My main fear heading out to the U.S. Open qualifying tournament Tuesday afternoon is that I wouldn’t be able to find a place to eat.
During the main tournament, which starts on Monday, locating food isn’t a problem. Indeed, the U.S. Open is a veritable cornucopia of culinary options.
But I’d never attended the qualifying tournament before, and I envisioned a food desert, all the stands that will be humming next week, still closed. No place even to score a bottle of water against the scorching sun.
I was made aware of the qualifying rounds, which started Tuesday and end Friday, when I downloaded the U.S. Open app onto my cellphone, as I do around this time every year to stay updated on the action.
Not only that: The qualifying tournament offered free admission. When was the last time you got something for free at the U.S. Open?
Admittedly, you wouldn’t get to see Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams play. But the level of tennis—the qualifying tournament typically includes players ranked from 105 to 250 in the world—should be able to provide suitable entertainment.
Also, it would present an opportunity “to see tomorrow’s stars up close,” according to the daily program I received after passing through the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s metal detectors.
Previous qualifiers include reigning U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic on the men’s side, and Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova among the women.
But I cared less about big names than the small crowds.
The U.S. Open has simply become too popular. In 2014, attendance passed 700,000 for the seventh time in eight years.
I recall when, not that many years ago, you could meander from court to court during opening week, as if in a candy store, picking and choosing matches on a whim. But lately you have to get in line even to watch unknowns play.
My hope for the “qualies” was to recapture some of the spontaneity of old.
The tournament didn’t disappoint. The atmosphere had the slightly wistful feeling of a day at the beach shortly before the season starts, or after it ends, but the weather remains great and the water warm.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was shuttered behind high gates. But there was action on all the outside courts: 128 men and women have to win three matches to earn one of the 32 spots—16 for men, 16 for women—in the main draw.
“It’s tense,” said Jack Waite, the director of racquets at Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., and a 1992 competitor at the U.S. Open qualifying tournament. “You’re doing everything everyone else does, but it’s not the main draw. Anyone who can win three matches of a Grand Slam qualifier is a major achievement.
“One of the greatest free sporting events,” he added, “is the last-round qualifiers, which will be Friday. That’s where everyone is one match away; if you win that match you’re part of the show, the major leagues.”
Mr. Waite had brought along a cheerleading squad for 27-year-old Saketh Myneni, one of Burning Tree’s teaching pros, who was scheduled to play Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany on Court 12. The group consisted of a couple of dozen club members—all wearing bright orange “Saki Squad” T-shirts—plus Billy Pate, the head men’s tennis coach at Princeton University. Mr. Pate had recruited Mr. Myneni to play for the University of Alabama when he was tennis coach there.
But since it was taking a long time for the previous match to conclude, a women’s three-setter, I decided to stroll the grounds. By the way, in the qualifying tournament both men’s and women’s matches are the best of three sets. In the main draw, it’s best of five for the men.
I caught a spirited match between Taro Daniel, a lanky Japanese player, and Renzo Olivo of Argentina. Then I went over to Court 17, a small stadium court, where American Melanie Oudin, who reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old in 2009, was playing Elitsa Kostova of Germany.
But the point was less the play, as good as it was, than the freedom to visit matches at will. It felt like boarding a time machine and setting the dial to 1968.
As it turned out, about half the food stands in the Food Village were open. And even though the service was just as lethargic as it is during the main draw, you had your pick of tables in the shade.
I made my way back to Court 12 as Mr. Myneni’s match was finally getting underway.
“It’s a tall order,” Mr. Waite said of his colleague’s chances against Mr. Struff, who was ranked as high as 46th in the world and would go on to win in three sets.
Mr. Waite extolled Mr. Myneni’s kindness while telling an amusing story of a mishap he suffered behind the wheel of a golf cart during one of his first days on the job at the country club.
It’s the kind of story that could be told, and heard, during a qualifying tournament.