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Brash, bold and boisterous: Rock'n'Roll tennis in the Big Apple

By Paul Gittings (CNN)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows is renowned for its unique atmosphere
  • 23,000 noisy fans crowd into the main Arthur Ashe Stadium Court to watch their heroes
  • Showbiz and sports celebrities flock to the venue in downtown New York

(CNN) -- If ever a sports event reflected the character of its host city it is the U.S. Open, played in downtown New York at Flushing Meadows.

Bold, brash and boisterous, the tournament is tennis Rock 'n' Roll to Wimbledon's symphony orchestra.

"They like to put on a big show," world number one Rafael Nadal told CNN and the two-time semifinalist should know.

From the glitz and glamour of the opening ceremony where the likes of Diana Ross, and this year, Gloria Estefan bang out a classics before the drama of "Super Saturday" when both men's semis and the women's final takes place, the pace is unrelenting.

"The atmosphere, the experience, the entertainment element, the New York nights. The U.S. Open is a one of a kind event, taking place in the City that Never Sleeps," Chris Widmaier, managing director of communications at the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) told CNN.

New York is a city full of energy and they bring it to the tennis
--Pat Cash
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And then there are the fans.

New Yorkers have a unique affinity with their very own grand slam -- "it must be love" -- crows the headline on the official website.

And with nearly three quarters of a million spectators passing through the turnstiles last year -- it is easily the best attended sports event of the year according to the USTA -- with residents of the Big Apple making up a sizeable chunk of the fan base.

And the reason the locals buy in to the tournament in such large numbers?

"The energy is quintessential New York ...you get people going crazy. On the way to the match you could get into fights. I felt comfortable there," tennis legend and New Yorker himself John McEnroe told CNN.

It may have been a tongue in cheek remark, but at this year's Open there was an astonishing altercation between a female fan and a young male during a night match between Novak Djokovic and Philipp Petzschner.

She slapped him around the face and he responded in kind before security was called in.

Video: Nadal and Cash talk U.S. Open

"It's a hot night in New York. Things happen," said as USTA spokesman.

Aussie ace Pat Cash was a semifinalist at Flushing Meadows in 1984 and has experienced that atmosphere at the sharp end.

"People in the crowd can really get pumped up, they boo, they get involved," he told CNN.

"New York is a city full of energy and they bring it to the tennis."

But it was not always so, with the original home at Forest Hills having a more preppy country club atmosphere.

"Most of the tennis in the United States was played in private clubs, particularly on the east coast," recalls legendary tennis writer and broadcaster Bud Collins.

"Initially going downtown to Flushing Meadows was unpopular with fans and the players because there was no parking there and you had to go by subway.

"Things were very different then players had to get there on their own, there was no courtesy cars."

From Forest Hills to the more egalitarian setting at Flushing, it took just a year for the new order to be established and the fans to bare their teeth.

Explosive confrontation

McEnroe was facing Romanian Ilie Nastase and with both players renowned for their explosive temperaments the scene was set for fireworks.

In the fourth set McEnroe served but Nastase said he was not ready.

The umpire still awarded the point to McEnroe and Nastase immediately complained, gaining the vociferous backing of a 10,000 strong crowd.

The umpire responded by docking "Nasty" a further point at which point the fans, "who had been drinking" remembers Collins, went crazy and threw cans and rubbish onto the court.

After it was cleared, the umpire called Nastase to serve, but the fiery two-time grand slam winner declined, leading to him being initially disqualified.

The crowd proceeded to get ever more fervent and the tournament director, fearing a full scale riot, took remedial action.

"They defaulted the umpire! " said Collins. McEnroe still went on to win the match and his first of four U.S. Open titles.

Noisy and sometimes unruly fans aside, the final piece in the U.S. Open jigsaw came with the appointment at the turn of the century of Arlen Kantarian, a former boss of Radio City Music Hall, as chief executive and presentation supremo.

Kantarian quickly recognized the tournament needed to play to its strengths and its reputation, what Tennis Channel host Bill McAtee calls the "world's toughest tennis tournament."

McAtee explained to CNN: "Every grand slam has its own personality. Australia is known as the 'happy slam', loose and light as it's summer down there.

"Then the French which is elegant and chic, playing on clay is such a stylish pursuit while Wimbledon with its tradition and history, you can feel the gravitas."

"At the U.S. Open it's just such a loud atmosphere and players like McEnroe and Jimmy Connors thrive in that environment," he added.

Kantarian from his entertainment background quickly came to the same conclusion.

The Open is where famous people watch famous people, and this is a great attraction for our fans
--Chris Widmaier - USTA

"We're in New York, promoting the sounds, the pageantry, the athleticism, the noise," Kantarian told the Daily Telegraph the year he was appointed.

"We all love Wimbledon but we're not in Wimbledon. We're in New York."

So in came pop diva Ross standing on court singing God Bless America accompanied by a children's gospel choir and the fans just loved it.

Year on year came more innovation, more on-court entertainment and attendances have soared.

The "Rock'n'Roll" stage management is not to everyone's taste.

"I don't like it particularly, but it's a very successful tennis tournament," said Collins, the voice of tennis on NBC Sports for 35 years until parting company in 2007.

Kantarian left his post after nine years in 2009, but his spirit lives on with tickets for the celebrity-rich night sessions becoming hotter property than a sellout Broadway show.

"The Open is where famous people watch famous people, and this is a great attraction for our fans," said Widmaier.

It all adds up to an intoxicating mix of gladiatorial sport and showbiz in front of a raucous crowd, who seem constantly on the move, rushing out at every changeover to feast on hot dogs, popcorn and beer before returning to cheer and sometimes jeer their heroes.

Wimbledon it ain't but New Yorkers would have it no other way.