On a rain-spattered Day Three at the US Open, one had to appreciate the diabolical genius of holding the premier American tennis tournament at a vast high-end shopping mall.
All kinds of matches were interrupted or cancelled on Wednesday, and as a result the line just to get into the Ralph Lauren clothing store stretched 50 people deep all afternoon. Forget about Heineken House—the wait was even longer. Plastic poncho-clad spectators drowned their sorrows at the walk-up Moët & Chandon bar, where dry Champagne moved at $24 a glass. A Gray Goose Honey Deuce (vodka, lemonade, and Chambord black raspberry liqueur) could be had for a more modest $14. On the plaza outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Mercedes-Benz displayed sleek SUVs and coupes, but with the profusion of alcohol these presumably were not available for test drives.
It was a damp, disappointing afternoon on the courts, but commerce hummed in Flushing, Queens.
Corporate sponsorships are nothing new at the Open, of course, any more than they’re a novelty at other major sporting events. The shopping and dining alternatives at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, however, have proliferated. Is this the way it’s “supposed” to be? Do jumbo Wilson tennis balls at $45 each (Sharpie pen included, for player autographs) foster youthful dedication to the traditional values of sport? Doubtful. But when the players are cooped up in the locker room or back at their hotels, one doesn’t have a lot of choices.
Actually, there were tons of choices—on this day, they just didn’t include watching much tennis. For example, there were numerous and often-bizarre promotional tennis videogames to choose from. Stylish, partially veiled female attendants at the glassed-in Emirates airline booth hosted a Ball Flight Simulator, wherein a customer’s pretend serve morphed on-screen into a world-spanning journey that ended in Bangkok, Barcelona, or some other fabulous place. The experience made no sense whatsoever, but people seemed to have fun and walked away with some minor Emirates swag.
When I browsed the midnight blue Mercedes 2014 GL 350 BlueTEC 4Matic, a very polite young salesman wielding a tablet computer asked earnestly for my contact information so he could arrange an order. I told him it was a beautiful car, but the $74,345 suggested retail price was a little out of my range. He smiled indulgently, which I interpreted to mean that there might be a few add-ons
beyond what was listed on the window sticker. Not sounding condescending in the least, he urged me to circle back if I changed my mind.
Deciding on lunch was a little daunting: five restaurants, 60 concession stands. The David Burke aged rib-eye steak at Champion’s Bar & Grill sounded good at $49, but in the end I joined the hoi polloi in the open-air Food Village. Hill
Country Chicken served an excellent $12 pit-smoked turkey sandwich that went well with a $3.75 Evian water.
Mysteries abounded. Why did the $198 Ralph Lauren replica ball boy jacket have an oversize image of a polo player on the chest? I know Polo is the Lauren brand, but can’t the company figure out something different for ball boys at a tennis tournament?
I suppose that if one is shopping for someone who’s already got everything, paying $39.99 for an “authenticated” yellow Wilson ball actually struck by third-seed
Agnieszka Radwanska during her second-round victory Wednesday over Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor makes a certain sense. But under what circumstances would a consumer pay $1,495 for a signed shirt worn in the 2012 men’s doubles final by Mike Bryan?
“Oh, we’ll sell that,” Barry Meisel of the MeiGray Group (“Your source for game-worn jerseys”) said about the once-sweaty orange Bryan shirt. Meisel’s Branchburg (N.J.) company has contracts with the National Basketball Association,
the National Hockey League, and, since last year, the U.S. Tennis Association. A towel Roger Federer perspired on costs $350; Serena Williams’ former towel goes for $250. “Tennis fans, just like hockey or basketball fans,
want that authentic connection to their sport,” Meisel explained. “It’s all about the sports and the athletes they love.”