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For Latino Tennis Fans, The U.S. Open Is An Annual Must

Image: Victor Estrella Burgos

Victor Estrella Burgos, of Dominican Republic, reacts after a point against Igor Sijsling, of the Netherlands, during the first round of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, in New York. Darron Cummings / AP

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY -- More than 700,000 people are expected to walk through the gates of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY, to watch a grand total of 919 matches at this year’s 2014 US Open tennis tournament, the largest attended sporting event in the world. For tennis fans, this is the place to be.

“It’s just exciting to be here and to see all these people and to watch the games and see our idols,” said Paula Zorraquin, a visitor from Paraguay, back for a second year in a row. She and her friends came here hoping to see players like Spaniard David Ferrer and to soak up the atmosphere.

Victor Mazo, Paula Zorraquin, Matilde Gonzalez and Martin Estigarribia, tourists from Paraguay, at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, NY, on August 26, 2014.
Victor Mazo, Paula Zorraquin, Matilde Gonzalez and Martin Estigarribia, tourists from Paraguay, at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, NY, on August 26, 2014. Alexandra Howe

Diego Calderon, 25, visiting for the first time with his sister from Colombia, agreed that it is a unique experience. “It is very different from other grand slams. People are a little bit crazy. The atmosphere is great, it’s summer, and we get to see all the players.” The siblings are here to support Colombian players like Alejandro Falla, Santiago Giraldo and Alejandro Gonzalez among others.

Tennis fans Diana Calderon, 30 and Diego Calderon, 25, attending the U.S. Open on August 26, 2015.  They are visiting from Colombia.
Tennis fans Diana Calderon, 30 and Diego Calderon, 25, attending the U.S. Open on August 26, 2015. They are visiting from Colombia. Alexandra Howe

But it’s not just the fans who love the U.S. Open. New Yorker Alana Melendez, 21, has been a ball girl here for nine years. For her the best part of the job is being a part of the action. “You have a role to play in the matches, and I like playing tennis. It’s like the excitement of watching a match, but times 100 because you are on the court with them.”

Days like this past Tuesday are what make the job special. She was assigned to work on Court 6 where the story of the day unfolded, when 34-year-old Victor Estrella Burgos from the Dominican Republic made history as the first of his country's players compete and then move through to the second round of a Grand Slam.

Ball girl Alana Melendez, 21, at the 2014 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York on August 26, 2014.
Ball girl Alana Melendez, 21, at the 2014 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York on August 26, 2014. Alexandra Howe

“There was such a great vibe,” recalled Melendez. “It seemed like there were a lot of people of Dominican or Hispanic descent that were just out there cheering for him in the first set when he was down, and they just stuck through it with him and he was able to win and that was really exciting,” the Latina ball girl said.

In his post-match interview, Burgos said the fans' support was what made the difference. “I was a little nervous, serving at match point, especially in New York. A lot of Dominican people came to support me….I was almost crying. So much emotion.”

Image: Victor Estrella Burgos
Victor Estrella Burgos, of Dominican Republic, reacts after a point against Igor Sijsling, of the Netherlands, during the first round of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, in New York. Darron Cummings / AP

Burgos' supporters were so loud that after serving at 40-0 for the match he thought he had an ace to win it, only to realize that the chair umpire had called it out and it had been drowned by all the cheering. He had to slog through a couple more points to finally close out the game at 40-30. “I had to win this match twice” he added laughing.

Burgos has his work cut out for him on Thursday, when he faces his next challenger, Borna Coric of Croatia, a player half his age. However, he is up for the challenge. “That is why I am here. Because I believe in everything about my game,” the Dominican player said.

A lot of Dominican people came to support me….I was almost crying. So much emotion," said Victor Estrella Burgos, the first Dominican to play in the U.S. Open, who went on to win a Grand Slam.

Apart from Burgos, there was another record achieved during the opening days of this tournament, which runs from August 25th through September 8th. According to Ron Rocchi, Global Tour Manager for Wilson, 448 racquets were strung on site on Monday, the highest number to date, adding that they are “on track to string 4,500 racquets this tournament, and use 34 miles of string.”

The stringing room at the Open is a hub of frenetic activity. Just ask Luis Pianelli, a 46-year old Argentinian who travels with Wilson to various tournaments. “I calculate that I strung around 34 racquets myself that day,” adding that on average it takes him about 16 to 20 minutes per racquet.

An avid tennis player himself, Pianelli has been working on racquets since his dad bought him a stringing machine when he was 12 years old. He has strung racquets for big name players like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and he loves being in the center of it all. “I love watching the players come and go, and it is a great way to pass the time," he said.

Tennis racket stringer Luis Pianelli, 46 is seen here working at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Tennis racket stringer Luis Pianelli, 46 is seen here working at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York at the 2014 U.S. Open. Alexandra Howe

Pianelli is a big supporter of the Spanish players, just like Westchester County, New York attendee, Jose Antonio Montano. The 43-year old Bolivian would like to see more of them go farther in the rankings. “Hopefully they are going to get better.”

This was a sentiment echoed by Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a 31-year-old player who also made it through to the next round. “There are a lot of Spanish players who can do really good in the tournament. We will see,” he said, adding that is nice to have the support of Spanish fans.

“You feel it when you are on the court," said Garcia-Lopez. "For example, today when I was on the court, I felt a lot of people calling my name in Spanish, and it was nice.”

This intimacy between fans and players and the general excitement is what keeps Alana Melendez coming back each year to be one of 80 ball persons selected from a field of 400 applicants. “It’s really special. Every year I say it’s going to be my last, but every year I keep coming back.”