I was prepared to deliver a eulogy to Grandstand last year — I might’ve even spent much of the 2014 US Open convincing myself I was ready to say goodbye.
Early in the second week at the 2014 US Open, I sat court-side and watched Kazakh Zarina Diyas retire with little fuss due to a shoulder injury as she and partner Xu Yi-fan trailed then-No. 3 seeds Cara Black and Sania Mirza 1-6, 0-1 in the women’s doubles quarterfinals. As I watched the four players shake hands and chair umpire Gabriela Zaloga announce unceremoniously that we wouldn’t be seeing any more tennis, I, perhaps rather selfishly, felt a little cheated.
“That’s it? After all these years, that’s how this place is going to go out?”
Thankfully, it didn’t (and I still don’t know why we were all convinced 2014 was the end) — but we got one final ride.
What a ride it was.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes Grandstand so spec– ah, who am I kidding. It’s actually really easy.
For nearly 40 years, Grandstand was the best-kept secret of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the US Open — and after the restaurant, Racquets, was removed from the side of the court in favor of covered seating in 2003 — the stadium became also became the most intimate place to watch a tennis match on the grounds. Nevertheless, in an age where modernization is mandated — not innovation — Grandstand saw challengers to its throne pop up in recent years.
Court 17, completed in 2012 with a capacity of about 3,000, took its place as the coziest of show courts — in name only. While the sunken-in court is one of my favorite developments at the BJKNTC in recent years, its shiny metal bleachers and facade lack the charm of a stadium that’s twice its size. Court 5 (and this year, Court 4 and Court 6) were transformed from typical field courts to brand-new show courts equipped for television, but the courts’ close proximity to each other makes for a sensory overload, especially if more than one great match is going on at once.
Tucked away next to Louis Armstrong Stadium, Grandstand had none of that. From the ever-present popcorn smell that wafted up the stairs and through the concourse — you know, just in case you forgot to get snacks in the hour between the gates opening and play beginning; to the sprint up the Louis Armstrong Stadium stairs to the viewing deck between the two courts — you know, if you didn’t want to wait on the lines that snaked around to the court-level gates and wanted to get in some extra cardio, Grandstand was always the place to be.
For nearly four decades, Grandstand had a mystique all its own. Stepping on the court and knowing anything was possible that day; feeling as though you could reach out and grab the ball when seated behind the baseline (and not being surprised if one landed in your lap); seeing the ball kids huddled up in the shade, eager for a break from the mid-day sun, excitedly whispering and giggling about whatever it was they had done that day, or whomever they were starstruck by — all of that and more is what elevated Grandstand to cult-figure status.
And that’s not even considering the actual tennis played in it. Grandstand not only saw everything at least once in its entire tenure, but had a host of memorable moments in the comparatively short time since a 13-year-old me attended her first US Open in 2007.
It saw emotional comebacks, as American Taylor Dent returned from multiple back surgeries to win a marathon five-set match in 2009 — before grabbing the umpire’s microphone to let the faithful know just how much he loved them.
It saw recent history, as Maria Kirilenko edged eventual champion Samantha Stosur in a 17-15 tiebreak in 2011 — in what was, until this year, the longest women’s tiebreak at a Grand Slam.
It saw personal triumph, as Mirjana Lucic-Baroni defeated Simona Halep en route to reaching the second week of the 2014 US Open, before conducting one of the most raw, emotional and heartfelt press conferences the game’s ever seen.
This year, Grandstand saw it all — perhaps knowing, somehow, its days were near an end and wanting to give us a little bit of everything that made it the subject of folklore.
It saw one last win, as Mardy Fish gave the New York crowd a first-round victory to cheer before seeing his career end at the hands of Feliciano Lopez next door.
It saw one tearful goodbye, as Lleyton Hewitt said farewell to New York with a five-set loss to countryman Bernard Tomic.
It saw (more than) one incredible comeback, as Donald Young rallied from two sets down to defeat Viktor Troicki (4-6, 0-6, 7-6(3), 6-2, 6-4), and Sabine Lisicki came back from 5-1 down in the final set to defeat Barbora Strycova (6-4, 4-6, 7-5), to close out professional singles play on Grandstand as we know it forever.
Every year, just when you thought you’d seen it all — just when Grandstand thought it had seen it all — something else was waiting in the wings. Grandstand always found a way to deliver, to send you home with a memory you’d never forget. It proved to be the greatest value in tennis: buy a grounds pass, get cozy, stumble upon a classic.
Over the past four decades, the stadium that existed in the shadows turned out to be the one that shone the brightest.