NEW YORK — Carol Berger handed her hotel key to the man behind the desk.

“Checking out,” she said.

This was last Wednesday, the day her son, Jay, was to play his first match in the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

Don’t misunderstand. She loves him and all. But Jay is ranked 733d in the world — actually, he’s in a 72-way tie for 733d in the world — and Mrs. Berger just figured, you know, the hotel rates being what they are in New York, she didn’t want to get stuck paying for another night once Jay lost.

But Jay won.

And so Mrs. Berger went back to the hotel desk that evening.

“Checking in,” she said.

Jay’s next match was on Friday. Mrs. Berger checked out, just to be safe.

Jay won. She went back again.

His third-round match was scheduled for Sunday morning. The opponent? Brian Teacher, the 1980 Australian Open champion.

Again, Mom checked out. And again Jay won, in four sets. Suddenly, out of 128 players, he was down to the round of 16 — the only American besides John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Tim Mayotte and Greg Holmes to be there.

And that evening, Mrs. Berger was back at the hotel desk, asking for a room.

This is a little story about center court at America’s biggest tennis tournament. And how sometimes, you never can tell. No more hamburger stands

There are 20,000 seats in the main stadium here, which is at least 15,000 more than Jay Berger ever played before in his life.

He is only 18, a sophomore at Clemson. He qualified for the U.S. Open by winning a junior title. He couldn’t even take any money because he’s an amateur.

Yet there he was Tuesday morning, center court, across the net from France’s Yannick Noah, the seventh-ranked player in the world.

His opponent.

“God, that Noah’s a big guy,” Mrs. Berger whispered. She and her oldest daughter, Sherri, were seated in the box reserved for players’ families.

What a change! Jay’s first match had been on court 25, behind the hamburger stand, his third match on court 3, behind the ice cream stand.

“Time,” the announcer said.

The match began. Jay lost the first game without scoring a point, as most had predicted.

“He needs to relax,” his mother said, fidgeting in her seat.

An usher led an attractive blond woman and several friends into the box. They were speaking French. “That’s Noah’s wife,” someone whispered. Mrs. Berger tried not to stare.

Out on the court, Jay hit some strong two-handed backhands and, bingo, he won a game. Then he won a few more. After 10 games, somehow it was even, 5-5.

Noah was frustrated. Jay was playing out of his head. The stadium was filling up. “Who is this kid?” they asked.

Then suddenly Jay made a drop shot and leaped into the air. The score was six games-all. No. 733 was taking No. 7 to a tiebreaker. He charged No. 7 guts-first

Mrs. Berger couldn’t watch the first serve. She stared at her feet until she heard the thwock.

Amazing. Jay won the first point. And the third and the fourth.

“Wooh! Wooh!” his family was screaming. Noah’s wife and her friends looked over their shoulders, annoyed.

Another point. Another. Jay led, 6-3 — just one point from winning the set.

Mrs. Berger squeezed her eyes shut. “First serve in,” she whispered, “first serve in.”

Jay whipped his first serve in, Noah returned it and came to the net. Volley. Volley. Noah hit a drop shot and Jay charged it guts-first and scooped it over the net.

“HE WON! HE WON!”

The Bergers were on their feet. “Oh, God, that was such a pretty point!” his mother squealed, not knowing what else to say. She told her daughter to take a picture of the scoreboard showing Jay leading Yannick Noah, 7-6. Her daughter snapped the picture.

Amazing. Wow. How do you like that? For a moment, anything, everything was possible.

Well, to no surprise, Jay lost the next three sets. Actually, it was never really close again.

When it ended, Mrs. Berger stood up and applauded for No. 733, and so did the entire stadium. Later, Jay said he had really only hoped “not to go out there and get abused.”

And today he’s back at school. If he’s lucky, he got a few seconds on the evening news. Another upstart eliminated. It never means as much to others, but the dreamer never forgets:

For one glorious moment, Jay Berger, 18, was ahead on center court of the U.S. Open.

You never can tell.

He and his mom didn’t get to check into a hotel Tuesday night. That’s OK. They got a lot more.

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