FLUSHING MEADOWS — What's not to love? US Open qualifying sets start today — and they're free.
The tennis tournament famed for its blue courts, night matches and fifth-set tiebreaks officially opens Aug. 25 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens. But the qualifying tournament starts Tuesday, Aug. 20 and admission is free.
That's just one of DNAinfo New York's 20 insider tips that will make the world's best-attended sporting event less intimidating for first-timers while helping you get more bang for your buck.
• The US Open qualifying tournament runs through Friday Aug. 23 and is a chance to watch players just outside the top 100. You'll spot veterans coming back from injuries or arrivistes trying to break through, and all are vying for a coveted spot in the main draw.
Concession and merchandise stands are open, the quality of the tennis is strong and the stakes on the courts are very high — in some cases, a match means the difference between retirement and another year on the tour. It's as close as you can get to the Open experience without paying a dime. Simply put, there is no better bargain on the New York sports calendar. Go.
• Forget driving, especially if the Mets are playing at nearby Citi Field. The most efficient option is the Long Island Railroad, which is a 16-minute commute from Penn Station. The No. 7 train also offers express service to and from the grounds. If you insist on private transportation, a taxi or car service will drop you off near Canarsie.
• The scalping scene outside the grounds is notoriously treacherous, so stay away. Buy your tickets on TicketMaster or TicketExchange (TicketMaster's legal aftermarket service, where prices have a tendency to drop at the last minute). If you feel like living dangerously, Craigslist — ever the Wild West for bargain hunters — is always buzzing with activity.
• When you arrive, bypass the security lines at the East Gate, nearest to the main parking lot and "boardwalk" extending from the trains. They're always longest and slowest in the morning. Walk past the crowd and enter at the South Gate near the Unisphere to get inside (significantly) faster. Gates open at 10 a.m., with play starting at 11, and it's generally pointless to get there any earlier.
• Wear sunscreen.
• Buy a daily draw sheet when you walk in. Or, if you’re on a budget, print one up before you make the trip. The schedule for each day’s play is typically available by 4 p.m. the day before. (Of course, all this info is readily available on the tournament's various phone apps, which you can download here.)
• Try for daytime sessions during the first week, night sessions during the second.
• During the first week especially, opt for a grounds pass over reserved seating in Armstrong or Ashe. Watching a top-40 player from 20 feet away is a far more rewarding experience than watching a top-five player obliterate some no-hoper in the world's largest (and most cavernous) tennis stadium.
• If you have an American Express card, you’re entitled to a free radio at one of their kiosks. It's not quite as essential as they were before smartphones, but they’re still a reliable way to follow the action across the grounds — especially during the frenetic opening rounds.
• Arrive early and spend a half an hour watching players practice. It's amazing how much you can learn about these finely tuned athletes from watching them hit balls for 20 minutes.
• If matches are canceled due to rain, try to attend the following day. The backlog of matches often forces top-ranked players onto the outer courts.
• Watch at least one match on the Grandstand court, one of the best venues in tennis. The intimate 6,000-seat venue has the best views of any court on the grounds. In addition to the unparalleled environment, there is shade and no reserved seating — so get there early.
• Check out the scoreboard and make your way to any match that's in the fifth set (or third set for women) and watch until the end.
• There are two prime locations for checking out the action on multiple courts: the top of the bleachers on Court 7, where you can view the matches on Courts 6, 8, 9 and 10; and the topmost seats on Court 11, when you can see matches on Courts 12, 13, 14 and 15.
• If you're there during the second week, when the junior tournaments take place on the outer courts, watch the top-seeded player in the boys’ and girls’ singles draw. You could have an up-close view of the stars of tomorrow. Case in point: Andy Roddick won the boys' title in 2000 and the men's championship just three years later.
• Check out a match on Court 17, the newest show court at the National Tennis Center. The playing surface is sunk 7 feet into the ground, creating a unique environment that accommodates up to 2,800 fans.
• The Food Village offers everything from Indian and Japanese options to a Kosher deli and a French creperie. To avoid long lines and ensure a seat, consider eating after the rush, around 2 or 3 p.m. The food is excellent by sporting-event standards, but it’s not cheap. Expect to pay $15 to $20 per person per meal.
• Alternatively, take advantage of the free re-entry — don't forget to get your hand stamped — and make a quick lunch trip in nearby Flushing Chinatown. You can walk there or take the No. 7 train one stop. And if you don't want to leave the grounds for an hour or so, just nab a hot dog from a vendor in the park.
• If you’re bringing your own food, make sure it goes in clear plastic bags. There’s a strict policy against backpacks — any bag larger than 12 inches by 12 inches by 16 inches — although pocketbooks and man purses are OK.
• Hydrate. Bring your own bottles and fill them up at water fountains throughout the grounds. This alone will save you as much as $20 each day.