Keep your eye on the ball but don't lose sight of the fun
"Move down a few rows. When the match is almost finished, go right up to the first row, right behind the player's chair, OK?"
My two sons glanced down at the court -- taking in the scene of the two tennis players, the umpire's chair and the crowd of kids starting to gather near the edge of the blue barrier -- and then nodded. They were ready.
My 9-year-old son, Jasper, clutched a giant Wilson tennis ball while my 7-year-old son, Everett, followed a few steps behind, holding a regular tennis ball and Sharpie. Together, they headed down the stairs toward the court.
We were sitting in the new Grandstand at the 2016 US Open, watching Caroline Wozniacki and Taylor Townsend play in the first round, and I was introducing my kids to one of my favorite tournament pastimes: getting players' autographs.
Growing up, I always wanted one of those giant tennis balls and begged my mom for one. Instead, she gave me a notebook to collect autographs. It was shaped like a sandwich, pink, brown and yellow paper between two pieces of white, foam "bread." I watched in envy as other kids rushed courtside with their giant tennis balls while I held my sandwich notebook between my hands.
When I was Jasper's age, my older brother and I ran around the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in search of players and their autographs. He would point me toward different men and women, whispering their names in my ear before pushing me off in their direction to ask them to sign my notebook.
At the old Louis Armstrong Stadium, my brother shoved me in front of him as Mats Wilander was leaving the court postmatch. Wilander stopped to sign a few daily draw sheets and programs. Behind me, I heard my brother yell, "Mr. Wilander! Mr. Wilander! Can you sign this?" as he pushed me further forward. I held my notebook open to a blank pink page for Wilander to sign. I was elated to score an autograph from one of the top tennis players in the world.
From there, I filled my sandwich notebook with the squiggles of players' names: Steffi Graf, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi, Mary Jo Fernandez. A film crew even caught me on camera as I got Virginia Wade's autograph. I neatly wrote each athlete's name along the spine of the notebook to help me keep track of my growing collection.
I was just starting to play tennis, learning about the athletes and the sport, and I loved the idea of taking home a piece of the players and the US Open with me. As a natural pack rat, I was also drawn to the idea of collecting just about anything and everything.
Plus, it gave me a chance to hang out with my brother. Being seven years younger, I was often the annoying little sister constantly tagging along with my older siblings. For once, he invited me on this grand adventure together.
Back at the Grandstand last year, my kids made valiant efforts to procure autographs from Wozniacki and later John Isner, trying to plant themselves strategically among the throngs of fans waiting for the victorious players. Both times they came away without an autograph, but I was the one who was getting anxious. We couldn't go the whole day without getting one autograph, could we? I dragged the kids to the practice courts, figuring this would be our best bet to get someone's autograph. When we arrived, there was a crowd of fans already staked out against the barricade by the players' entrance. They looked like they've been waiting all morning. I maneuvered Jasper toward the front and watched as he came up empty-handed again.
"Can we just go back and watch the tennis, Mommy?" Jasper asked.
Before arriving at Flushing Meadows, I told my kids all about the thrill and fun of finding players and asking them to sign my notebook, and I didn't want them to go home empty-handed. After we met up with my husband, I took off again with the giant tennis ball, this time alone.
I ran back over to the practice courts just as Andy Murray was leaving. I thrust the tennis ball over the heads of other fans, and he signed it. On my way back, I saw Chris Evert walking into Arthur Ashe stadium and asked her to sign my giant tennis ball, just like I would have 30 years ago. I walked back to meet my family, happy and relieved.
When I got back to our seats, I proudly showed my kids their newly adorned tennis ball. "Look at what I got!" They glanced over and then returned to watching the match in front of them and eating their popcorn.
As I sat there watching my kids, their heads moving left to right and right to left as the tennis ball flew across the net, I realized that I was more intent on recreating a scene from my own childhood than allowing my kids to experience the tournament for themselves. I wanted them to have a similar bonding experience to what my brother and I had, but I wasn't letting them create their own memories and traditions. My kids didn't care about the autographs. I did. I was hung up on trying to realize my dream of filling a giant tennis ball with players' autographs.
I tucked the tennis ball into a bag and watched the rest of the match with my family. This was the sport we'd come to watch, not chasing autographs.