On a nippy April morning, I walked into the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City for my U.S. Open debut. What a disappointment. First of all, where were all the fans? This is the U.S. Open, gosh darnit, shouldn't there be guys in khaki pants and alligator shirts, and ladies wearing $600 Jimmy Choos, wandering the grounds, buying $8.00 cups of coffee? When the official told me my court assignment, he had the nerve to hand me four balls, explaining I'd have to make do with them for my match. What, no ball boys chasing down an endless supply, and handing me a pair before my first serve? And get this: no umpires to scream at. The guy told me the players would have to make their own calls under some sort of honor system. Ridiculous. This is the U.S. Open; I have every right to be a diva.
Yes, the Open is finally living up to its name, giving a shot at glory to every casual weekend hack, like me, that wants to sign up. The United States Tennis Association is debuting a "National Playoff" tournament in the run-up to the main event in late August. These small-time events don't include the luxuries of the real deal played in early September, like actual fans and millions of fresh fuzzy tennis balls. But if you win 15 matches in a row, you can earn the right to get plastered by Roger Federer, at Ashe Stadium, under the lights in prime time.
Prior to this initiative, dreamers had to acquire a top 300 ranking on the pro tour, or secure a wild card entry there's one for the national junior champion, for example in order to make it to New York in late August. Now, weekend warriors can sign up for one of the 16 regional tournaments, and if they somehow string together a miraculous winning streak, they're in. To play, you just have to join the USTA, which you can do at the organization's website, and pay a $135 tournament entry fee (USTA membership costs $42 per year for adults, $19 annually for juniors). Though the New York City tournament is over, you can still register, at the U.S. Open website, for one of the 15 remaining tournaments held in Connecticut, California, Michigan, Missouri, Hawaii, Florida, and several other states. The winners of each of the 16 sectionals will play a final tournament later in the summer: whoever survives that event moves on to the big stage. Each regional tilt is capped at 256 players, for both the men and women, but there are still open spots in all the remaining tournaments.
Buyer beware: many of the entrants at the New York City tournament were talented juniors with visions of grandeur. Caitlin Thompson, TIME.com's multimedia producer, who played college tennis at Missouri from 1998 to 2002, was matched against high school senior who had earned a Division 1 scholarship. "The bad news was that this girl from the minute we started treated our match as if it were the Olympics, Wimbledon, and a death match at the Thunderdome, combined," Thompson says. "A netted backhand on my part resulted in her running up to the net, shaking her fists at me and shouting, 'YES, COME ON!' There were outrageously bad line-calls, and open hostility when I asked her to call the score out loud. Delay tactics, passive-aggressive ball handoffs. Ah yes, all those old standbys of mental warfare. I'd conveniently forgotten about these in my genteel world of recreational playing."
Though more than slightly hung over "I'd had three of four generous bourbons the night before," she says Thompson made her opponent work for her points. With darkness approaching, a USTA official suggested that they move the match to a court with better lighting. "Both my opponent and her father went into an apoplectic rage," Thompson says. Since she had already played two hours, had to wake up early the next day for work, and was going up against the stereotypical nutty tennis family, Thompson decided to retire (she swears the hangover had nothing to do with it). "I shook her hand, complimented her playing, and thanked God I'd never have to play another competitive tennis match," Thompson says. The tale ended sweetly for my colleague. Her opponent lost two rounds later, and Thompson's friend and teammate at Missouri, New York City-area teaching pro Katerina Sevcikova, wound up winning the whole thing.
Aside from the players with a serious shot at making the Open, the tournament attracted some odd-balls and everyday Joes: a rabbi, a 61-year-old contractor (he lost in the first round), a few doctors and lawyers. My opponent was Reuben Jacob, 42, an exceedingly pleasant Wall Street trader from Queens who swears he didn't ruin the global economy. Like me, Jacobs was here for the workout, and after winning the first game at love, my own delusions set in: I can't wait to crow that, technically, I won a U.S. Open match! Alas, Jacobs had just enough kick on his cross-court shots, and I just enough general tennis suckiness, that he cruised to an easy win, 6-1, 6-2 (afterwards, Jacob confided that going into the match, he knew he had a shot because when he Googled me the night before, "tennis player" did not show up in the results.)
I asked Jacob how he was going to prepare for this next big U.S. Open match, which would take place later that afternoon. Would he carb-load like a pro? Get a massage in a training room? Go hit 100 balls to work on his technique? "No," he says. "My wife is making me go to the grocery store." Take that, Federer. Jacob got smoked, 6-0, 6-0, by a serious teen. But hey, a 1-1 career record at the Open isn't all that bad.