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Reporter's Notebook: Night Tennis

Arthur Ashe Stadium at night
By Nicholas McCarvel
Thursday, September 4, 2014

A couple weeks a year, 10 miles from Manhattan, a place in Queens glows and buzzes like no other in the city that never sleeps.

Night tennis has always been different from its daytime counterpart, whether played in Sydney or South Florida or Singapore: It feels mystical, magical and cinematic. It invokes that kind of feeling you had as a kid when something exciting was happening the next day, like the whole world was right in front of you and you could wrap your arms around it.

Arthur Ashe Stadium transforms on late summer evenings as the Open shifts from day to night. The football-field lights flick on, as bright as Broadway, and a sort of mood carried with a liquor breath flows over the court, which itself becomes a screen and a stage both at once.

Tuesday night I let myself watch uninterrupted tennis for the first time in I don’t know how long. I grabbed a water and a bag of popcorn (it seemed appropriate) and made my way courtside, where Sara Errani stood in the way of Caroline Wozniacki’s bid for her first Grand Slam semifinal in three years.

The murmur around Ashe never dies as the tennis gets underway. Fans are passengers on a New York subway car of tennis. The match lurches from one stop to the next, momentum swaying and switching and finding one side of the tracks, then the other.

Nothing in the Big Apple thrives without big names. On this night, it’s actors Alec Baldwin, Sally Field and Luke Wilson and designer Michael Kors. They blend in with the crowd, only catching your eye if you’re lucky enough to spot them, like a familiar face on a crowded Midtown Manhattan sidewalk.

New Yorkers are excitable – especially at night. They “oooo” and “awwww” at the instant-replay challenges on the big screen, dance with the music as it pulses through Ashe between games and sets, and never quite quiet down when they are supposed to.

Perhaps the biggest thing besides the illuminated tennis is the blackened night sky. For the benefit of Queens, Manhattan blurs out the stars above, leaving a blank canvas of unknown engulfing the stadium. It’s hard to tell where the fans stop and the vastness of night begins.   

“You walk out, and you basically can't see the top stands,” a wide-eyed Wozniacki says in her press conference, fresh off a comfortable win. “It feels a little more cozy because it's dark around. There is just something special about that atmosphere.”

As the tennis comes to a close, the photographers follow the action, positioning themselves on the side of the winner to get the reaction shot, the money shot. The winner's arms are raised overhead as shutters snap – a match over and a night suddenly normal again. Too bad the tennis can’t last forever.