Unemployed guy fits right in at the US Open

Did I forget my deoderant this morning?

Did I forget my deodorant this morning?

Tourists and Manhattanites don’t come to Queens. They’re still scared of Brooklyn‘s tonier neighborhoods, where killer mothers, nanny henchmen and four-headed demon newborns of death rule the parks, boutiques and cafes. So this side of the East River, a little north of Brooklyn, where all the foreign people live, might as well be Sadr City for all the visitors trekking out here. Some crazy unemployed guy has an apartment here too, where he composes mad rants about the state of his life for the enjoyment of millions (by which I mean his wife, his mom, twelve unemployed people, six spam-bots and three of the Google hamsters running on a giant wheel out in Mountain View, CA. That is how they keep the Internet going, right?) Outsiders just avoid the whole borough of Queens. Someday, when average property values cross the half million-dollar mark, that may change.

But something happens here every summer about this time. Tennis fans return to roost, like swallows to San Juan Capistrano. The 7 train – called the International Express because of the many ethnic neighborhoods it passes through – becomes decidedly less international. Ultra-proper English can be heard. Country club attire can be felt brushing by. Hands can be seen protecting wallets and iPhones from would-be pickpockets reading or sleeping on their way home from work. The annual visitors follow the DIRECTV blimp floating high above Flushing Meadows. It’s US Open time again, and locals are warned to hide their Heineken. Here come the tennis fans.

I’m a card-carrying white person, but I’m not so big on the tennis. Sure, all the back and forth, combined with the grunting and sweating, can be exciting. But I still prefer to watch eleven large men in pads running into eleven other large men in pads, all of whom are grunting and sweating. (Maybe those last two sentences don’t belong together.) I played a lot of tennis as a kid, in summer camp and with my grandfather. We would hit tennis balls on his neighbor’s court many afternoons and then ruin our dinners with watermelon and root beer floats. But even fond childhood memories couldn’t make me a fan of the sport. Tennis can be kind of boring.

I went to the US Open qualifiers last Thursday. The week before the tournament, the wannabes and also-rans compete for the chance to lose to the players you’ve heard of. The timing once again lined up with my unemployment – another seemingly annual event. Entry was free, but the crowds were sparse – mostly teenagers and old people. It was a great way to spend a breezy summer afternoon, without shelling out your hard-earned tax dollars.

I watched Sam Warburg take on Michael Berrer on the largest of the courts outside the stadium. (Stadium courts are reserved for the real tournament.) The crowd routed for Warburg – the American – though he didn’t show much personality. He did let out a convincing grunt with each racket swing. Sometimes there would be a delay between swing and grunt, as if he’d momentarily forgotten and then remembered he was contractually obligated to make the noise. Berrer – the German – was much more fun to watch. He yelled at himself after bad shots and pumped his fist after good shots. He repeatedly excoriated the official for obviously bad calls. (The officiating was horrible all around.) His accent made the complaints sound more menacing than he probably intended. The players were evenly matched, and points sometimes stretched beyond my interest. Each player just toed the baseline and ripped shots at his opponent, only to have them returned. My neck tired from the constant head turning. Warburg twisted his ankle late in the match, giving Berrer enough advantage to pull it out.

I found myself easily distracted throughout the match, first by the corporate sponsor banners lining the court’s perimeter. Chase, American Express, J.P. Morgan, Citizen, and, of course, Heineken… are these companies targeting me and my vast spending power ($430 a week, baby)? Am I supposed to leave here and go buy a beer or a watch or an investment that gets repackaged and sold to another giant financial institution, over and over, until the economy crashes, I lose my job (were I to have a job, which I don’t) and they get government money to market to me at professional sporting events? I guess actively not caring about these companies and their products further proves I’m not a tennis fan. Maybe I’ve lived in Queens too long.

More interesting than the match and the advertising was the ball boy etiquette. Each match had a six-person ball boy crew. (Half the crew were, in fact, girls, but I’m not going to derail my informative yet whimsical prose with a pointless gender dispute.) Two were stationed behind each player and two manned (see, womanned just sounds weird) the net. Before a point, a ball boy offered the server a ball, and then another, and then another, from which the player chose two. The player served, the other returned it, blah, blah, blah. Afterward, a net ball boy fetched the shot that ended the point. Another offered each player a towel to wipe his brow and racket handle. The others threw balls to each other, ensuring that ball boys behind the server had an ample supply. The process repeated for a couple games. The players then got a rest, but a ball boy’s work is never done. One held an umbrella above each player’s head to block the hot New York sun. Others provided towels and water. The remaining stood at attention until the match started back up.

Being a ball boy is a science and an art. I found myself waiting for points to end so they could execute their duties. I even wondered what it would take to be a ball boy, aside from a time machine and parents who pay my bills. Could I dart across the court at any moment, scoop up a tennis ball and duck into my corner before a 120 mph serve took my head off? Could I remember how many tennis balls to offer up the serving player, and how and when he wants his sweaty towel? I don’t mean to sound flip. I actually thought about this stuff. Alas, it’s not the job for me. I need work that allows me to buy beer, watches and financial products. Maybe then I won’t find tennis so boring.

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