when Lleyton Hewitt improbably beat Sampras. I was home when it happened. Then evacuated. Then returned and lived for a while in the shadow of death and sadness. A friend of mine who was in the towers and escaped says 9/11 is like a rock thrown into water. The closer you were to the impact, the more violent and concentrated the emotional ripples.
The two weeks at the Open before 9/11 will forever be enclosed in a perfect summer snow globe for me, with every detail and memory of that time untouched. But the memories of the days and weeks that followed 9/11 are an unfathomable blur, tucked away somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain where I never let myself wander.
So, it seems somehow poetically right to me to be back here, working at the US Open and writing for usopen.org on the 10th anniversary of that horrible day because I will always associate the Open with who I was - what the world was - before 9/11.
Ten years later, outside the snowglobe, outside the bubble of tennis, so much has changed. But on the inside of this two week tournament, the purity of the experience is still the same.
Every year men and women step onto the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center grounds from all over the world, full of talent and dreams. Some of them fly in on private jets. Others scrimp and save to get here, and show up at the qualifying tournament in the hopes of making into the main draw. Some have the advantage of being born into privilege; others climb their way out of poverty using tennis and talent as their ticket to success. Once they arrive here, everyone has an equal shot to make a name for themselves. And somewhere along the way, stars are born. Hard work is rewarded. Headlines are written. Money is made. Records are broken.
I was reminded the other night of why this tournament is so special, and why so many people cherish coming here year after year, when 18-year-old Jack Sock and 19-year-old Melanie Oudin captured the mixed doubles title on Arthur Ashe. Like Pete and Andre’s match in 2001, every once in a while we are treated to something wonderful here, something rare.
These two young American kids entered this tournament as wildcards granted by the USTA and after taking out five veteran teams, left as champions, proving that the American Dream is indeed alive and kicking. They celebrated Friday night on the court, and laughed and stared into the flashing lights of the cameras with the distinct look of wonder that can only be found on the faces of those young enough not to want to hide it, realizing that everything in the world is just around the corner.
And maybe the Open is a perfect metaphor for what the true New York is and what it will always be, no matter who tries to change or destroy it. A beacon for those yearning souls from all over the world and all over the nation looking for their chance, looking for their ticket, and always being welcomed with open arms.