Look, it’s Regis! Upper Balcony Vets Ogle at the Open

It took about 30 years, but I finally scored courtside seats at the U.S. Open last week. I didn’t get them because my reality-TV show debuts on CBS this season, or because I’m a partner at Goldman Sachs, or because I was the men’s champion in a bygone era-the typical route to bragging-rights seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Frankly, I snuck in during a rain delay. But that didn’t make my triumph any less impressive.

To understand how far I’d come, you need to know something about my tennis history-not as a player, but as a fan. Every year my friend Ann and I purchase a pair of the “best available” seats through Ticketmaster. Since I have no connections, and since all the good seats have been leased in perpetuity to companies like American Express and the Trump Organization, my tickets are invariably in the nosebleed section.

When the matches were held at the Louis Armstrong Arena next-door, we didn’t really mind. Even the cheap seats had a reasonable view of the court; at least you felt you were at the same event as the swells down below. Also, as much as we love the game of tennis, Ann and I continued to go because the Open has become an annual ritual, reassuring in its simple repetitiveness, sort of like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The match was almost secondary; we’d dine on overpriced hot dogs and beer, catch up on gossip and compete to spot celebrities through our binoculars. Occasionally, we’d even watch the tournament.

But with the move to the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium-which may be the perfect size for NCAA Division I football, but not for watching a tiny tennis ball-it’s become almost impossible to pay attention anymore, at least from our stratospheric “promenade” seats. We’re so far away that the players and celebrities even look small through high-powered binoculars.

By the way, the cost of the privilege this year was over $80 a ticket, not including the $6.50 for my Heineken and the $4.50 for my tepid foot-long hot dog and stale bun. To give the U.S. Open its due, however, the napkins were free and Continental Airlines was handing out complimentary mouse pads as we arrived. (I took two in an effort to amortize the cost of the evening.)

Nonetheless, the match got off to an auspicious start. I spotted Regis Philbin through my binos on the terrace of one of the luxury suites along with his wife Joy and Claudia Cohen, the gossip columnist and ex-wife of billionaire Ron Perelman. Before Ann could even get on the board, I had another celeb in the crosshairs-former Senator and 9/11 commission member Bob Kerrey. I was clearly on a roll. Andy Roddick also happened to be playing Swede Joachim Johansson, but I couldn’t have cared less.

Unfortunately, that’s when the rain started. We fled downstairs in search of shelter and found ourselves standing outside the President’s Suite. The atmosphere was altogether different down there, almost clubby with the overstuffed armchairs that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the lobby of a Four Seasons Hotel-not that anyone invited us in.

However, Jimmy Connors stood outside, not more than 10 feet away, signing oversized tennis balls and posing for photographs. We’d suddenly gone from being outsiders to, if not quite ex-champions, at least eyewitnesses. Understandably, we didn’t want to leave.

So when the rain stopped, we wandered out into the stadium. We fully intended to return to our soaking-wet upper-balcony seats when the match started, so help me God! But the court was so close, the lights were so bright, and nobody stopped us.

We snagged a couple of choice courtside seats as the USTA’s new “Slamboni” machines blow-dried the courts and the boldface names slowly filtered back in. There was actor Alec Baldwin with a stunning Asian date (no visible panty line, noted Ann, who had yet to cough up her first celeb; I spotted Alec, too). Beyond him was former Mayor David Dinkins, and directly in front of us actor Jon Lovitz.

I started to think of myself as a seat filler, like at the Oscars. Not to harp on our good fortune or drop extraneous names, but we were also in the same section as comedian Alan King’s wife and grandson, who were subsequently honored on the Jumbotron. The Open just isn’t the same without Alan, who died last May. Even when there wasn’t another star in the house, we could always count on Alan to be there, holding court from his front-row box. He’ll be missed.

By way of contrast, Mr. Lovitz couldn’t have cared less about the match: He kept looking up over his shoulder at the USA Network broadcast booth, trying to get buddy Martin Short’s attention and giving him the finger. Even Ilie Nastase didn’t act like that in his heyday.

Of course, I was terrified of being discovered and evicted. Ann didn’t make matters any better by continuing to hunt for celebrities through her binoculars. That was a dead giveaway that we were illegal immigrants from the cheap seats. People privileged to sit this close don’t need binoculars. I suggested she put them away.

I can’t tell you the difference it makes sitting courtside. It was less that we were watching a different sport than that we finally counted. We were participants-if not quite players, then honorary referees and line judges whose catcalls might well influence the outcome of the match.

I wasn’t confident we weren’t going to get banished or even arrested until the start of the final set. The paranoia was almost as overpowering as Andy Roddick’s serve on a good day. I was convinced that people were looking at me dressed in shorts and Converse sneakers (my wife made some crack about summer camp as I left the apartment), sensing I was unworthy, an interloper. But it eventually occurred to me that the reason they were examining me-if they were-is because they thought I was somebody important, too.

By the time I was able to relax, my bladder felt like it was going to burst. (I couldn’t run the risk of going to the bathroom, fearing I’d never get back in once I left.)

Frankly, I don’t know whether I’ll be back next year. I’m appreciative I got to frolic among the gods. But now I’m spoiled. I know what I’m missing. And as much as I love the game of tennis, even stronger is my urge that the USTA and Ticketmaster never be allowed to take advantage of me again.

Perhaps I should start sucking up to my lawyer and investment-banker friends with Open tickets now for next year. Or apply for a press pass. Did I mention that the USTA National Tennis Center is ideal for holding your next corporate outing?