For the past 10 years I've been promising myself a trip to the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, held annually at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens, New York.
This year I was determined to put it off no more, especially after my wife called and said that a friend of a friend had offered us a free pair of tickets.
You wouldn't think that someone who idolized "Mean" Joe Greene and Jack Lambert as a child would be excited to see a tennis match, but as a fan of sports, there is nothing more thrilling than seeing the best compete against the best in their chosen field.
After arriving at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park that evening, I was greeted with a majestic view of glowing lights, emanating from each of the ground's several tennis courts. Having the iconic Unisphere globe as a backdrop not only added to the beauty of this late-summer night, but also helped me locate my wife. (We used the continent of Africa as a meeting point.)
As I made my way through 50 yards of entrance gates, it felt like I was attending some type of royal gala, rather than a sporting event. I mention that I walked through 50 yards of entrance gates because when I was met by security, I was told that I had to walk all the way back out and check my bag -- even though ladies carrying purses bigger than Ikea shopping bags were allowed to enter, as well as kids lugging around beach-ball-sized tennis balls.
Since I missed dinner, my first priority -- even though I was finally at the U.S. Open -- was to get something to eat. Surprisingly, or I should say shockingly, cuisine at tennis matches is exactly the same as the Cracker Jack, soft pretzels and personal-pan pizzas that you'd find at any other sports venue. My dream of eating a dish of gourmet paella gave way to the reality of ordering a foot-long hot dog wilting under a heating lamp.
The first full match I got to see -- in the 22,547-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium -- featured America's best player (which isn't saying much these days), Andy Roddick, against 18-year old Nebraskan Jack Sock.
For his name alone, I decided to root for the young underdog, although I did briefly cheer for Roddick after he rocketed a 140-mph serve past Sock.
During the first set I got a crash course in fan etiquette: After screaming "SOCK!" I received a stern glare from an older gentleman in my section. It was then when I learned that cheering in tennis was allowed only following a play, although during a lengthy rally it appeared like it was permissible to let out a gasp or a moderately yelped "woo."
Only after Roddick was one set away from sweeping Sock -- and once the beer in the souvenir hologram cups loosened up some of the spectators -- was I allowed to be my normal, boisterous self.
I think some of my enthusiasm even helped build momentum for Sock, and when it looked like he could actually win the third set, I decided to heckle Roddick: Hey Mr. Decker (a reference to his swimsuit-model wife, Brooklyn Decker), Jack Sock doesn't think this match is over!
I shouldn't have been surprised that a man who was superhumanly slicing and spinning tennis balls all night long responded to my trash talk by blasting two consecutive aces past his opponent, and then ended the match a few minutes later -- essentially putting a sock in Sock.
Though Roddick won easily in straight sets, my first taste of professional tennis was superbly entertaining. Everything from the ball boys dashing around center court like obedient golden retrievers and the choreographed, military-like formation of the backline judges to the line referee's school-principal-like admonishing when the crowd got too loud made my first U.S. Open experience a reason to cheer. But only between serves, of course.