Once in a while we stray from topic…below is a recollection and some thoughts of the fall of 2001, when I was at the USTA and then the Knicks…
Many people have said that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 are to those less than 55 today what Pearl Harbor was to “The Greatest Generation.” Yet for all those similarities, the differences between those two days are as wide as the expanse between lower Manhattan and Honolulu. Terrorism on home soil was a threat, not a reality, and for those in the sports and entertainment world, the days leading up had produced some historic events of their own.
The US Open was just wrapping up a momentous and record setting two weeks in Flushing Meadows. Pete Sampras had outdistanced his longtime rival Andre Agassi in one of the classic nighttime matches on the Arthur Ashe Stadium hardcourts, ousting the fellow legend in the quarterfinals. Then came Saturday night, and the first-ever matchup between the Williams sisters in a Grand Slam Final.
The pre-event buzz parties rivaled any Hollywood gathering. Paul McCartney stopped by, remarking that he had played a small gig in the area once before (referring to the Beatles historic performance at nearby Shea Stadium in 1964), and the festivities were capped when the entire Jackson clan, sans Michael, made a mad dash for the last few minutes of the party before heading in to catch the magical matchup under the lights and in prime time. Venus bested Serena 6-2, 6-4 that night on CBS, and the next day young brash Australian Lleyton Hewitt defeated an aging but still ultra competitive Sampras to win the men’s title. The two weeks of thrilling tennis were complete, with record setting crowds, a star studded audience, perfect weather, and lots of hope on the horizon. The date was September 9, and as the communications staffs of the ATP, WTA and USTA met that night to divvy up the traditional photos with champions the following day, all seemed in order.
One of the traditions following a Grand Slam win in New York was to take the champion to an iconic spot in New York City for their photo with the trophy on the Monday after the final. It would usually start a whirlwind day of media for the champions, with appropriate entourages and media types following the men’s champion to one location and the women’s champion to another. From Central Park to the Empire State Building, it seemed like there were few shots in the city where a champion had not been seen with his or her trophy. Venus was going to be an easy one. A majority of her media was going to be done in and around midtown to best maximize her schedule and the throng of American media following her around, so the day would begin and end at the Chase World Headquarters on Park Avenue. Hewitt, a bit of a daredevil and with a smaller contingent, wanted something different. So the decision was made to take the Aussie to a new location, and bring along a select number of photographers and Australian media to capture the day. That night we left the tennis center thinking we had created the best possible global shot, which would take place at around 8:30 the next morning.
The location was to be Windows on the World.
As we all found out in the coming days, fate interceded on that trip to the top of the World Trade Center the morning of September 10. Hewitt spent a good part of the night celebrating, overslept, and the photo shoot was eventually moved later in the morning to the Brooklyn Bridge, with the City and the World Trade Center in the backdrop. The restaurant staff who were to have helped make the shot possible were called, and probably many who were relishing the chance to get a glimpse of the newly minted champion never got the chance that day. For those on the tennis side, a brush with many whose fate would change forever less than 24 hours later was avoided, unbeknownst to all of us.
The rest of the day went off without a hitch. Hewitt did all his media as did Williams, and the focus in the tennis world turned back to the usual. Travel home for many, and planning for the upcoming Davis Cup match between India and the U.S. in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Much of that travel was slated for the next day in the morning, since the lateness of the hour had kept the international media busy.
We all know what happened early the next day. Many USTA staff were actually in the office in White Plains when the first plane struck. Bruce Levy, one of our staffers and a Queens resident, was cleaning up the offices in Flushing Meadows and went to the roof of the Tennis Center, which had one of the best views of the Manhattan skyline anywhere. He saw one of the first images of the smoldering tower minutes after the first plane hit. When the second plane struck I was in the office of our head of web development Ezra Kucharz. Ezra was an Army vet, and his first reaction was not one of accident. He said one world to me. “Terrorists.” We worried for hours about all the media, athletes and staff who were heading home that morning to parts around the globe. The closest call we later learned involved one reporter from the L.A. Times, who was scheduled to be on one of the planes and switched her flight, thus saving her life. Two secretaries in our group were former AON employees, and frantically tried to call and locate former colleagues who were still working in the now smoldering towers. My most desperate moment came at around 9:15, when I telephoned the home of one of my best friends, my high school classmate and college roommate Joe Curreri, who worked for AON as well. I dialed the number fully expecting to talk to his wife Maria and feared the worst, to thankfully learn that Joe had gone in late that day and was on a bus when the planes struck. Like so many others, a simple twist of fate had spared his life as well.
The rest of the day was spent pretty much like everyone else in the area, glued to TV’s and radios and praying for those who were there. Late in the morning Executive Director Rick Ferman suggested everyone head home, especially those with a distance to travel. Sport would take the first of many days off that week. However before leaving that morning I checked my email (this was still the days before blackberrys, let alone social media). In my inbox was an email from a colleague from the Spanish Tennis Federation who had left New York on Saturday, after the last Spaniard had been eliminated from the field. His message was simple and surprising, and was one I will never forget.
Dear Joe and our friends at the USTA,
We have seen the tragic events of this morning and pray for you all. Please never forget we are with you on this saddest of days, and never think that you are alone. Tell the people of New York, those who have been so helpful to all of us in these past few beautiful weeks of tennis and friendship, that you are all in our thoughts. We all stand with you today and forever and look forward to seeing you soon.
In the years since I have lost the original email, but saved the message on a pad I keep with me in my office. As fate would have it, we were able to return the message of hope not too long after, since so many of the Spanish Federation were affected by the Madrid Train bombings.
The days that followed again showed the true resolve of New Yorkers, with the stories of Ground Zero and the acts of heroism and selflessness growing each day. Like so many, I was lucky, not having lost anyone close. However for 36 straight days at least one name of a family friend, a high school or college classmate, a companion through work, surfaced in the pages of the Daily News, another senseless victim of the tragic day.
Less than a month later, the U.S.T.A rescheduled that Davis Cup tie against India, making the matchup the first international sporting event held on American soil since the attacks. The U.S. won 4-1, with new captain Patrick McEnroe helping guide then-young Americans James Blake and Andy Roddick to a pair of singles wins each, setting the stage for the U.S. to eventually recapture the Cup a few years later. Also that month I left the U.S.T.A. for what became a six year run heading communications for the New York Knicks. On opening night, the Knicks hosted a returning from retirement Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards before a raucous crowd. In the pregame celebration, well above the Garden floor in Suite 200, I happened across actor Matthew Modine. The last time I saw Matthew was at the buzz party prior to the women’s final on September 9. When I reminded him of our last meeting, he turned and looked at me, and the smile left his face. The words he spoke summed up the feelings of so many when he thought back on the events of the past few months. “Boy that night (Sept. 9) we were innocents having a good time,” he said. “Then the whole world changed and life will never be that simple again.”
In the years since I often think back about all that happened that fall, especially about the near misses people encountered. What happened to those we would have met at Windows on the World on September 10? Could someone have switched shifts to be there that morning to see the new U.S. Open champion, and thus avoiding being at work the next morning? How many thousands of lives were altered by a simple twist of fate like the one our reporter friend encountered? Most of those near misses, much like those who we brush by on a crowded street, we will never know. It was just not our time.
Ten years have now passed, and the Open is again moving towards what will hopefully be a momentous conclusion. It still remains one of the great sporting and entertainment events the world over, although the economy has made the buzz parties and some of the bells and whistles become a thing of the past. Those days leading up to 9/11 for sport in New York were full of great excitement and promise, from the Yankees heading to the World Series to the resurgent Mets and the soon to be beginning NFL seasons. However the Open of 2001 was king in New York for those two weeks, maybe more so than before or since.
It is those memories which I will choose to toast this weekend, while not forgetting the those who suffered so senselessly in the days and years that have followed. It is that mix of grandeur and sadness which reminds us why we do love sport. Sport, you see, has the ability to lift us to new heights of emotion, and provides us a respite from the every day, even the darkest of days. That mix was never more relevant than in the fall of 2001, a time for both good and bad, I will never forget.