I went to the U.S. Open on Sept. 5, thanks to an invitation from Moet & Chandon after I interviewed the brand last summer.
But I’m not going to write about the tennis. That would be an embarrassment not only to me, but to the game itself. But I am going to write about going to the U.S. Open as someone who knows nothing about the sport, for the first time, and report on what it’s like to be here. Who’s here, and how is the atmosphere? That's what I'm excited to find out. (And hey, you can get the tennis stats basically anywhere else to fill in the blanks.)
At first a hired car dropped me mysteriously at Gate B. My driver said, “Do you know who you’re supposed to meet or where to go?” I said, “I know as much as you do.”
That would prove interesting at the Will Call window when I tried to pick up tickets under my name. They had nothing for me. Press? I tried. Nothing. Moet Suite? Still no. The guy at the window was stoic: Guess you’d better call someone. Do you have a contact here? Gee, no, sir, I arrived hoping you’d just let me in. I said just: Excuse me.
Calling my contact, it quickly became clear that he was standing about 15 yards from me, and so was someone dressed head to toe in Moet & Chandon gear. I’m wearing a white floral dress, I explain, so they can find me. The people in the lines around me are dressed in sporty tanks and shorts, visors and sunglasses. I imagine they’ll be outside, while I’ll be inside. At least, I sincerely hope so, or else I’m tragically overdressed.
I met up with the woman dressed in brand wear with an important-looking badge around her neck, and she lead me to a special access line where everyone in the dense security pool knew who she was, thank goodness. I felt less forsaken. Please don’t put me back in that car; it’s a long way from Flushing, Queens, back to my apartment in FiDi.
It’s always a mistake to relax too soon, of course. Everything was going swimmingly until we got up to the metal detector and bag search. “You can’t bring a laptop inside.” A guard told me firmly. My mind swam with sick images of going all the way back home to drop this off, then coming all the way back — a solid hour and a half would be lost. “But I’m here to work,” I said. “I’m press.” He looks skeptical. “Do you have ID?” I have to get my purse back from the guards to find my business card, closely supervised. Someone behind me brightly asks, “Wait, are you in a suite?” Yes, I tell them, holding up my ticket (again). “You’re good,” he says, not looking twice. The original guard says, “Sorry for the delay, ma’am.” Suddenly we’re all best friends. This is typical, my contact tells me as I finally get through the outer gates. “It’s like Fort Knox here. Unless you’re like us.” (He means the people headed to suites, but I can’t let it go to my head. I'm here for work-related reasons, just like the guys at the gate — except, hopefully, in air-conditioning.)
Progressing through the labyrinthine innards of Arthur Ashe Stadium is mostly a blur to me, with people and stands melding together. There are a few more security checkpoints; just when I think I can put my pass away, it has to come out again. “This is the last one,” my contact assures me as we pass a crowded elevator bank. He sizes up my wedges. “Can you do one flight of stairs?” Yes, definitely, I say. I’m just eager to get there.
Finally, just past the boutique POLO Ralph Lauren shop, we turn into the Moet & Chandon Suite. Inside are the celebrity guests, other press and members of the PR team who invited me. Moet & Chandon is an official sponsor of the U.S. Open. The suite is modest in size, but decked out in beautiful Moet bottles, delicious summer food (like lobster rolls, cheese plates and a cous cous salad). Unlike the TARDIS, it’s bigger on the outside. Plenty of seats face the tennis court – which is so much closer than I ever imagined. I scan for an outlet but see none, sadly. I’ll have to work mostly inside, hopefully between matches. But that’s OK; that’s where the AC is. That’s where the Champagne is.
First I take in a few sets of the mixed doubles happening outside. Play started late today; 12:30 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. I don’t know who I’m watching, at first, but I notice that the stands are still fairly empty. It’s a work day, and most people, if they’re coming at all, I guess, will be here later for the women’s semifinals with Serena Williams. I’ve just reached the extent of my knowledge of what’s happening today, by the way. But it’s still terribly difficult not to get swept up in the general excitement of just being here. At first I thought: Six hours of tennis? My God, I’d better bring my computer so I can get some work done. But as soon as I was comfortably seated with a goblet of Champagne in hand, I found myself practically whispering out loud: I never want to leave here.
I’m right on time, a thing that almost never happens, so it makes sense that more people filter into the suite behind me gradually. Most of them are beautiful; I imagine they’re all from France or PR. Only when Broadway star Alan Cumming enters the room and the introductions begin do I realize that TV personality Lo Bosworth and Victoria’s Secret Angel Lily Aldridge are two of the beautiful women around me. Well that makes sense; I feel less average (who can compare to a lingerie model?). Then I realize they’re both younger than me and feel suddenly very old at 29. You can’t win them all. “BCBG?” One of the lovely ladies around me proclaims, sizing up my dress. I have to smile: “How do you do that?” I’m glad I didn’t go with jeans. Or flats. Suddenly my feet hurt less, proud of themselves. They’re in BCBG too. I wish I had borrowed my wife’s expensive sunglasses, but who am I to even try to compete or impress around here? I’m a guest in another world today, just trying to take everything in and not embarrass myself too badly.
Tennis is still happening. The skinny girls take some food, cuing me that it’s OK to eat. At the moment, there’s too much going on around me. Someone wins the mixed doubles while I’m inside trying to connect to the spotty Wi-Fi. That’s OK, I was mostly engaged by the towel boys and ball fetchers. They’re perhaps even more intense about the game than the players — or, at least, they’re less controlled about showing their enthusiasm. Someone’s job is to hold an umbrella over the players on their breaks. We’re all working. I wish I could bring them a glass of cold Moet.
During a break between games, as the day transitions to the women’s singles, I decided to venture back out of my cozy suite and see what else is happening at Arthur Ashe Stadium. I let myself out and ask the doorman if I need anything to come back inside. He says no, he’ll remember me. I head out past the POLO store and a Carnegie Deli stand to Tony Mantuano’s Wine Bar. Many people were hanging out in the little café area, enjoying snacks and listening to the hum from the stands both in reality and through the nearby TV sets. I checked out the menu, finding myself absorbed by the idea of a mozzarella plate with olives ($12) or a rum raisin ice cream with sherry ($10). This is way, way cheaper than food usually is at stadiums I've visited, like Barclays Center or Yankee Stadium — not to mention Broadway theaters, where I'm 100% more likely to be spotted, where a bottle of $9.99 wine sells for $14 a glass. I feel like I almost HAVE to buy something. But when the server asks what I’d like, I know it’s silly to spend money when I have complimentary food where I just came from.
So I headed back to good old Suite 136. I saw that Carnegie Deli, like Wine Bar, also sold glasses of Moet & Chandon Imperial Champagne for $24; I assure you this isn’t true at the actual Carnegie Deli, but it’s kind of like the upscale version of all of the vendors at Barclays Center selling Bud Light for $11 per pint, so I shrug it off. There’s a short line here, so I decide to pick up a glass of Honey Deuce, the official cocktail of the U.S. Open. It’s made with Grey Goose, raspberry liqueur and lemonade. It’s $15, which is actually really reasonable for a top-shelf cocktail in NYC, and it even comes with a plastic souvenir glass. I’m not too ashamed to say that it really, really excites me to have a little gift from my first U.S. Open to take home. You’d think it was a crystal vase or something, the way I cradled it in my hand and cooed in appreciation. Can I steal one of the Moet & Chandon golden goblets, too, I briefly wonder.
I notice that there are U.S. Open Official Staff in the corridors, and chains that run between the hallways and the stadium. I ask my new buddy, the doorman, about this, and he explains that if people get up during the game, they have to wait for the appropriate window every three matches to sit back down. He says that this is less distracting for the players —especially given that people can be loud, use flash photography and noise-making technological devices and wear noisy outfits. But guests of the U.S. Open are overall good, he adds. There’s plenty of tradition that stays with the game of tennis, like dressing nicely and respecting the stadium etiquette. That being said, he adds, “Money doesn’t buy class.” Sometimes people can be rude or entitled. He’s also seen people try to sneak into suites or stalk celebrities (which is why he’s out there today). Not every suite has or needs a doorman; ours, Blake, says he’s paid well and treated very nicely by Moet & Chandon. Sometimes he’s allowed to take in some of the late-night games. He tells me that took this job because it gives him time to plan his novel, which is about the how humans connect. Our conversation veers to everything from the soul to the pyramids and modern medicine.
Eventually, I need to excuse myself and go inside. Blake is lovely, but he might be a little bored sitting in the hallway by himself and I have so many things still to learn. Plus, my drink is empty. Shuai Peng is now playing Caroline Wozniacki. With my cold Honey Deuce in hand, I take a seat outside and actually begin paying attention to the match. It’s exciting once I get the hang out it, and only gets more dramatic as Peng gets a cramp, takes a break, comes back to the court and plays until she has to resign. I was rooting for her, especially due to her cute pink outfit but also because I’d read online that China was very excited for her to be playing here today. Wozniacki doesn’t seem like a good sport at first, practicing her serve while the doctors are with Peng, but she seems genuine as she speaks to reporters after the match, sad that Peng couldn’t follow through after making it this far.
Disappointed though I am that my baseless new favorite lost her match, it does mean that Serena Williams will take the court a little earlier than expected. At some point during all of this, Cumming goes inside to take photos on the Moet & Chandon wall, and I get to finally say a proper hello as he passes me. But it’s also brief, so I don’t get to explain that I interviewed him recently over the phone for “Cabaret” (or become his new best friend). I figure that I’ll speak more with him later, but in fact we’re both busy and he leaves within a half hour (likely for his call time at the theater). He does, however, make a point to say goodbye to me, which I find eminently courteous. Shortly thereafter, Aldridge also leaves for some Fashion Week engagements.
I eat some food and freshen up my glass of Moet Ice Imperial, a new Champagne specifically designed to be served over ice, before going back outside to catch one of tennis’ most famous females play. She’s up against Ekaterina Makarova. Williams is the obvious favorite, with people in the stands often screaming out her name and cheering her on. She’s got the poise and presence of a superstar, and it’s hard not to be awed by her. Usually, I love an underdog, but I quickly jump on the Serena Williams bandwagon. She’s focused and intense, grunting unapologetically as she swings her racket and makes contact with the little green ball. I’m impressed when the speedometer says 70, because I have no reference for this, but it jumps wildly up to 97, 103 as the match heats up.
My car is supposed to arrive at 5 p.m. I can’t believe how fast the past 4.5 hours have flown by. During a break between sets, I try to leave, but my PR host stops me and says he’ll tell the cars to wait outside. There’s so much energy in both the stadium and our suite right now, so he can probably sense that I’d be disappointed to leave right in the midst of the day’s biggest match. I wonder if I’ll have time to refresh my glass of Champagne and decide to just go for it. It’s my one day at the U.S. Open! I drink and watch the match proceed, more rapt than at any other point in the afternoon so far, feeling like I finally understand what’s happening and even enjoy it. But then, around 5:40, the game ends— Serena Williams wins!— and it is time for me to really leave.
I know that most people don’t get to see the U.S. Open from a private suite. But they do all find themselves in this uncannily upscale atmosphere, on their best behavior, people-watching as much as watching the game itself. They all get to dine in the little arena hubs of celebrity chefs like Mantuano and Masaharu Morimoto (ACES) and David Burke (Champions Bar & Grill). And they all get to drink Moet & Chandon Imperial Champagne all day, if they want to, just like I had been. And really, for me, that will forever be the real association of what it’s like to attend the U.S. Open: Champagne and an amazing, memorable day of sports — I never would have imagined it, but now I’m excited to picture myself there again next year. I mean, heck, I've only just started to get the hang of tennis.
For more on entertainment in NYC, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.