The U.S. Open kicked off last night at Windswept Fields Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows with fireworks, breakdancing, Jordin Sparks, Alec Baldwin (with new wife Hilaria Thomas Baldwin), Susan Sarandon (with young flame Jonathan Bricklin), Zach Braff, David Dinkins, Anna Wintour and, oh yeah, some tennis. As Sarandon and her ping pong-playing paramour sipped champagne out of giant golden goblets in the Chase Bank corporate suite, Belgian Kim Clijsters clobbered 16-year-old American wild card Victoria Duval, a Haitian immigrant who at the age of 7 was held hostage by armed robbers in Port-au-Prince. Her loss to seasoned champion Clijsters was unsurprising, and we suspect the U.S. Open hasn't seen the last of Duval and her euphoric smile.

Then the unstoppable Swissman Roger Federer sent Chicagoan Donald Young into a tailspin. Young could barely contain his inner turmoil during the loss, which puts him out of the top 100 after a promising start to his career under the the wing of John McEnroe. The match lasted just 90 minutes, with Young going down in straight sets, but even the most lopsided contests have an inherent dramatic tension at the U.S. Open (even in the cheap seats). Though "cheap" is a matter of perspective at this point—none of the upper level seats at Arthur Asheare currently available for less than $55.

But there are tickets available for most nights, and even if you're not a huge tennis fan, there are few things more pleasant than passing a late-summer evening watching top athletes do battle in the hushed thrall of a packed stadium. For the US Open novice, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Leave your bag at home! The U.S. Open has a strict policy prohibiting backpacks (pocketbooks and single-strap man purses were okay, in our experience), and they don't do a very good job telling you about this until you've walked all the way down to the gates, at which point somebody will stop you and tell you to go all the way back up the ramp toward the 7 train to wait on a massive line to pay $5 to check your backpack. It's annoying, and they're militant about it, so don't even bother. (Bags cannot be larger than 12"W x 12"H x 16"L.) And yet, for all their obsession with bag security, there's no patdown required to enter the grounds. So if you can roll your backpack into a ball and stuff it down your pants, you'll probably be okay.
  • Bring an appetite, and money to feed it. As we've previously reported in great detail, the food options at the U.S. Open are excellent and wide ranging. We didn't try any of the concessions last night, but the NY Times tennis blog is doing a daily review, and damn that crepe looks tasty. $10 doesn't seem so outrageous for a stadium hostage situation, but if you're there for the day matches get your lunch before noon, when the Food Village gets insanely crowded. There are a number of restaurants of varying degrees of formality—new this year is the casual rooftop Heineken Red Star Café, next to the South Plaza Fountains, which offers a nice view of the grounds. (N.B.: Heineken's the official and only beer served at the Open.)
  • Consider Grounds Admission: A "Grounds Admission" day pass doesn't get you into Arthur Ashe, but you can catch some of the biggest names in tennis at Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand and all of the field courts. Grounds Admissions are only sold for the first eight days of the tournament, and access to Louis Armstrong is first come, first serve. But for $73.50 (plus Ticketbastard service charges), you can enjoy a full day of tennis and get much closer to the action than in the main stadium. Tomorrow, for instance, Federer, Serena Williams and Venus Williams are all playing for the Grounds Admission crowd.
  • Enter by the Unisphere: There can be a crowded crush at the gates nearest to the subway and LIRR, so we recommend taking a stroll around to the south gate, where you can usually breeze right through without any waiting. That entrance is over by the Unisphere, and if you don't know where that is, here's a map [pdf] to guide you.
  • Cut Out Early: The 7 train back to Manhattan gets spectacularly crowded, so you'll want to get a jump once the last match starts winding down. Fortunately, the matches are broadcast on giant jumbotrons outside the stadiums, so you can beat the first wave of exiting fans by watching the remaining games outside, then bolt for the subway once the last racket is wrathfully smashed onto the court. Unlike last year, there's no Water Taxi service to the stadiums this year, which is a bloody outrage.