Autograph seekers strike gold by US Open practice courts

Autograph seekers strike gold by US Open practice courts
Saisai Zheng takes time to sign autographs for young fans.
Photo by Robert Cole
By Laura Amato

They’re a US Open staple—the giant, yellow tennis balls, gripped tightly in the hands of the sport’s youngest fans as they scream for just a moment of their favorite player’s time.

Walk into any of the dozens of stores at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and they’ll be there in varying sizes and prices, a blank canvas almost asking to be covered in autographs.

It’s a tradition that has come to define the US Open as much as night matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium and traffic on the Grand Central Parkway before morning sessions.

Those yellow tennis balls don’t blend into a crowd and that’s precisely what makes them so important. While slightly overpriced, they attract players’ attention and make the final Grand Slam of the year just a bit more grand for its smallest fans.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Ben Perks, 11, of Princeton, N.J. “You get like an in-person view. It’s neat to be able to meet them in person.”

The best place for a fan to come face-to-face with their tennis heroes, however, isn’t on the court. It’s just off it.

At any point throughout the day, a small crowd of fans stands in wait just to the side of the US Open practice courts, looking to get stars’ signatures after they wrap up their pre-match sessions.

It’s a waiting game that requires plenty of pre-planning and staring up at the practice schedule board in the middle of the facility. It also takes a bit of luck.

Fans can find themselves waiting nearly an hour for players to come off the practice court and even an enormous tennis ball doesn’t guarantee a signature. Still, there’s nothing quite like experiencing that rush of meeting a world-class athlete up close and these fans are willing to wait for that moment.

“We were told, you know you read all the blogs and stuff, this is the best way for kids to see the sport and see the players,” said New Jersey native Regina Gabriel, who brought her two children to the Open for the first time this year. “The players stop and talk as opposed to just kind of a pat on the back or something.”

Wilson has been selling the oversized tennis balls at the US Open since 1992 and there are no plans for that to stop any time soon. In fact, fans can now order the item online before they even make the trek to Flushing Meadows.

After all, it never hurts to be prepared.

The key, however, and what those brightly colored tennis balls offer is a chance to make the sport a bit smaller, a bit more intimate, even if just for a few moments in passing.

“We came to expose [the kids] to the sport,” Gabriel said. “They can get so close to the players and really see it. It’s all right in front of them.”

It’s a different type of atmosphere for a tournament, an excited, almost relaxed approach that brings fans of any age as close to the game as possible.

“There is a great vibe during these couple of weeks for the tennis,” Novak Djokovic said after his first-round match. “Everybody’s in town. It’s always fun to be out there.”

For many fans at this year’s US Open, the autograph game is just as serious as any of the matches on the court. They’ve got the giant, yellow tennis balls and they’re determined to fill them with signatures.

“I try and get players I see,” Perks said. “I’ve got Caroline Wozniacki and Kevin Anderson. But I really want to get Djokovic, too. That would be really cool.”

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