U.S. Open tennis championship kicks off this weekend

By Jennifer C. Smith

When the biggest names in tennis come to Queens, everybody wins.

Employee discounts to the U.S. Open, free tennis rackets for children and spruced up tennis courts around public schools in Queens are only a few of the initiatives the United States National Tennis Association (USTA) is promoting for the next two weeks while the U.S. Open is in town.

The Open, which is considered the richest and most economically productive annual sporting event in the world, is set to return to the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow Corona Park Monday and run through Sept. 8.

“This year in particular we’re doing a tremendous amount of outreach in boroughs,” said Eric Handler, the USTA’s director of publicity for professional tennis. “We see opportunities to reach out and extend mutually beneficial initiatives.”

Local institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island City and The American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria are offering specially priced tickets for members.

Anna Kalbitzer, associate director of development at AMMI, said members of the museum have the special offer of buying one ticket and receiving the second ticket for free for the Tuesday, Aug. 27 night session.

“We’re delighted because we want to provide our members with as many opportunities as possible,” said Matt Bregman, deputy director for institutional development at AMMI. “We’re thrilled to work together with other organizations in Queens to show people all the exciting things to do in Queens. We hope to do it again next year.”

The USTA’s outreach attempts even extend to more than 100,000 New York City employees, including New York Police Department and Fire Department of New York members, who will receive two-for-one discount tickets for select U.S. Open sessions. An additional offer will be extended to 50,000 Metropolitan Transit Authority employees.

Another community service initiative the USTA is promoting is the “Make a Racket” program in conjunction with Modell’s Sporting Goods. If a customer brings in a racket, he or she will receive 25 percent off the next racquet purchase. The racquet would then be donated for children’s programs.

Wes Alexander, assistant manager of the Modell’s branch on Jamaica Avenue, said his store has accumulated about eight rackets since the start of the collection Aug. 11. “I’m very happy to know that Modell’s is participating,” he said. “Anything to promote our neighbors and environment is good for us.”

The racquets will be distributed to children at the Harlem Junior Tennis Center and through the Police Athletic League of New York City. The collection will end Aug. 25.

Dante Brown, executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis Center, which serves youths ages 8 to 17 in summer and winter programs, said his group would be thrilled by the donations. “We will take as many rackets as they give to us,” he said. “We will take them gladly because we will them use for kids in Harlem community and outside the community as well.”

The USTA will also contribute to the refurbishment of tennis courts at public schools in Queens through the “Take the Field” initiative, a public-private collaboration to repair athletic facilities in New York City.

Community outreach is especially important in a city scarred by the events of Sept. 11, said Handler. “Obviously, the 2002 U.S. Open will take place in an atmosphere much different than 2001,” he said.

In light of the events of last year’s tragedy, several aspects of the tennis event will be altered. Opening ceremonies will recognize the 70 nations from which the athletes come and celebrate the diversity of the competition. “It will be an opening ceremony in tribute of the citizens of the city and their spirit and resiliency, in light of what’s happened since the 2001 U.S Open,” Handler said.

A benefit gala themed “US Open Welcomes the World to New York,” and held for the USA Tennis Foundation, which raises money for tennis programs for at-risk youth will serve as a prelude to the opening night ceremonies on Monday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Beginning on opening night, and continuing each evening, the USTA will honor a “local hero,” which will be either people or organizations that have been instrumental in rebuilding New York. Handler said the USTA worked closely with City Hall to identify the either uniformed personnel or civilians who have stood out over the past year. The names of those selected have not yet been released , Handler said.

The famous Sept. 11 firefighter’s statue, showing the work of Queens firefighters raising the flag on what remained of a flagpole at the World Trade center, will also be re-located in the South Plaza of the USTA National Tennis Center for the event’s duration.

Security will be tighter after last year, as there is now a one-bag limit per person and fans will have to go through a screening process. Both the NYPD and private security guards will control the expected large audience turnout, which has grown in the past two years.

“Attendance has steadily increased the last few years. More than 600,000 people came to Flushing to see the games in 2000, 640,000 fans flocked to the stadium in 2001, and there is expected audience growth this year, said Handler. “Ticket sales have been very brisk,” he said, although he would not reveal how many tickets have been sold.

Handler said the rise in attendance can be contributed to number of factors. “More people are picking up the racket at a younger age, there are more spectators, and we now have electric personalities like the William sisters, Agassi, Andy Roddick and James Blake — electric personalities,” he said. “TV ratings were at record levels last year.” A record 92 million viewers watched the event in the United States on CBS Sports and USA Network.

The financial benefits to the tri-state area has been beneficial. Handler said two years ago the direct economic impact was $420 million dollars. This included spending on transportation, hotels, restaurants and souvenirs. A study was not conducted on last year’s event.

“The U.S. Open has the highest economic impact of any annual sporting event in world,” he said. “It is the richest sporting event in the world. It grants more than $16 million dollars to its participants.”

He said, “Men and women’s singles winners each take home $900,000 dollars.” Monetary awards have increased through the years “in recognition of players playing on the world’s biggest tennis stage,” he said.

The allure of the U.S. Open has drawn its share of celebrities and a local name. Robert DeCanio, a native of Flushing and participant in last season’s “Survivor,” will join the glamorous clientele that attends the event. DeCanio will host a daily television post-game show that will broadcast on the USTA web site. “We’ll have interviews with players,” he said. AOL broadband has also agreed to play his broadcast.

DeCanio said he welcomed the opportunity to participate in the Open. “This is the biggest sporting event in NY,” he laughed. “They pack in more [people] in two weeks than the Mets and Yankees do all year.”

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