Each day during the U.S. Open, Michael Barkann, USA Network’s roving announcer, scours the grounds of the National Tennis Center looking for stories. Mr. Barkann, who hosts a late-night cable talk show in Philadelphia, has been doing the Open for nine years. Dressed in a blue blazer, khaki pants and white K-Swiss tennis shoes, he pops up all over the place in pursuit of sweet features and celebrity interviews. The tennis people love him.
One evening during the first week of the Open, Mr. Barkann, 39, paced around the USA Network booth overlooking Arthur Ashe Stadium. He was eating salmon and awaiting his marching orders. It was going to be a tough night, what with Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter nursing their wounds at home (all these retiring guys-what a bunch of wimps! Is this some form of male hysteria?). The stars weren’t turning out, either.
Outside the stadium, network employees in mobile vans manipulated remote-controlled cameras inside the stadium to search the crowd for celebrities. They relayed their findings to Mr. Barkann through an earpiece in his left ear. It wasn’t looking good. The best they could find so far was John Madden, the football commentator.
Mr. Barkann put his finger to his ear, Secret Service-style. “They just said in my ear that the Justin Gimelstob-Daniel Vacek match is going into the fifth set,” he said. He put down his plate and wiped his mouth. “Let’s rock-and-roll.” He darted off, singing the words from the AC/DC song “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).”
Over on Court 16, Mr. Gimelstob had just won his match. Mr. Barkann rushed onto the court. Mr. Gimelstob seemed dazed and was bent over in pain as Mr. Barkann quizzed him about the match. Mr. Gimelstob looked like he was going to puke. He said something about cramps. But Mr. Barkann wouldn’t let up. Abruptly, Mr. Gimelstob ran off the court, leaving his equipment, his fans and his interviewer behind.
The jilted fans, massed courtside with their oversize yellow tennis balls and programs, had little choice but to ask Mr. Barkann for his autograph. Mr. Barkann signed away.
“It’s flattering, but what am I going to tell them: ‘No’?” he said when he was done. “It’s a little bit awkward. In the strictest sense you’re supposed to be covering the news, not being the news. Plus there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Me? Are you sure? I’m a kid from Jersey.’ What was it that Marshall McLuhan said, ‘The medium is the message’?” He paused for a moment, “You know what the bottom line is? Can you look at yourself in the mirror? And if you’re happy with the job you’re doing, then you can.”
As the camera crew waited to do another segment, they started busting Mr. Barkann’s chops about his persistence during the Gimelstob interview. “Dude, that was so funny,” one cameraman said. “Everyone was cheering in the cafeteria.”
Mr. Barkann didn’t understand.
“Why were they cheering?” Mr. Barkann asked the cameraman.
“They were going crazy,” he said.
“Why were they cheering, though?” Mr. Barkann insisted.
“Because the dude was so hurt. And he was, like, cramping and saying, ‘I’m cramping, I gotta go. I gotta go.'”
Mr. Barkann looked to the others for an explanation.
“No, it was a good interview. It was funny,” another member of the camera crew assured Mr. Barkann. “It was funny but good.”
Mr. Barkann looked relieved. “And that’s why I’m wondering, ‘Why are they cheering?’ because I’m like, ‘This poor guy.'” He didn’t really get it. They had been cheering for him .
An elderly man in tennis whites walked by carrying a tennis racket. “Great show, Mike!” But Mr. Barkann was on the move again, off to the International Management Group box to do the John Madden bit.
The Ladies Who Wait
Everywhere you go at the Open, you see the male players’ girlfriends and wives, hanging around, looking bored.
Ann Bruneel, a 27-year-old swimwear model from Tampa, Fla., was lounging in a white wicker chair outside the players lounge. She was smoking a Marlboro Light and waiting for her boyfriend, Peter Nyborg, a doubles specialist ranked 1,299th in the world in singles and 47th in doubles. It was 3 P.M., and she’d been hanging out alone since noon, waiting for him to finish practice. Ms. Bruneel was wearing a red flower-print dress. She had dyed spiky blond hair, and her large pouting lips made her look like Angelina Jolie. Ms. Bruneel and Mr. Nyborg have been dating for four years.
“In the beginning, I went to a lot of tournaments, but now I’m tired of it,” she said. “I still go to the tournaments once in a while, and all the girlfriends see each other. The girls for the younger players are always changing, but we stay the same. The old ones stay the same. Most of them are already married, and most of them are wondering why Peter and I are not already married. Someday, we probably will get married when we have children, but not now. It’s too hard.”
They met four years ago, when she was working at the player services desk at a tournament in Antwerp, Belgium. He hung around the desk and invited her to a tournament in Amsterdam. Now here she was in Flushing Meadows, whiling away another practice day.
She said that sometimes the young men in the players lounge hit on her. “In fact, it happened this week,” she said. “One of the guys tried it. He came up to me and started flirting. His wife is pregnant, so I told him it was disgusting what he was doing. He’s pissed off now. Well, he was pissed off yesterday, but I think it’s fine now. There are just some guys you have to watch out for.”
Across the courtyard Sandra Kruger, a South African advertising executive, was passing the time in another wicker chair as she waited for her boyfriend, Danie Visser, a South African coach, to return from a practice session with his charge, Cara Black.
Ms. Kruger was reading Gone, but Not Forgotten , a novel about a serial killer. She didn’t mind hanging around. “It’s like a vacation,” she said. But she’s only been following her man around for one summer.
Same goes for Tatiana Dragovic. The 20-year-old model was inside the lounge snuggling with her new boyfriend Goran Ivanisevic, whose ranking has plummeted in recent months. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
But nearby, Katja Weiss, 26, who dates the German player Lars Burgsmuller, was alone. She was sorting through documents with lots of charts on them. She explained that she was working on a paper she was going to give back in Germany, a scientific treatise on how the pace of the tennis ball affects the outcome of the point.
She was flopped in a comfy chair, and she did not look happy. She had been camped there all day.
“Don’t date tennis players,” Ms. Weiss advised. “We met by playing tennis. We’ve been dating for two years. He was practicing before, and now he’s getting a massage and I’m sitting here.”
Elizabeth Brown, the girlfriend of player Laurence Tieleman, was outside the lounge, reading Memoirs of a Geisha . In the past day alone, she’d read 150 pages. “There’s a lot of reading time,” she dryly. “When I started dating him five years ago, it was a lot more exciting.”
The excitement started at a tennis tournament in Connecticut, where Ms. Brown was working at the player services desk. “We didn’t do anything in Connecticut,” she recalled. “We were just friends. I saw him again at the next tournament, the Lipton. But during the Lipton he needed a place to stay, so he came down to Miami a week later. We went out, and we’ve been together ever since. We’re going to get married. It’s just a matter of time.”
Ms. Brown’s five years on the tour has taught her a thing or two about the players. “Tennis players as a whole are pretty spoiled,” she said. “Not to say that they’re not kind or generous, but they’re pretty sheltered from the world. They’re not street-dumb, but they have people taking care of them all the time, so they tend to be a little on the selfish side. They have to be because if they give anything to other players, it takes away from their game. So they all protect themselves from each other. You don’t see them being great friends with each other. They’ll be best friends one minute and then suddenly they’re not. And there’s a lot of back-stabbing going on. I mean, Laurence is the kindest person I’ve ever dated, but still it’s all for him, and that’s hard.”
Mr. Tieleman may soon realize that he has reached that point in his relationship with Ms. Brown.
“We’re getting close to that point where we have to decide whether we’re going to move on or end it,” she said. “I didn’t make an ultimatum, because I don’t think that’s fair in anybody’s life, but you know I’m 28, and he’s 26, and we’ve been dating five and a half years, so I think it’s time that he be a little more giving to my needs, because I spend a lot of time alone.”
At that point Mr. Tieleman, a large, tall blond man carrying a racket bag, sauntered out of the player’s lounge and approached his girlfriend. The conversation was over.
John McEnroe Has a Headache
Just before sunset, John McEnroe was playing a pickup match out on practice court No. 5, next to the stadium. Nearly every evening he heads out to break a sweat between his day and night gigs in the broadcast booth. The fans mass at the fence; they can never get enough of him.
On this night, his opponent was Emilio Sanchez, the retired Spaniard whose sister is Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Mr. McEnroe was dressed in black sweatpants, space-age Nikes and an “Art by McEnroe” T-shirt. He looked a little out of sorts. His timing was off. Mr. Sanchez was toying with him: drop shot, lob, drop shot, lob.
Abruptly, Mr. McEnroe decided to quit. He and Mr. Sanchez sat down together on a bench, their backs to the fence. Barely had Mr. McEnroe gotten a sip of
“NewYork-dot-com,” Mr. McEnroe repeated. “Huh.” There was a silence.
“Well, I’d like to talk to you about it,” Mr. Hardy said. “What’s the best way to reach you?”
“Call my father, he’s got the same name as me.” Mr. McEnroe gave him the number, and Mr. Hardy walked off, satisfied.
Another man appeared, a player’s guest with a mustache and a sweatsuit. They seemed to know each other, though the man seemed happier to see Mac than Mac was to see him.
“It’s been a while,” the man said.
“So what’s up, hitting some balls?” the man said.
“Yep, hitting some balls,” Mr. McEnroe said. Another awkward silence.
Then the man asked him whether he was playing that night, by which he meant guitar.
“Nope,” Mr. McEnroe said. “Not playing.”
“I read in the paper you were gonna be playing in town,” the man said. A week before, the New York Post ‘s Page Six gossip column had run an item saying that Mr. McEnroe was going to be playing a gig at Le Bar Bat in midtown.
“Yeah, I don’t know where that came from,” Mr. McEnroe said. “They put it in the paper, but I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t played for a while-because of the kids.”
Then Mr. McEnroe said, “All I know is that I’ve got this headache.” He put his hands over his face and removed them only after the man had gone. He turned to Mr. Sanchez. “I’ve got this headache,” he repeated.
“Take Ad-veel,” Mr. Sanchez said.
Mr. McEnroe got up to go. Time to get back on the air. As soon as he stood, the autograph-seekers pressed against the fence. He greeted them wearily. “Kids only,” he said. He signed a tennis ball a kid had pressed up against the fence. A tall man pleaded. “But, John, I am Italian!”
“I won’t hold that against you,” Mr. McEnroe said, and he walked off the court clutching his temples with his thumb and pinkie.