NEW YORK (AP) – U.S. Open fans can’t seem to get enough of practice.
That’s right, practice.
In a new feature this year, the first stage of a planned renovation to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, elevated stands loom over five practice courts and allow fans to watch stars like Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Nojak Djokovic groove their strokes, tinker with strategy and sometimes bicker with coaches.
Hundreds of fans now sit where a huge privet hedge once shielded the courts from prying eyes, and there’s even a massive tote board that, for the first time, advertises which players are practicing and when. It’s often the best chance some fans get for a close-up look at their favorite champions.
“This is a dream come true. I’m just trying to soak in as much as I can,” said Kathleen Sullivan, a tennis nut from Los Angeles who peered down from her seat not 20 feet from three courts that simultaneously featured a relaxed Federer drilling with Marin Cilic, Ana Ivanovic bashing groundstrokes in shorts and T-shirt, and Sam Stosur taking only volleys from her male hitting partner.
“My seats in the stadium sometimes feel like I’m watching from space, but this … this is incredible,” said Jay Feldman, a Manhattan resident who has been coming to Flushing Meadows for 20 years.
As he snapped pictures of Federer, he recalled how it used to be, with only a small stand of bleachers overlooking the practice courts. That often led to fans jammed 10 deep to catch a glimpse of their favorite player, and some autograph-seeking kids crawling on their hands and knees to peer under the hedge.
The new practice gallery, the most expansive such facility of any of the Grand Slam events, has become so popular in the first week of the tournament that the more than 1,000 seats frequently fill up, and dozens of fans often wait in line to grab an open seat. An usher supervises the whole process in true New York deli style, yelling back to the waiting throng, “We got two here!”
Then there’s this cool new feature: a shaded walkway beneath the stands that lets fans peer in from behind the players through lightly tinted green mesh.
“It’s pretty incredible to be able to stand 6 feet behind the player and see how they hit the ball,” said Matt Hoeft from Dallas, who watched Ivanovic and Kai Nishikori hitting on the same court. “With this screen, they don’t even know we’re here.”
Well, not exactly.
Federer told reporters this week he’s definitely aware there are more people around when he practices at Flushing Meadows, a small allowance to appease the fans.
“At least now people can watch and they don’t have to break all the rules possible to walk over trees and look through fences,” he said.
“You don’t feel as much privacy,” Federer added. “But that’s fine — we’re at the U.S. Open.”
His hitting partner, the 14th-seeded Cilic, also said he likes the changes, though sometimes with practice “you want to be on your own, where it’s peaceful, nothing bothering you.”
Just on the other side of the practice courts, and rivaling them in popularity, is the other new feature for 2014 — newly remodeled Courts 4, 5 and 6 — which have their own viewing platform, lower seating all around and walkways between each court.
Those remodeled courts — scene of perhaps the most memorable moment of the tournament so far, an upset victory by 15-year-old American CiCi Bellis — sit next to the tennis center’s bustling promenade, offering the unique feel of watching a match in the middle of a town square.
USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith says the changes this year are just a taste of $500 million worth of renovations to the tennis center over the next four years, including a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, set for completion by the 2016 tournament, a new Louis Armstrong Stadium (which could get a roof also if the budget allows) and a new Grandstand.
Smith acknowledged it was also about keeping up with improvements at other Grand Slam venues. Wimbledon has a roof over its main stadium and plans for a second one. The Australian Open has two stadiums with roofs and plans for a third.
“We want to be the best tennis tournament in the world and we want to have the best tennis venue in the world,” Smith said. “We saw what was going on at Wimbledon and Australia, and we needed to react to that in a positive way.”
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