W atch out for flying objects.
No need to strain your eyes, though. The fluorescent yellow balls being batted around at high speeds during this week’s New Haven Open at Yale are easy to spot against the blue courts at the Connecticut Tennis Center, where this year tournament organizers decided to close off the silver upper bleachers in the main stadium and consolidate ticket availability to the blue box-style seats below.
The idea is to “build more buzz and electricity and energy” among the fans, tournament director Anne Worcester says. From some places in the lower tiers, the springy pop as ball meets racket resonates right up in ears and chests. We may not be able to feel the whiff of the felt-y rubber as it whizzes here and there, but it sure feels like we can.
The seating change this year is perhaps the most literal manifestation of what the tournament’s been doing for many years: bringing New Haveners closer together.
How else does the New Haven Open perform its community-building magic? Let us count the ways.
Does anything say, “Hey stranger, come join us!” like a partially occupied picnic table? More than mere platforms for eating and drinking, picnic tables are about gathering.
Not that eating and drinking are afterthoughts at the NHO: the main concession stand near the tables, manned by local outfit Joe Brandi Catering, offers a surprisingly wide array of burgers, sandwiches, salads and sides, including some tater-rific thick-cut French fries. A Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tent next door (with satellite carts positioned throughout the grounds), New Haven’s Caseus grilled cheese truck and West Hartford’s La Petite France crepe truck expand the tournament’s food offerings considerably further.
As in toasts. Svedka (vodka) and Ooh La La (wine) lounges, much like your favorite local watering holes, promise shelter and companionship. Bartenders are extra-friendly in an environment like this, and there’s plenty to talk about given the sporting spectacle all around and the monitors keeping everyone up on the stadium action.
Clever exhibitor booths.
Two booths in particular have been pulling together crowds of tournament-goers. The AT&T “It Can Wait” tent is a hands-on PSA demonstrating the dangers of texting while driving. A steering wheel, gas/brake pedals and dummy phone sit before a monitor depicting a video game-like driving simulation, and passersby are invited to drive through a digital road environment while responding to a text. The screen flashes red when the driver inevitably hits an obstacle on-screen; participants and onlookers seem to be getting the message.
Nearby, Tennis.com and Fidelity Investments have set up a netted cage where you can show off your tennis serve. But it’s not just a vanity play. Attendants record your technique via iPads and send the video off to a tennis coach, who then sends you tailored feedback and training tips. Judging by the popularity of the booth, Tennis.com’s cadre of enlisted tennis coaches will be very busy this week.
Not the blazing service winners doled out on the court, but rather the “Aces” program that Worcester enacted in 1995 when she was head of the Women’s Tennis Association. One goal of the ongoing program is to make women’s tennis more accessible to fans. At the NHO (and, thanks to Worcester, WTA tournaments around the world), fans and players come together for autograph sessions and quick ping pong bouts behind the scenes, among other activities.
On Monday night, stop-and-start rain caused a roughly 2-hour delay in the evening as fans waited to watch four-time champion Caroline Wozniacki, who not so long ago was the world’s top-ranked player, take on Peng Shuai, a 2012 Wimbledon doubles champion who would later take the first set of the match with some wicked sideline winners.
Twice, NHO staff and volunteers finished drying off the court only to be greeted with more rain. Twice, eager fans in stadium seats groaned in unison and lamented the evening’s fickle skies, then whipped out umbrellas or retreated to the covered areas of the stadium to commiserate.
Those same fans cheered each time the court was dried, and the third time was the charm. When people stick around for two hours, endure wet rear ends from rained-upon seats and sacrifice sleep on a Monday night just to watch first-round matches, you know something special is afoot. After Monday’s crowd proved NHO fans’ solidarity, weather reports have promised mostly pleasant conditions for the rest of the tournament.
As the 2013 New Haven Open serves and volleys towards a conclusion this Saturday, bask in its world-class tennis and citywide kinship.
New Haven Open at Yale
Connecticut Tennis Center – 45 Yale Ave, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.