The thing about The French Open tennis tournament, the thing about spring in Paris, the thing that sets Roland Garros apart from everything else on the planet is the color. The clay that they play on is a deep, rich, deep indelible red.
And the thing about Wimbledon, early summer in London, is the smell. The scent of fresh cut grass permeates not just the courts, but the grounds, and, I would argue, the history of the sport, men and women sporting all white have enjoyed this sweet perfume for generations.
But the thing about the U.S. Open, the thing about late summer in Queens, the thing about the last grand slam of the season, is the locals. (Alas, no one knows why there even is an Australian Open.)
But about these locals, these New Yorkers ... Any way you slice it, this is a diverse bunch. Ethnicity, culture, race, creed, sexual orientation -- and in all shapes and sizes. I mean, twenty million people are bound to be a little different.
And yet there's one thing all these folks have in common, one trait that is present in every single resident of New York City.
They're jaded. And why wouldn't they be? They've seen it all.
On a daily basis they live through the best and worst of humanity. Some pervert cuts your hair in the subway, shows it to you before he dashes into the night and says, 'Now I have a piece of you forever.' Just another manic Monday. A bizarre heiress dies and leaves $200 million to her dog. Must be Tuesday. Donald Trump decides to make one floor of his favorite building solid gold. Is it Wednesday already?
They've seen every performer. Every world champion -- hockey, baseball, football, basketball. Every Broadway musical. Every supermodel. Every celebrity. Every head of state. They've even seen every New Jersey resident twice.
Most of them never leave Manhattan. Why would they? The rest of the world comes to them.
And yet, for two weeks in late August, they jump in town cars, or catch a cab, or take the subway and go to, of all places, Queens, to Flushing Meadows to watch, of all things, tennis.
Most of these Yankees don't know the difference between a forehand and backhand, yet, there they are, standing in line, paying hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for tickets and $20 for a crappy cheeseburger to be entertained by tennis?
Of course tennis fans come from all over the States and even the world to watch the tennis, but the thing that makes the U.S. Open the U.S. Open are the folks that come from Manhattan. Ask these locals outside the Open and they wouldn't even deign to call tennis a sport. An effete dalliance, yes. An activity for old people, fine. A sport, puh-leeze?
So why would people who barely know how to keep score come here? Why do they take the day off work to sit in 90-degree heat and 80-percent humidity? Why do they get dressed up in their fine linens, grab a date and come for a Saturday night?
I'll tell you why.
They're not actually watching tennis. They're watching two people try to kill each other.
If you've only seen tennis on television you will be forgiven for thinking that the players are just hitting a yellow ball back and forth until someone misses. But if you've ever seen professional tennis live, sat close enough to the court to see a ball go whizzing past, to hear the explosion that happens when the racket hits the ball, then you know there's something more going on here.
Yes, sometimes these players are trying to outlast each other. And sometimes they're trying to hit it past each other. But sometimes these athletes are trying to hit through each other. Moreover, these men and women are very, very good at hitting tennis balls. You would not be going too far to call them the best in the world at hitting balls. So when these cats try to hit through each other, it feels like they're trying to kill each other.
That's pretty cool, even to a New Yorker. In fact, it vaguely reminds them of the one time they tried to play tennis. Don't be ridiculous, they say. I never tried to play that. But you did. Once. Way back when. Still don't remember? I'll refresh your memory.
You were 10, maybe 11 and came across two old rackets in the back of a closet. You dusted off the sticks, called your best friend, bought a new can of balls at the hardware store, and head out to the park. Then you two tried to hit. Forehands weren't terrible but backhands were a disaster. Worse, anytime you tried to actually hit the ball with any pace on it the damn thing went outside the lines. Once it went over the fence. You spent 18 of the 20 minutes on court going to get the goddamn balls. But as you were leaving, vowing never play this stupid, worthless sport again, you do something really, really satisfying.
You hit the ball as hard as you can.
It feels good. In fact, it's euphoric. It sails high and far, well into the outfield of the adjacent baseball field. If tennis was more like this, you think, then that would be something. Yeah, well, if your dog would pick up after himself that would be sweet, too, but it's never gonna happen. That was the first and last time you ever played tennis.
But that's what New Yorkers feel when they're watching the U.S. Open -- euphoria.
What do you think a first serve is? Someone is hitting the ball as hard as they can. And, as I said before, these guys are really good at doing this. They can hit the ball 120, 130, sometimes even 140 miles per hour. But get this. The player on the other side of the net isn't doing what you and I would do if that was happening. They are standing right in front of where they think the ball is going. Crazy.
As an added bonus, once they're at Flushing Meadows, the New Yorkers who barely know the rules of this sport so they see a lot of things a true tennis fan doesn't.
They might not know how to keep score but they know the difference between the hunter and the hunted. They know pressure when they see it. They can see passion, triumph, guts, body blows. They can see someone rise to the occasion and they can hear the sound of heartbreak. They can even see who's winning even when the score says its even.
These are nuances ESPN pays John McEnroe to shed light on. But to a New Yorker, it's obvious.
So grab a beer. Pull up a seat. Come to Queens and watch the locals screaming their heads off, cheering, heckling, shouting advice -- about tennis!
In the end what makes the U.S. Open special is the fact the most jaded people in the world are entertained by two people hitting a little, fuzzy, little yellow ball. Yeah, they're watching tennis. But don't tell the locals this.
They think they're watching a street fight.
-- Rob Perez is a writer for screen and television whose credits include "40 Days & 40 Nights." He is a passionate tennis fan, player and periodic coach.