OF COURSE IT’S AMERICAN . . . IT’S THE U.S. OPEN

FLUSHING MEADOW, N.Y. — They are stripped naked for 10 minutes a day. All of them. Martina and Chris, McEnroe and Lendl and Connors, even golden boy Boris Becker, exposed for all to see every time they make the walk from the locker room to the stadium.

Yes, the big shots must wade through the crowd here — past the hamburger stands and bathroom lines — just like the regular folk, without priority, without special privilege. Sure, they walk a little faster and try to look disinterested.

That works for about two seconds. Then someone inevitably yells, “YO! IT’S MCENROE!” and, boom, the free-for-all begins. Crowds swarm, cameras pop out, and any bimbo with a beer and a program gets to shove both in the face of a player who’s due on center court in five minutes.

This is not Wimbledon, or Paris, or Australia.

This is the U.S. Open.

Care of New York City, America. U.S. title eludes foreigners

“The people’s tournament” is what Chris Evert Lloyd calls it. And she’s right. Distinctly American. If Wimbledon is a blue blazer and a tweed cap, then the U.S. Open is cutoffs and a Springsteen T-shirt. It’s tennis down where you can touch it. Working man to its very surface. The French is on clay, Wimbledon is on grass. But the U.S. Open is on cement, baby. Crack your head open.

All of which makes it the toughest stop on the Grand Slam circuit. Ask the foreign players. They’ll tell you. This event plays you as much as you play it, with an unforgiving rhythm that says, “Compete to the beat, or you’re dead.”

Foreigners die here. Ivan Lendl, for all his success, has never won a U.S. Open crown. Neither has Sweden’s Mats Wilander, this year’s French Open champ. Even the magnificent Bjorn Borg, who won every other major title, could not capture this one.

“This tournament is very difficult for foreign players,” Wilander said. “It is very . . . American.”

Of course.

This is the U.S. Open.

Care of New York City, America.

The last six men’s champions and the last 11 women’s champions here have all been Americans. It’s partly because the Floridians and Californians and New Yorkers who play here grew up on hard court surfaces.

And it’s more. Remember, tennis is largely mental, its players often as tightly tuned as a violin string. But between the traffic, the noise, the crowds that hang over the practice court fences, the planes that buzz the stadium from above and the 20,000 fans that buzz it from within, well, their concentration can be strummed here like a punk rock guitar.

As far as anyone can recall, this is the only major tournament in which a fan was once shot in the stands, and was upset not because of the wound but because reporters were asking him questions and he was there with a woman other than his wife.

Even a hometown favorite like John McEnroe gets no favors. A few years ago, some box seat fans were heckling him so loudly that he ran over, took a handful of sawdust from his pocket and threw it in their faces.

They went home and sued him.

This is the U.S. Open.

Care of New York City, America. Blood and guts on the courts

And good for it. The tennis world is too often just the beautiful people in sun hats and cultured accents. Here the game is picked from the pockets of the country club set and for two weeks is handed over to the general public.

“They want blood and guts tennis,” says Connors, who’s won here five times.

And the rules here help ensure it. In the other three Grand Slam events, if a match comes down to a 6-6 tie in the final set, a player has to win by two games.

Not here. In America’s tournament it’s a tiebreaker. Survival of the fittest.

All of which makes this the grittiest tournament around, and, because of its surface, the truest test of pure tennis talent on the Grand Slam lineup.

“Making it all the way here,” Connors says, “means you’ve done a lot more than just play good tennis.”

Forgive it its grime, its corned beef atmosphere, its lack of Dukes and Duchesses. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter. From the rules to the roar to that naked walk through the eye of the public hurricane, it issues its own challenge.

This is the U.S. Open.

Care of New York City, America.

Beat it.

Or beat it.

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