For any lover of sport, nothing compares with the live experience of seeing the finest exponents battling it out at the highest level of competition.
At a rudimentary level, watching athletic combat through the filter of the television screen or the laptop removes the spectator from multiple sensual experiences: the scale of the playing surface, the speed of the ball, the temperature of the environment.
Then there are the intricacies of movement, the nuances of personality, the sound of effort, and what goes on during the “down time” between points, goals, and timeouts.
A further dimension comes from being part of a gathering of like-minded enthusiasts: the shared pleasures, the partisan cheering, and the growing excitement of the unfolding competition.
Live tennis has all these qualities in spades.
Maybe it is the uniquely gladiatorial nature of the sport, which pits the mind, body, and skill of one person against another so completely. That gets the pulse racing.
The ultimate ambition for most tennis fans, therefore, is to sit courtside and watch Master- or Slam-level competition in all its artistry and physicality.
It’s a fortunate person indeed who can fulfil that ambition, and still more fortunate to see just one tournament on each of the major surfaces.
That was the dream of this addict.
The budget was very limited and destinations were therefore influenced by what opportunities presented themselves. But the choices of event have proved to have hugely differing consequences, both for the pocket and the blood pressure.
And the most expensive lesson has been learned from trying to fulfil the final target: the U.S. Open.
To explain the problem, it’s necessary to go back to the start of this journey.
Shanghai may not seem like the logical first step, but it was offered as the journey of a lifetime by my daughter, and grabbed with both hands.
Thus began the pursuit of precious tennis tickets.
Of course the distribution of tickets to international destinations is more complex than to a domestic audience, but the Chinese approach was exemplary.
Just two months ahead of the Masters Cup at the stunning lotus flower arena in Shanghai, I ordered four tickets across two different nights in a single transaction online. I then ordered another ticket a week later.
Within a fortnight, I had notification that my tickets were ready for collection at the local DHL depot. What’s more, the two separate orders had arrived, from the other side of the world, in one delivery.
The seats were excellent and we enjoyed a doubles and two singles matches per session.
The total cost for five tickets: £222, or $367.
Next up was a long weekend in Rome, this time with my husband. The Italians, compared with the Chinese, turn disorder into an art form.
Negotiating the Web site—even in its English iteration—had me screaming obscenities at the screen. But with persistence and numerous dead ends, I got through to the specialist Italian ticket broker.
I had to order one ticket at a time for three separate sessions, and could only collect each of them on the actual day of play from the Foro Italica.
In practice, this involved a chaotic, snail-paced queue three separate times. The “office” was inauspicious—a tiny hole in a concrete wall—but sure enough, the tickets were waiting and the seats were mid-arena: a terrific view.
The finals, both singles and doubles, cost the same, but at the concrete hole, I was given a free upgrade to a near-courtside seat.
Still no idea why, still blown away by the afternoon, still impressed at how apparent chaos resulted in the right tickets, great tennis, and outstanding value for money.
The most prestigious Grand Slam stop on the tennis tour at Wimbledon is characterised by many as exclusive—even elitist.
It is certainly harder to get tickets here than for any other Major.
But the All England Club takes pride in its egalitarian approach to distributing those precious tickets and in the fairness of its pricing. The processes are rigid, but scrupulously fair. Enter the ballot, and if you’re drawn out of the hat, pay direct to Wimbledon online.
Every seat on each show court costs the same, and where you sit is the luck of the draw.
I got lucky: a seat on Centre Court on the first Friday, six rows back from the grass and level with the net cost £65 (just over $100).
That’s for an entire day’s play, four best-of-five matches.
It happened to start with Federer, was followed by Victoria Azarenka, then Djokovic, and finally a doubles match.
If you arrive early—as most do—you can watch other top players just metres away on the outside courts. On that same Friday, I caught Venus Williams and Robin Soderling in practice.
This was tennis up-close and personal, at a real value-for-money rate to Joe Public. And if you chose to queue from around 6:00 am, you might have got all this for about £20 (under $30).
There are no short-cuts (unless you know someone wanting to sell their debenture), there are no guarantees of a ticket, but if you are lucky, it’s the best experience at the best price in the tennis world.
Now keep that $100 Wimbledon experience foremost for a moment, as we move to the final event, on the final surface, and the biggest trip of all: New York.
Because that is the cost of one evening session at the U.S. Open, possibly two matches at the very top of the vast Arthur Ashe Stadium: the ones where nosebleeds come free of charge.
Another head-to-head comparison rubs more salt into the wound.
Those five Masters Cup tickets in Shanghai, evening sessions mid-arena, cost three-quarters of a Flushing Meadow "Holiday Plan" package of six tickets that are, again, as far away from the court as it’s possible to be (which on AA is a very long way!).
These are my insurance tickets, my guarantee that I will at least have seats for the days I’m in New York. It’s sometimes possible to upgrade tickets immediately before matches, a gauntlet I will attempt to run on my final solo days at the event. But I wanted to share at least a couple of matches in reasonable seats with my daughter before she has to return to the UK.
And anyway, it's the purchase of individual tickets where the real financial pain kicks in.
I track down a pair of seats in the first main tier, in line with the net, for a first-week, evening session (just two matches).
I consult with my husband, take a deep breath, and press the purchase button. I’ve just spent $530 (£320) and I start to question my sanity.
Add to this the ignominy of Ticketmaster charges of around $15 (£10) per ticket. And I have to queue to collect them immediately before the match.
This all needs to be put into context, of course. First, I’m fortunate that I can, for just once in my life, treat my daughter to this special trip at all.
Second, this is one of the biggest tennis events in the world and will be, I have no doubt, the most exciting, charismatic, and unique experience of my tennis life.
Like that Shanghai moment, we may never have the chance again.
But other things also need to be put into context.
These seats are expensive, even the ones in the most remote rows of this 22,500 capacity arena.
The supplementary online “service” costs are insulting—Rome and Shanghai charged a fraction of the handling costs.
New York is an expensive city, but is it more expensive than Rome, London, or Shanghai? Judging from the cost of very similar hotels in each place, not really.
I guess it's market forces. If there is a demand for so many seats for two sessions a day, then the cost can be justified. But had I known that cost before I started, I might have looked to other tournaments for my personal “grand slam” of surfaces.
As it is, the bags are packed, the expectations high, and the pulse racing. Regardless of the cost, it will be a fitting climax to this particular dream.
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