Can you hear it? That sonic roar in the clouds?
It's less insistent these days above the din at the U.S. Open. But it's there, all right.
On days when safety and weather dictate, the roar of Pratt & Whitney engines continues to rumble over the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows — FAA agreement to divert them during match play be damned. It's a 10,000-foot echo of the rowdy and raw atmosphere that seized the event when it made the populist move from quaint Forest Hills to Corona Park in 1978 — the same year airline deregulation was born.
Money and maturity have tamped down the final major of the season, with its luxury suites, celebrity scene and well-heeled fans who have traded Fila kits and sweatbands for Ralph Lauren suits and Louis Vuitton handbags.
Don't be fooled: The third rail is never out of reach.
Edgy, tired players can go postal. Mother Nature can wreak havoc with the schedule. Electric night matches crackle into the wee hours. Water might bubble up onto the court and render it unplayable, as it did at Louis Armstrong Stadium two years ago.
"The great, the bad and the ugly," says former pro, former U.S. Davis Cup captain and New York native Patrick McEnroe.
If Wimbledon exudes tradition, Roland Garros radiates panache and the Australian Open is g'day-mate cheerfulness, the U.S. Open serves as meritocracy and bellwether.
Equal prize money? The Open had it first (1973).
Tiebreakers, electronic line calling, night matches, blue courts, music during changeovers (among other innovations)? All made their Grand Slam tournament debuts in New York.
"The U.S. Open has long stood out as the leader and new-wave tennis event," defending women's champion Serena Williams says. "It's no surprise that they saved the best for last."
It is also undeniably New York: big, brassy, teeming, fabulous, frustrating, manicured, manic.
"Its essence is the democracy of competition, commerce and commotion," Oakland-based tennis historian Joel Drucker says. "It's the ultimate marketplace of tennis."
Survival of the fittest
If there is an egalitarian streak in the Open's hardcourts and open-air stadiums — favoring neither attackers nor grinders and subjecting everyone to the mercurial elements — a Darwinian undercurrent persists. It is survival of the fittest.
Players make the trek from Manhattan to Flushing Meadows with nicked-up bodies and frayed nerves from the long season.
The concussive cement, noisy crowds and shift from muggy summer to cool fall in the course of two weeks stretch body and mind to the brink.
"The summer hardcourt stretch is one of the toughest challenges physically and mentally of the year," Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob says.
Steve Flink, a journalist who has covered the tournament every year since 1974, says something about the transition from summer to fall, with Labor Day as the middle weekend, adds to the special feel of the Open.
Kids come out knowing they are going back to school. Vacation is over. The light is changing, casting long shadows across the courts in late afternoon. Players realize it's their last chance for a big result in the year's final major.
It's an evocative time of year — "The last moment to let your hair down," Flink says.
New York has rewarded a variety of playing styles, from counterpunchers Mats Wilander and Andre Agassi to suffocating net rushers Pete Sampras and Stefan Edberg.
Fittingly, few one-off winners have had the wherewithal to conquer New York. Winning the Open takes chutzpah.
"It's a pretty true test of who the best player is," McEnroe says.
Fans are not as friendly as in Melbourne or as fickle as in Paris, but their embrace or distaste can be exponentially more forceful.
"The atmosphere that they bring from Knicks games to Yankees games is intense," young American Coco Vandeweghe says. "Just their passion for both hating somebody and loving somebody."
Everything is bigger
Midtown Manhattan's skyscrapers, Broadway's pizazz and Madison Avenue's flash might sit miles away, but they feel front and center in Flushing Meadows.
The 22,500-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, opened in 1997, is the biggest permanent tennis facility in the game. Attendance? No other event the world over sells more tickets. In five of the last six years, more than 700,000 fans have passed through the turnstiles.
Varvara Lepchenko, a naturalized American from Uzbekistan who last year finished ranked just outside the top 20, feels like a Lilliputian.
"The first thing I would say is, it's giant," she says. "Everything is large compared to the other Slams — the giant city, the stadium, the people."
And fueled by the arms race of improvements at majors, the U.S. Open — the biggest Slam in terms of acreage — will only get grander.
The U.S. Tennis Association announced a $550 million project that will deliver two new stadiums, new parking and walkways, a viewing area for the practice courts and retractable roofs on the Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums.
Such growth is necessary because these days there's much more than tennis. The tournament boasts opening-night ceremonies, bands, swanky restaurants, big-screen TVs and no shortage of overpriced merchandise. It has become the region's defining entertainment event of late summer.
Much of the credit for the amusement park feel goes to Arlen Kantarian, the former NFL executive who stewarded the tournament from 2000 to 2008. While boosting revenue (to $200 million during his tenure; revenues were $230 million in 2012), Kantarian ushered in the idea of tennis as an across-the-board leisure destination.
"He was a big influence on making it more of an overall entertainment show instead of just tennis," 1978 runner-up Pam Shriver says, who served on the USTA board when Kantarian was hired.
To some, there has been a cost.
The facility makeover and corporate influx have altered the vibe. It's more orderly, more A-list, with celebrities such as Donald Trump and Alec Baldwin regulars in the stands (or more likely, broadcast on Ashe Stadium's Jumbotron).
Even the players at first found it all a bit much, even hokey. Some, such as two-time winner Agassi, openly rebelled against the giant screens at Ashe Stadium that replay points for fans. But most have accepted it by now, and anything less doesn't feel right.
"It makes tennis show business," says No. 1-ranked Serena, who won the first of her four U.S. Opens in 1999. "As a tennis player, when you walk out you have a feeling that cannot be duplicated anywhere."
Tennis is second to none
To be sure, tennis matters. The Open has had its share of memorable matches, epic days, revelatory runs and out-of-this-world shotmaking.
Perhaps no player epitomized the early years of the Open better than five-time winner Jimmy Connors, the snarling, take-no-prisoners competitor who became an instant emeritus with his career-capping 1991 run to the semifinals at 39.
Matches? Take your pick: John McEnroe's classic battles with Bjorn Borg in the early 1980s; Venus and Serena Williams' first Saturday prime-time women's final in 2002; the scintillating Agassi-Sampras 2001 quarterfinal when neither man could break serve.
Who can forget Ivan Lendl's running topspin lob winner on match point against Pat Cash in the 1984 semifinals or Novak Djokovic's blazing forehand return of serve, also on match point, against Roger Federer two years ago?
In terms of essence, nothing says the U.S. Open like a sizzling night match (sorry, Melbourne).
"You don't get that same sort of energy anywhere else," says defending U.S. Open champion Andy Murray of Britain.
Maybe it's the sense that things could come unhinged, as they did in 1979 when fans almost rioted during an ugly John McEnroe-Ilie Nastase contest. Maybe it's the Gatsby-esque backdrop of New York. Maybe it's the buzz that comes from a nexus of money, power, celebrity, athleticism and, well, booze.
Whatever it is, no tournament can match it — the sights, the noise, the feeling of being at the center of the universe.
"You could close your eyes, and a tennis player would know in a second that you were in NYC just by the sound," Shriver says.
Change is part of the deal
As with the deregulated airline industry, some things have changed during the last three decades.
Hawk-Eye has let umpires off the hook and cut down on drama-filled disputes. Security is tighter, being especially ramped up after the stabbing of Monica Seles in Germany in 1993.
Chris Evert recalls the walk to the court at Forest Hills and out to Armstrong Stadium when, accompanied by sparse security, fans would reach out and pat her on the back and shout encouragement, boxing-style. Today, players emerge from locker rooms inside Ashe, safe in their protective bubble. "You had a more personal relationship with the crowd," the six-time winner says. "There were fewer rules. It was more human. Now it's more technology, more professional, more controlled."
Evert remembers a fight breaking out in the stands during one of her matches with longtime rival Martina Navratilova that forced a 10-minute suspension of play until officials got it under control.
"Or people fainted, they dropped," Evert added of the occasionally brutal heat.
Even Super Saturday, the one-time Woodstock of the sport, is no more. In a concession to players, the last two men's rounds will no longer be scheduled on back-to-back days on the final weekend.
Temperamental? Unpredictable? That hasn't entirely disappeared.
Serena Williams can still come unglued in a fit of rage at linesmen or umpires as she has in recent years. Players can revolt over playing conditions, as Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Murray did in 2011 when rain ransacked the tournament.
On some of the cozier courts such as the 6,100-seat Grandstand, eager fans can still exchange high-fives with players or be in their faces.
Last year, Sloane Stephens said they want to "hug you and lick you and touch you, like even when you're sweaty."
After a breakout season in which the 20-year-old has faced autograph seekers who have bopped her on the head with a racket, pulled her ponytail and pursued her on crutches, she's bracing for more. "I don't plan on going outside, because I know that I will probably not make it out alive," she says.
Social media has added a 21st-century twist to the meltdowns and magnificent shots by sending them instantaneously coursing through the Internet bloodstream in the media capital of the world.
"I do think there is that sense that all hell could break loose, maybe not as much as it used to be when it first moved over from Forest Hills, but more than the other majors," Patrick McEnroe says.
That sound? If you listen, the deafening noise that once defined the Open occasionally holds court not only in the skies above.