June 29, 2015


New York and September said in the same breath often bring back memories of the twin towers -- 9/11/2001. But not for me. 9/1/2002 is what I remember, because that's the day I saw my two idols Pete Sampras and Roger Federer at the US Open.

It was my first time at the Open and I had grounds passes for fourth round play. As tempting as it was to buy an Arthur Ashe stadium ticket to watch the top seeds in action, my inner voice reasoned, "Why should you pay so much to sit so close to the heavens?". Ah, the smart inner voice saved me at least $40 then but that wasn't all as I would find out later. So there I was, armed with a $20 pass to roam around the USTA Center at Flushing Meadows all day long.

What started off as a bright, sunny day when I left my home in not-too-far-away Connecticut turned into a cloudy, grey cover that threatened to burst at any moment. No amount of hoping and praying could hold off the rain in. It began to pour around noon and it was relentless. I hallucinated that I were at Centre Court Wimbledon, at that Cliff Richards were singing but no! It was only piped music -- Nelly's 'Hot in here', Enrique Iglesias' 'Hero' and I think there was some Shakira, too. Whatever it was, it didn't matter. No one was enjoying the party and organisers finally announced that if rain didn't let up by 5 pm, play would be called off for the day and ticket money refunded.

There were loads of sighs, "I can't believe this shit" and much worse expletives. Deciding to have some fun on an otherwise gloomy day, I walked out to the refreshment stands to get a beer. I wish I could say that I bumped into Sampras and Federer while at the stands but no, that's not what happened. It was something even better. In a sheer moment that can make one believe in many things unbelievable, the rain slowed to a light drizzle and the sun came out, first slowly peeping from behind the clouds, and then in all its glory!

Dare I hope?

No, not yet but there was a sudden flurry of activity -- covers removed from the courts, water sucking machines (or were they vacuum cleaners of some sort?) doing their thing, ball kids with towels wiping everything they possibly could -- and the crowd was slowly getting back into it, cheering everyone and everything on. I ditched my beer and rushed to the Louis Armstrong Stadium, or was it the Grandstand court (they are adjacent to each other), which was starting to fill up and grabbed a seat in the front row near the service line, just watching and taking it all in. In some time, the announcements about court assignments began, and that's when the excitement kicked up another notch.

Usually, the schedule of play including which courts would feature which players is published ahead of time but because everything was so delayed due to the rain, the backlog was massive and there were readjustments galore. Even the top seeds weren't safe inside Arthur Ashe stadium. I only cared about one match -- Pete Sampras' very delayed third round against Greg Rusedski -- and when it was called for the court where I sat, I knew that it was my reward for having turned my back on the beer!

I didn't know how much longer Sampras, my 2nd tennis idol after Ivan Lendl, would continue to play. Rusedski had said that Sampras seemed a step too slow before the Open began and I remember wanting to punch his face if I ever came close to it, and here was my chance! Well, I could at least heckle him, couldn't I? Nervous excitement filled me, much like when I used to ready up for my matches, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Amidst all the music and announcements, all of a sudden the players walked out on court, Rusedski first waving to everyone followed by Sampras with his usual half smile and bent head. I had tears in my eyes -- not sure if it was the emotions or the pain from the pinch I had given myself to confirm that I wasn't dreaming. Sampras hit one perfect serve after another and volleyed with such precision that I felt like it was going to be his year again, irrespective of what the critics said. I don't remember how long they played, but I had screamed myself hoarse in the 4 sets that it took for Sampras to win. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to punch Rusedski's face; even first row seats court side didn't get me that close.

The many non-stadium courts that make up the USTA Center had matches of top seeds aplenty. Lleyton Hewitt, the defending champion, was playing Jiri Novak. I watched for a bit but even Hewitt's fist pumps and "Come on!", couldn't keep my attention. My thoughts kept drifting back to the match that had just finished. So I got out of there and headed to the refreshment stand, and on the way passed by a board that said M. Mirnyi versus R. Federer. I had watched Mirnyi (who was called the Beast) at another tournament and found his serves to be deadly and ground strokes really smooth but Federer, I had heard of only in passing.

Must've been serendipity. The players had only then come in for a changeover and the ushers were letting the crowd get in and out. So I walked in and sat on the bottom most steps of the gallery. The instant I watched Federer serve, I knew I had found idol number 3. There was no effort, it was just poetry. As I continued to watch him play, his one-handed backhand, which I have a penchant for, almost made me tear up again. Unfortunately, Federer lost that match but as the cliche goes, won many hearts that muggy summer night with his genial smile, cute pony tail and razor sharp game.

As I had predicted (to myself), Sampras went on to win that year and Federer had to wait until 2004 for his first US Open title.

I've often wondered what would've happened if it hadn't rained that day and play wasn't delayed. What if I were a Hewitt fan and had stayed to watch his entire match with Novak therefore missing seeing Federer play? And what if I had got tickets to Arthur Ashe stadium instead of just the grounds passes? I would've been closer to the heavens but wouldn't have seen the Gods!

It's taken me 13 years to document this experience, and it was largely inspired by Rahul Jacob's article titled 'The joys of being a McEnroe and Federer fan' in the Business Standard, June 27 2015.

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