Tracy Austin with fans at Member Appreciation Day at the US Open.
© Mike Lawrence
By Nicholas J. Walz
Friday, August 31, 2012
In what has become a summer rite at the US Open, USTA members line up under the Chase Center overhang near the East Gate on this day -- USTA Member Appreciation Day -- and form their itinerary for their time on the grounds:
11:30 a.m.: Meet Tracy Austin, chat up a two-time Open champion.
Noon: Lunch, perhaps checking out the new Heineken Red Star Café next to Arthur Ashe Stadium.
1 p.m.: Find a shady spot for the Ryan Harrison/Juan Martin del Potro matchup inside Louis Armstrong Stadium, cheer on the American upstart against the 2009 Open winner.
3 p.m.: Move things over to Ashe. A college player, Mallory Burdette, gets a shot in the third round against Maria Sharapova after a great early run. We’ve got to be part of that crowd!
5 p.m.: Head to the US Open Bookstore and say hello to the legendary Bud Collins, as the Hall-of-Fame journalist and broadcaster will be signing his book, History of Tennis. One of the best tennis writers of all time, back at the Open. Wonder what crazy pants he’ll be sporting?
6:30 p.m.: Grab a quick dinner before heading back towards the Grandstand for one more "Top 10 player vs. native underdog" affair, No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic vs. Brian Baker. Could be in for a long one here, but really, do we want the day to end?
This was more or less the run of show for 30-year-old Will Pratt, a USTA member out of the Southern California Section, and his fiancée Richelle, two life-long tennis fanatics who participate in USTA League play each spring as part of their membership. They’ve never been to the Open before and were excited about the prospect of face time with Austin and Collins – "My mother would freak out for the autographs" -- and are "big supporters of all the American players."
"Coming to the US Open was a ‘bucket list’ item, for sure," said Pratt, who is one of more than 800,000 members who currently participate in USTA League competition. "I’ve been to the Indian Wells Masters a few times but never a Grand Slam. You almost don’t take vacation where we live because it’s the beach and it's beautiful, but we’ve always wanted to come to New York."
The couple has enjoyed the perks of USTA membership for just over five years and were among the crowd that experienced exclusive refreshments, entertainment, player appearances and a complimentary gift as part of Member Appreciation Day.
The two feel a reciprocal feeling of thanks towards the national governing body of tennis.
"It's kind of funny because Richelle and I met because of the USTA," said Pratt, who lives in Costa Mesa, Calif. and met his 28-year-old bride-to-be as opponents in a doubles match five years ago. "She beat me, unfortunately, but I made sure to ask her out at the net when it was over."
Retreating from the Friday heat, the hundreds from all across the country and 17 USTA sections took to inside the Chase Center between matches and enjoyed Hospitality Pavilion pampering. There was also some crossover, as parents and kids took time to stop by the US Open American Express Fan Experience to enjoy the gaming stations, hitting bays and clinics going on throughout the day session.
"You love the Open because there’s so much to do," said Samuel Wahli of Smithtown, N.Y., attending with his two kids – Samuel Jr., 16, and Shari, 13. "It’s a sport that we can enjoy as a family and still have everyone entertained."
USTA Membership is a fantastic avenue for recreational tennis players in the United States to play in organized leagues and even tournaments which offer the opportunity to qualify for a national ranking for the more serious players. What’s more, programming in recent years has opened up to incorporate youth players as well as adults with USTA Jr. Team Tennis for adolescents and 10 and Under Tennis for the youngest of kids, with Tennis Play Days and Kids’ Tennis Clubs getting them acclimated to tennis from as early as five years of age.
West Chester, Pa., traveler Emily Chen, 35, is at her second Open and first since 2000. She’s now a mother of a 7-year-old, Noah, who participates in 10 and Under programming back home.
"Yes, he loves it," said Chen of her son, who is a huge Rafael Nadal fan. "He was upset that he couldn’t see Rafa, but he’s all about tennis. We bought him his first racquet two years ago, and he’s constantly hitting."
When asked if Noah Chen could potentially be back at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center again – next time, as a player – the mother smiled bright.
"That would be a dream," said Chen. "He’s got a really good backhand, might need to work on his coordination. We’ll get him on the big courts someday soon."
For tennis families in the United States, the USTA is extending a special free junior membership for children new to the game between now and December 31, 2012. If you are attending the US Open, you can inquire at the USTA Membership booth or can check out membership.usta.com for more information.