Playing for Arthur Ashe at the US Open is everything it’s meant to be for first-timers

Taylor Townsend was 7 years old when she first played at Arthur Ashe Stadium. She had won an essay competition and was allowed to hit it Serena Williams, Roger Federer and other stars before the 2003 US Open began.

Eleven years later, Townsend made her main draw debut at the 2014 US Open and saw a familiar face in her first-round match at Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York: Serena Williams. While Townsend had technically been there before and vividly recalled seeing Williams over the web this time all was different. In addition to the daunting task of taking on Williams, the defending champion and top seed of the tournament, this time almost 24,000 fans would be in the stands at the world’s largest tennis stadium for a prime-time night match – and almost everyone would rage against them.

Townsend was a mix of nervousness and excitement all day before the game.

“It’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget,” Townsend told ESPN last week. “We were the second night game so the crowd was prepped and prepped with Honey Deuces [the US Open’s iconic cocktail]. It felt like everyone had a couple of Honey Deuces in there. I was super nervous the whole time; Playing Serena only made me more nervous than I would have been against anyone else, but I enjoyed every moment of it. The audience, the energy, the atmosphere – it was amazing.”

Williams won the match convincingly 6-3, 6-1, but Townsend still looks back fondly on the match.

“Looking back, of course I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I could have played that point differently or done it differently,’ but at the end of the day, the experience I had was the experience I was meant to have,” Townsende said. “And I honestly wouldn’t change it for anything. Because it kind of made me hungrier to get out there and come back to that level, to play at that level and be able to do my best on the biggest stage in sport. There’s nothing quite like it.”

Townsend’s story is one of many memorable debuts and appearances on the court of Arthur Ashe. Each year a number of young, up-and-coming players as well as long-time veterans are given the difficult task of taking on some of the biggest names in the game in the early days of the tournament. Some like teenagers Holger Rune against top set Novak Djokovic in the first round in 2021 or Teen Caty McNally vs. Williams in the second round in 2019, briefly catch the world’s attention by stealing a set, and an even smaller group of players does the unthinkable and pulls the surprise win over one veteran superstar. like when I was 18 Carlo Alcaraz third-occupied defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a decider in the third round of the 2021 tournament.

For Alcaraz, it was those in the stands that made the difference.

“I think without the crowd I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play a great fifth set and beat Stefanos,” said Alcaraz. “I think the audience was really amazing. I really loved it.”

While many pros will say they don’t care where or who they play, most will admit there is something special about playing Arthur Ashe. With more than 5,000 seats, larger than any other tennis court in the world, and with more than 8,000 larger than the French Open’s Court Philippe Chatrier – the next largest stadium of any major – size is only part of the stadium’s lore. Its New York location gives it an added advantage, as do the often rowdy — at least by tennis standards — crowds that sit inside.

The course will host the first two days of the 2022 US Open Stefan Kozlow (against the reigning champion Daniel Medvedev), Leolia Jeanjean (versus Coco Gauff), Sebastian Bass (against Alcaraz) and Rinky Hijikata (versus Rafael Nadal) in the opening games of their first US Open main draws, as well as more experienced players – including Thank you Kovinic (against Williams), Thanasi Kokkinakis (versus Nick Kyrgios) and Alison van Uytvanck (versus Venus Williams) – in her Arthur Ashe debut.

Kovinic, Kokkinakis and Hijikata will all be present during the night session, adding even more fanfare and attention to the task at hand. For McNally, it was the dramatic player performances and entering the pitch with a spotlight that really made it sink in that she wasn’t playing anywhere.

“What I remember first [about walking onto Ashe] thought, ‘Are they going to turn on the light in here?’ because the pitch was pitch black,” McNally told ESPN in 2021 of her prime-time match against Williams. “I felt like I was in a basketball arena or something. It felt so weird. When the light finally came on, I thought, ‘Whoa, there’s a lot of people in here.’ It’s really loud there too. You can hear everyone in this stadium.

“I had to practice there a few times in the morning without anyone being there a day before and the morning of the game. It was completely different. I mean when it’s full it’s just a different atmosphere but it’s amazing and very special to be able to play in front of all these people. I was nervous, of course, but excited at the same time. I just wanted to do my best, show everyone what I’m made of and what I can do. “I’m able to play on the tennis court.”

McNally, then 17, won the first set and became the first player to win a set against Williams in the second round of the tournament, roaring at the crowd, feeding on their energy and basking in the attention. She eventually lost the match 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 and Williams reached the final, but it’s one of McNally’s most treasured memories of her career.

While some feed on the atmosphere, for others the attention can be overwhelming at times. For Gauff, McNally’s former doubles partner and current No. 12, the 48 hours of uninterrupted attention she received ahead of her 2019 Ashe debut added a lot of pressure. The then 15-year-old had made an promising major peloton debut at Wimbledon, where she reached the fourth round. Play in the third round on the acclaimed show court – against Naomi Osaka, the defending champion – seemed like the next step in her natural evolution. Believing her own hype, she was sure that not only would she beat Osaka while the sell-out crowd cheered her on, she would also win the title.

It was all too much.

“That was so stupid of me to believe that because [Osaka] had two Grand Slams at that point and I was 15 playing my first US Open,” Gauff said. “I believed I could win the match, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I thought I should do something – not think I could do it. I actually thought I was expected to do it.”

Gauff broke down in tears at the end of the game 6-3, 6-0. But Osaka was the first to comfort her, and she even encouraged Gauff to go with her for a joint interview on the pitch. While Gauff cried as he spoke, the audience showed a different side and gave her a standing ovation, cheering her loudly with every word. There seemed to be no vacancy throughout the interview.

Although Gauff has achieved incredible results since her Ashe debut, including reaching the 2022 French Open final, she has yet to win a match on the court. She lost against Sloane Stephens in the second round in 2021 as well as in last year’s doubles final.

But this year she is looking to reverse her fortunes at Ashe and record her first win against Jeanjean on Monday, an opponent she is expected to beat. Luckily for Gauff, playing on Ashe gets easier over time, at least according to Townsend.

When Townsend, now 26, finally got a chance to play Ashe again, in a second-round match at the 2019 US Open against the two-time major champion Simona Halep, she was ready. With those in attendance firmly behind her, Townsend pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament that year, reaching her first major knockout round of her career.

“I drew from that first experience with Ashe,” Townsend said. “Mentally, emotionally, physically and playfully, I was a completely different player and had made many changes over those five years, but I could still say, ‘I’ve been here before.’ The tremors and nervousness don’t stop, they were still there but as soon as I got inside [the match]it was incredible and I felt very comfortable playing on this pitch.

“The audience in New York and especially on Ashe is special. Nothing is left unsaid, the emotions are always out there. It’s rowdy, things are loud, it’s fast-paced. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. It makes you want to give people a show.”

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