When the first tennis balls were struck at the US Open Monday, thousands of frustrated tennis fans waited patiently to get in for the first time in two years, stuck in a traffic jam that left many feeling angry and sick in the hot sun.
When Madison Keys made the first serve to her friend Sloane Stephens at Arthur Ashe Stadium shortly after noon, hardly anyone was there to see it. By the time Stephens managed to win, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (7), the world’s largest tennis arena was packed, but only after fans worked their way through the deficit to finish a captivating opening to get hold of fit together.
It was a painful way to welcome fans back to the US Open after a one-year hiatus. But from a tennis standpoint, it was a riveting kick-off to the tournament, with a rematch of the 2017 women’s final, which Stephens also won.
“It seems like it was a hundred years ago, not just four,” Keys said. “Yes, the world is clearly a very different place now as far as ordinary life is concerned. But a lot has changed in tennis too.”
The biggest change for the 2021 tournament is that the fans will be in the stands. They were banned from the 2020 tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic. But it took them much longer to get back in than they expected.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Betty Gruber, a fan from Chelmsford, Massachusetts. “And then they let hundreds of people pass us. I am 82 and there are children here and people who need to go to the toilet. It is very badly organised.”
In the end, it took more than two hours to clear the backlog of people trying to get in. Some lined up at the South Gate and joined the back of the line, hundreds of yards away, past the gigantic globe monument. Some rows of people entwined with others and stewards did their best to control the flow amid the chaos as people complained and sweated in the afternoon sun.
But once inside, they did everything tennis fans have been doing at the US Open for years, until last year. They roamed the grounds, spending lavishly on food and cheering for their favorite players on a hot day that ended up feeling pretty normal.
The announced attendance was 53,783 — 30,993 during the day session and 22,790 during the night session.
Maria Onuorah, 58, a nurse and her two daughters, Jessica and Chelsea, waited in line for over an hour. After getting off train No. 7, they were immediately met by a wall of people, already queuing on the wooden boardwalk bridge to Flushing Meadows Park.
“At least we got to see the last set,” Maria Onuorah said of the Stephens-Keys match. “I’m glad we finally got in because we came all the way from Atlanta to see it.”
One fan, who only wanted to be identified as Harry, a software engineer from California, said there were so many people on the subway bridge that at one point he started shaking and waving. He said he saw a handful of people, including his girlfriend, throw up.
“It was total chaos,” he said. “I’ve been pretty Covid aware the whole time and I didn’t appreciate being locked in such a close environment with all these people.”
The United States Tennis Association issued a statement saying that the delay was largely caused by crowds arriving later than in the past, and that the delay was concentrated in the baggage check area.
“Beneficiaries have brought an inordinate number of bags this year, all of which have to be searched. This will be the main bottleneck for entry,” the USTA statement said.
The USTA added that it was looking for ways to prevent the problem in the coming days. It also said the process to check evidence of vaccinations appeared to be working “smoothly” and did not contribute to the delay. Some fans agreed, but said part of the reason for that is that the process wasn’t rigorous.
“They looked at the maps, but they didn’t match IDs,” said Matt Stapleton, 61, a Long Island film industry transportation director. He said he had waited two hours to get to the property, but once he got through the gates, he said – surprisingly cheerfully – that it was worth it.
‘He always is like that,’ said his wife Linda, laughing. “He’s just here to have fun.”
Most fans walked around without face coverings, but most workers wore masks. Originally, the tournament had no plans to require proof of coronavirus vaccinations, but after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio intervened, the tournament organizers changed the rules.
“I’m glad they did,” said Jessica Onuorah, a graduate student at Georgia State University. “I’ve been vaccinated, but I feel a lot safer because I know everyone else is too.”
In the afternoon it really started to go, just like in a normal year without a pandemic. The food concessions traded briskly, fans ambled the main plaza, sat by the fountains, watched matches on the giant video screens, and crowds of people gathered in the stands as they did in 2019, and every year for decades before.
“We missed the people in the crowd,” said twelfth-seeded Simona Halep of Romania, who defeated Camila Giorgi of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (3) in their first-round match in the stands. “You can’t compare the atmosphere. It’s much better. You feel the energy. You feel alive on the track.”
And when the day session ended, it all started again at night.