NEW YORK — On a star-studded summer night in 2014, Michael Jordan sat in Roger Federer’s players box at the US Open, fixated on how smooth Federer looked on the court. Caroline Wozniacki once hosted Donald Trump, and the paparazzi snapped pictures of the future president and his wife, Melania, ever-stylish in her aviator glasses. Wozniacki didn’t actually know Trump at the time.
Because everything in New York is bigger and weirder, the two players boxes at the US Open are among the most interesting consortiums in sports. Each player in action at Arthur Ashe Stadium gets 15 seats, which are filled by people there for business (coaches, trainers and physiotherapists), and those there for support and pleasure (moms, friends, celebrities and the occasional pet dog).
American Sam Querrey, the 21st-ranked player in the world, is hard-pressed to name the most interesting person who has sat in his box. “I’m Sam Querrey, not Roger Federer,” he says. “I’ve played on Ashe three times. My friends and I joke around about it. It’d be fun to have some random people in there, like R. Kelly and Celine Dion sitting together. Like a random duo.
“But I don’t really care. I’d rather have my friends and family in there.”
The space at Ashe, the marquee court at the US Open, is by no means a luxury box. There are no waiters who refill $25 glasses of Moet & Chandon, which, by the way, flows rather heavily in the club seats. There are no ropes or cushions on the plastic seats.
But make no mistake, this spot is special. Sometimes, the list of people who sit there is almost as intriguing as the tennis. The space is also important to the players.
“It’s crazy,” says Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, “because this box is like the center of attraction of their eye throughout the whole match. The players watch between every point. And even the ones who say they don’t, they do. They try to hide it. Some people think this is a weakness from the player because they’re looking for help.
“They’re not looking for help — I mean, some do, but they’re sharing. They’re sharing their emotion. That’s the first thing they do when they enter the court. They look at the box and they have in their mind a photograph of the box, who’s there and everything.”
More than 20 years ago, when Louis Armstrong was the main stadium at the US Open, there were only eight seats in each players box. David Brewer, the US Open tournament director, said the decision was made to make the boxes bigger at Ashe because of players’ added entourages. But within a few years, even 15 wasn’t enough.
Of all the ways to get to a major sporting event, there’s nothing like taking the subway to the US Open. From Manhattan to Queens, the world unfolds, as diverse and urban as you could imagine.
It’s quirky and different, and it’s only temporary. Still, Louis Armstrong stadium has a unique feel.
Get the 2017 US Open tennis tournament’s dates, TV schedule, news coverage, live scores and results on ESPN.
The high-profile players of today travel with a group that can include a coach, an assistant coach, a hitting partner, a trainer, a physical therapist and various publicists and agents. Coaches usually occupy the first row of the box, family is in the second, and celebrities and sponsors sometimes fill out the back.
Brewer says that women use fewer seats in the box than men. Maria Sharapova is a classic example of this. In an early-round match at Ashe this past week, her players box was only half-full. There were no celebrities; just the essentials.
And then there’s Serena Williams.
Williams, who had a baby girl Friday and is out of this year’s US Open, makes use of all of her space. Her family sits in the front row, and the coaches are placed behind them. Mouratoglou, who’s also an ESPN analyst, says Williams has this setup because her family is very superstitious, as are many tennis players. Sometimes, if someone in the box wears a particular hat during a good match, someone might insist that they continue to wear the hat throughout the tournament.
Williams is also known to have some of the most interesting celebrities in her space. Beyonce and Jay Z rooted her on last summer. The couple was rather quiet, unlike Eva Longoria, a good friend of Williams’. Longoria really gets into the matches and can yell very loud.
Mackie Shilstone might be the oldest person in Williams’ box. Shilstone, 66, is Williams’ trainer. Every match, he grabs a plastic racket bag and fills it with liters of water, then passes them out around the box until they’re gone. He has no idea sometimes who he’s giving water to, because Shilstone is not exactly plugged in on what’s hip. Oftentimes has to ask someone who that is sitting behind him in the box. For example, he didn’t know he was right next to Vogue editor Anna Wintour until his wife told him.
One time, a dark-haired woman tapped him on the shoulder to ask a tennis question. Shilstone didn’t think much of it, until a friend texted him a picture that was all over social media, a picture of him and the woman. Shilstone leaned down to ask Serena’s sister Venus who the woman was.
“Mackie,” Venus told him, “you’re the only person in the world who doesn’t know that’s Kim Kardashian!”
American Sloane Stephens is a player who may soon be drawing the attention of celebrities who want to hang out in her players box. Stephens is talented and personable and has become sort of a media darling with her megawatt smile.
After she advanced to the round of 16 on Friday night, Stephens shrugged when asked how she decides who sits in her box.
“You can ask the guy in the blue shirt,” she said, referring to her agent, John Tobias. “He kind of makes all the decisions.
“I honestly put no thought into that whatsoever.”
Stephens’ list isn’t all that flashy: her coach, her hitting partner, her mom. Tobias usually lets some sponsors in, too. Stephens is 24 and sat out for almost a year with a stress fracture before making her 2017 debut at Wimbledon. Maybe her entourage needs time to grow. Probably the most famous person in her space is soccer star Jozy Altidore, but it’s not as if she invites him just to name-drop.
Altidore is Stephens’ boyfriend.
Tobias says that if Jay Z and Beyonce ever wanted to sit in Stephens’ box, he’d run it by her first so she didn’t look up and “freak out.” He represents a lot of tennis players, has sat in many players boxes, and is convinced of just one thing: His presence there doesn’t make much of a difference.
“I mean, we’re all sitting there like, ‘Yeah, come on,'” he says. “We think [the players are] looking at us. But really, they’re just looking at their coach.”