John McEnroe and Kristin Chenoweth at the US Open Experience.
© Hal Horowitz
Judah Friedlander participates in the target challenge.
© Hal Horowitz
Fans purchasing tickets in Times Square.
© Nicholas J. Walz
By Erin Bruehl, USOpen.org
NEW YORK, N.Y. - There were celebrity appearances and people buying tickets and merchandise. It could easily sound like any ordinary day in New York’s Times Square, except for the people playing tennis.
For the second straight year, the US Open Experience took over Times Square on the same day that tickets for the 2011 US Open went on sale to the general public. Fans could purchase tickets at kiosks, play with USTA professionals on a mini-US Open court, compete in a target challenge for chances to win tickets, play Wii Tennis, buy US Open gear and more.
And on hand to hit some tennis balls and to help launch the ticket on-sale were four-time US Open champion John McEnroe, Tony and Emmy-award winning actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth and actor/comedian Judah Friedlander of ’30 Rock.’
Fans were lining up as early as 7:30 a.m. to purchase tickets, with Alan Markov, 21, of Brooklyn, an Andy Roddick fan, the first on line.
"I thought I would have a better chance to buy good tickets here than online and see John McEnroe as an added bonus," he said of why he decided to get up extra early and head into Manhattan.
As Markov and others waited, stilt walkers walked amongst the fans, who were then greeted by living statues as they made their way past a US Open trophy, where they could have their pictures taken, and then headed to kiosks to buy tickets and enter for chances to win others.
Other fans stood in line for the mini-US Open court, where a target challenge was held twice an hour. Fans competed to see who could hit the most US Open targets across the net in 30 seconds, with the winners scoring free tickets to this year’s tournament.
Chandler Showalter, 12, was the first target challenge winner of the day. His entire family of father J.R., mother Margee and brother Zach all competed in the first challenge, with Chandler coming out on top with eight hits and winning two tickets to the 2011 US Open.
The family, from Virginia, was staying at a hotel in Times Square and noticed the US Open Experience outside the window. Margee did some quick research on her phone and saw they could play some tennis and see McEnroe.
"It was pretty fun," Chandler said of the target challenge. "I play tennis a couple times a week."
The whole family, in fact, plays tennis, although has never been to the US Open. That will change this year.
"We watch it all the time," J.R. said of the US Open. "We might have to buy two more tickets now."
Other competitors in the target challenge were not as lucky to win tickets but still enjoyed getting a taste of the US Open in June in Manhattan, including Eric Kao, 35, of New Jersey, who stopped by the event from his office nearby.
"I was here last year (for the on-sale event in Times Square)," said Kao, also a USTA member. "It was a lot of fun. I think it is a great event, and it generates a lot of interest in tennis. I go to the US Open every year, and everyone has a great time, even people who are new to tennis."
Everyone enjoyed getting to interact with Friedlander, the ‘world champion’ as he is known, who entertained and interviewed fans as he walked through the crowd. A huge tennis fan, he goes to the US Open every year, although as he joked, he is not allowed to play.
"As the world champion, I am the greatest athlete in the world, but I am banned from any sport. Tennis, may be my best sport, banned internationally because I serve too hard, which is why I am not playing at the US Open this year or last year or next year. But it is a great sport, so I am here to help out," he said.
"I will definitely be at the US Open. I go to the US Open every year with my brother, and we always have an awesome time. It is an amazing experience," he added. "The US Open is like a giant outdoor mall of nonstop tennis. It is pretty awesome. I mean, the fact that I am still banned from the US Open is just something the world will have to deal with, so that’s why at least they let me come here to help promote the sport."
Friedlander then took on McEnroe in the target challenge to the delight of the Times Square crowd. McEnroe, the four-time US Open champion, took the court first, nailing six targets. Friedlander then stepped up – literally – right to the net, inches from the targets on the other side and smacked nine of them.
"That is not a good thing," McEnroe said of losing to Friedlander. "He did cheat (by moving up to the net), but it was smart. I didn’t think of that. My best shot is a volley, so I have to demand a rematch."
As a former champion, native New Yorker and now television commentator, McEnroe always looks forward to the US Open, making the start of the ticket on-sale a special day.
"It is a great time for tennis right now, especially in the men’s game, I think you are seeing something special going on with the top players, possibly a changing of the guard, so that is exciting," he said. "This is my hometown. I have been playing or commentating at the US Open for over 30 years, so I always get pumped up. The day tickets go on sale is a great day for New York, and it seems to get bigger and better every year."
McEnroe was also able to coax Chenoweth of the hit show ‘Glee,’ as well as formerly of ‘Pushing Daisies’ and ‘Wicked’ amongst her many appearances on Broadway, onto the court, despite the petite actress wearing high heels.
Chenoweth knows McEnroe’s wife, Patty, although had never met McEnroe himself. As she took the racquet, McEnroe hit a few balls to her and gave her some pointers, including to move her grip a little farther down on the racquet handle.
"Clearly, I wasn’t expecting to play tennis," Chenoweth joked. "But I didn’t think I did too badly in heels. He said, ‘Do you want to play?’ And I thought, ‘You get one chance in life, you stink at this, but this is one of the greatest players who ever lived.’ Plus I am a big fan of his wife, so I am not saying no. I know his wife, but I never had an opportunity to meet him. But he is very warm, very funny and very smart, which are three qualities I love."
Chenoweth grew up watching her mother play a lot of tennis – and win – at their local country club. She never played tennis herself but loves to watch and plans to attend the US Open for the first time this year and hopefully bring her mother.
"We had some mother-daughter fights over tennis because I couldn’t do it – that wasn’t my gift – but she gave me an appreciation for the sport," Chenoweth said. "I follow it. I like to watch and find it entertaining on television. It is a sport you can really get into."
Everyone in Times Square Monday would certainly agree, including Mavis Fowler-Williams and her two children, Takashi, 8, and India, 6, who live in Manhattan and all play tennis multiple times a week. Fowler-Mavis came dressed for the US Open Experience in a Fila navy and red tennis dress and white knee pads. She has been a full series subscriber to the US Open since even before Arthur Ashe Stadium was built in 1997.
The whole family tried the target challenge and enjoyed a fun banter as one of Friedlander’s fan interviews.
"I was not kidding around. I came dressed to play," she said of her outfit. "We were here last year, and it was fantastic. We love the US Open and have been taking the kids since they were in strollers. This is such a great event to have tennis in the middle of the city."