Taking the 7 train to US Open is a uniquely New York experience

NEW YORK -- You hop on the 7 train at Grand Central Station, dodging the buskers who'd sing you Frank Sinatra for a dollar and the kiosks with more magazines than a fundraising drive and the horde of humanity that shuffles from one station to the next, and you are on your way to the US Open.

Of all the ways to get to a major sporting event, there may not be anything more special than taking the subway to Flushing Meadows. From Manhattan to Queens, the world unfolds, as diverse and as urban as you can imagine.

The 7 train originates on Manhattan's West Side at the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station and heads east, a moving testament to the progress of New York, and maybe America, and maybe the world. It embodies nearly three centuries of building, higher and higher, as the train weaves its way from underground in Manhattan and beneath the East River to Queens, where it emerges from the darkness and skies above the rest of the city on elevated rails, providing a bird's-eye view of a city of millions.

You peer out the windows at a city that mixes its wealth and poverty like perhaps no other as the train moves past the smokestacks and million-dollar apartments and over a bridge with a train depot underneath and La Guardia Community College to the side, named after the 99th mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, who also happens to have an airport named after him.

You look around the train at the mass of humanity, those along for the ride with you, your brothers and sisters for the next, oh, half hour. You wonder which of the people are in for a leisurely day of tennis and for whom this Friday is just another day, with all the stresses that come with it.

You spot a foursome -- Clarissa and Myron McWherter, and Magnus and Lindsay Kullenberg, from Arkansas -- who are attending their first US Open, a "bucket list" item for them, they say. Magnus played tennis for the University of Arkansas, it turns out, and Myron is a regular player as well, and their wives, well, they're happy to be along for the ride. A Yankees-Red Sox game and a Broadway show are also on the schedule, so they're good.

Their plans came together in less than a month -- "We were hungover, watching the French Open, and said, 'We should do the US Open,'" Clarissa says -- but they made it. Just behind the first-timers stand a couple, Tom and Sue Conaty, on their way to their 30th year at the event. They've been to Wimbledon and tournaments all over, but the Open holds a special place in their heart.

"We're going to get here at 11 a.m., and 12 hours later, look for us on this same train [back]," said Sue, who is up from Florida with her husband. "If there's tennis to be played, we'll be watching. It's been like that forever."

The Conatys have seen three generations of tennis stars on these courts, watched as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors begat Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who begat Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. They remember heading to the US Open when it was still played in Forest Hills, and what it was like when Arthur Ashe Stadium -- now celebrating its 20th year -- was first constructed.

They miss the way it was. "The old-timers like us are going to miss the old Armstrong, the old Grandstand. That was special," Sue says, referring to the construction of Louis Armstrong Stadium. Alas, progress.

Regardless, they wouldn't miss the Open, they say, as the train passes the 33rd Street-Rawson Station, adorned with eclectic stained-glass panels that represent the diversity of Queens. This part of the ride is particularly scenic, if graffiti and large laundromats are your thing, and as you look out the window and back, Manhattan is getting smaller and, somehow, less daunting. The Empire State Building, by now, looks like a Lego tower.

Now you're at the 40th Street-Lowery Station, however briefly, and the train continues on, past a White Castle and a Bank of Hope and a massive church with a relief of the virgin mother on the outside, and you wonder which players will need a Hail Mary or two later in the day.

By the 82nd Street Station stop, the train is packed like a sardine can, and with the New York Mets out of town -- and at 17 games below .500 -- you know it's not because of baseball.

A few stops later, and you're there, Mets-Willets Point Station, pouring out of the 7 train along with what seems like a thousand other people, walking across a boardwalk with Citi Field and the wind at your back.

You cross the bridge and look up, and you're here, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, a shrine to tennis, for yet another day at the US Open.