Eleven years as a sports journalist cushioned me against the hard realities of negotiating tennis's version of the Super Bowl—the four high-powered, high-priced tournaments called the Grand Slam. My Press A credential entitled me to sought-after privileges: a prime seat at all the best courts, access to the stars, a pressroom full of mostly edible food, even hotel-to-tournament transportation.
Then one day I changed jobs and lost that free ride. I quickly discovered that making the most out of a season of Grand Slam tennis—the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open (the Australian Open in Melbourne kicks it all off in January)—requires good planning and wisdom culled from innocent mistakes. The truth is that the Grand Slam season never ends. The morning after the last ball has been struck and the applause has faded into sportswriters' cliches, everyone's gaze is fixed on next year's events. Players book rooms and plot their schedules, tournament officials begin making improvements, fans strategize about securing better seats.
Here it is, already March, and many would-be spectators probably haven't lifted a finger. Besides panic, what can you do?Which days should you attend, where should you sit, what should you eat, and—before any of that—is it too late to start planning?The following insider's guide will answer all your questions.
You're out of luck if you haven't mailed your ticket requests to the French Tennis Federation or Wimbledon's All England Club (U.S. Open tickets usually go on sale the last week of May through Tele-Charge and the USTA National Tennis Center box office in Flushing Meadow, New York). It's time to pick up the phone. For all three tournaments, package tours get you a seat in center court for four or five days, a hotel room, sometimes breakfast or dinner, and excursions to cultural high points; airfare is often included. If packages offend your seasoned-traveler's sensibilities, remember that they eliminate some of the hazards: standing in endless ticket lines, arm wrestling with crafty scalpers, being turned away at booked-to-capacity hotels.
Before committing to anything, decide if, over the course of a two-week championship, you're going to see either high-caliber tennis or the game played only by its stars. "The pure tennis fan enjoys the first week of a Slam tournament when most top players are assigned to field courts, where you can get closer to the action and survey some of the up-and-coming talent," says Steven Flink, a contributor to Tennis Week and former editor of World Tennis. First-week visitors move around as much as nomads, forgoing the dull and predictable for the crackle of excitement. If you limit yourself to the center or grandstand court during the first week, you'll miss many of the new faces and some of the most hotly contested matches. You'll also reduce your chance of watching the biggest thrill of any Grand Slam tournament—an upset.