Peter Bodo, tennis writer par excellence and an old friend, was looking around the players lounge at the U.S. Open Tuesday afternoon trying to find any players who looked familiar.
“I recognize a couple of faces,” he said. “You recognize the type. If they’re under 25, blond and with a French braid, it’s a player.”
The males tend to be well over 6-feet tall, with zero percent body fat and the kind of profound tans that come from pounding tennis balls all day all summer long under the hot sun.
“Every year it becomes much less exclusive,” Mr. Bodo added, of the population that rates tournament credentials. “There’s 128 players in each singles draw. They have coaches; they have friends; they have parents.”
I also spotted at least one baby in a stroller.
Less exclusive, perhaps, but still exclusive enough for me.
I’m frankly unsure what my fascination is with the players lounge at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is unfolding this week.
I suspect it dates back to Forest Hills and the West Side Tennis Club, which hosted the U.S. Open until 1977. I recall walking into the clubhouse as a fan and seeing star players draped across the couches. There was a charming, homey intimacy to the place, not that you’d ever approach tennis greats for an autograph.
However, the U.S. Open today is anything but intimate, and becoming less so every year. I suppose venturing into the players lounge—where the media are allowed—is an attempt to recapture some of that spirit of old.
Not that you’re likely to see Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic napping on the sofas or taking on challengers at one of the two foosball tables.
“The first week the players lounge is like junior heaven,” Mr. Bodo explained, still looking around for a familiar face. “They’ve got nothing else to do. They lounge around on the sofas all day and play with their video devices.
“If it’s a middle-aged guy in a track suit it’s a trainer,” Mr. Bodo—the author most recently of “Ashe vs. Connors: Wimbledon 1975: Tennis that went beyond centre court”—went on. “It used to be you could tell the Eastern Europeans. They had shiny track suits and plastic shoes. But that was the old days. Everybody is styling now. The sport’s been pretty upscale.”
We made our way into the dining room, a large, crowded cafeteria with tables and banquettes overlooking the practice courts where Mr. Bodo identified Riley Opelka, a 6-foot-10-inch junior who serves the ball in the mid-130s. Mr. Opelka was checking out the salad bar.
While I’d never heard of him, I had heard of John Lloyd and Gene Mayer, players from the golden Connors-Borg-McEnroe era. They hailed Mr. Bodo.
Mr. Mayer reached No. 4 in the world in 1980; Mr. Lloyd, a British former player and a sports commentator who lost the 1977 Australian Open final to Vitas Gerulaitis, may be best known in the U.S. as Chris Evert’s first husband.
“I play tennis with wealthy clients in Palm Beach,” Mr. Lloyd reported as he pointed to knees that bore the scars of surgery. “We only play on clay. I make them do the running.”
José Higueras, a Spanish clay court specialist from their era, who helped coach Michael Chang to the 1989 French Open title, dropped by to chat. Mr. Lloyd admired his flat belly as well as his healthy knees.
“Everybody is getting hip and knee replacements,” Mr. Mayer said.
After Mr. Higueras departed, the other pros launched into a lament about how little tennis history today’s younger players know.
“With the coming of big money, things have been totally transformed,” Mr. Mayer observed.
Inevitably, this caused the gentlemen to reminisce fondly about the time before big money. “They’d pay you £200 under the table,” Mr. Lloyd said of some tournaments, where he’d supplement his income by playing cards in the clubhouse. “ ‘Lloyd, you’re on court now,’ ” he was told, responding, “ ‘There’s more money in the pot than I’m getting. You have to wait.’ ”
They also marveled at the superior condition of today’s athletes. “ Björn Borg told me he never stretched once in his life,” Mr. Lloyd said.
I brought up the Forest Hills club house, which led to a story about a dust-up involving Romanian Ilie Năstase, one of the top players of the ’70s, who had a talent for getting under opponents’ skin.
“I saw two players get him up against the wall with their fists cocked,” Mr. Lloyd recalled. “We all sat around pretending we were fixing our grips.”
The combatants were separated, Mr. Lloyd recalled, by Mr. Năstase’s Italian bodyguard, who apparently existed for that purpose.
Messrs. Mayer and Lloyd agreed that if current Australian player Nick Kyrios, who recently trash-talked about the girlfriend of opponent Stan Wawrinka during their match, had been playing in their era, there would have been “none of this stuff about tweeting and fines,” Mr. Lloyd said.
“You’d have sorted it out in the locker room.”