The throng of families from all over New York’s five boroughs and beyond paraded through the sun-soaked East Gate of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, encountering SpongeBob Squarepants and his sidekick, Patrick, immediately after the turnstiles. Just a few feet beyond the loveable Nickelodeon characters, a doubles match broke out between players on stilts, rallying with oversized racquets and balls. To the immediate left, the plate-spinning team attracted a small mob, clapping and chanting along.
Painted faces at every turn. Balloons as big as Hess trucks alongside the courts. Electric-yellow, oversized tennis balls with hall-of-fame signatures Sharpie’d all about their fuzzy surfaces.
It's an intense welcome, but it's also hard not to smile on Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day.
“I’ll definitely be coming back next year,” said 13-year-old Vaughn Maiello of Paramus, N.J., who made the trip to Queens with 18-year-old sister Susan and a friend, Maggie Bellup, from nearby Saddle Brook, N.J. They’ve spent the last half hour watching the all-female hip-hop group Love Jones Girlz perform on the Hess Express Stage. “There’s so much to do and so much going. I don’t know if we’re going to get to all the stuff we want to do, but it's so much fun.”
Headlined by a concert featuring recording artists The Wanted and Carly Rae Jepsen, Kids’ Day marries one of the finest sporting events in America with the world of entertainment. Quddus, host of the hit ABC television show "Duets," served as masters of ceremonies for the sold-out stadium event. From the tennis world, defending US Open champion Novak Djokovic participated, alongside other former US Open winners Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick.
NHL All-Star Brad Richards of the New York Rangers even got in on the action, trading in his customary hockey stick for a tennis racquet for the day. Richards and rising American players Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens, and Ryan Harrison faced off against some very game 10 and Under Tennis players.
"I was nervous," admitted Richards about his first US Open experience. The one-time Stanley Cup champion has taken up the game in recent years and is a good friend of No. 9 seed John Isner. Richards was matched up against 10-year-old Brandon Cohen, who trains at the national tennis center, during the demo.
"He was tough. He didn't give ma a chance to pass him at the net, and then he slammed it down my throat," said Richards good-naturedly of Cohen.
The Kids’ Day stadium show will air Sunday in the United States on CBS from 12-1:30 p.m. ET, followed by CBS’s half-hour US Open Preview Special ending at 2 p.m. ET. While we won’t spoil everything that happens on the big stage, rest assured that the show’s finale is not to be missed, and fans will get a lot of laughs watching Djokovic and Olympic gold medal swimmer Missy Franklin in the pro/celebrity match. Glee’s Matthew Morrison also makes a funny cameo in the show's festivities as a chair umpire.
“The weather couldn’t have been better – makes up for last year,” said Frank Horan of Beekman, N.Y., who alongside his wife Stacy and kids Stephanie, 11, and Taylor, 7, are attending their third Kids’ Day in four years. Horan refers to last year’s Kids’ Day cancellation due to Hurricane Irene.
“We were disappointed, but you can’t do much about a natural disaster,” added Horan. “My oldest one is huge into both Carly Rae and Serena. It’s a great lineup. To get here and swing racquets and play around all day and get to be part of such a cool atmosphere, it's something everyone should experience at least once.”
Wife Stacy then leaned in and added, laughing, “I just hope my children don’t outgrow it because we really would miss coming!”
An annual tradition, Kids’ Day has kicked off the US Open each year since 1993 in honor of the late Arthur Ashe, the first US Open champion of the Open Era. Ashe passed away due to complications from the AIDS virus in February of that year, months shy of his 50th birthday.
As great as he was on the court, Ashe’s passion extended to helping underprivileged American youth through tennis and education, founding the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) network in 1969. Today, more than 600 non-profit organizations coast to coast provide free or low-cost tennis, education and life skills programming to more than 250,000 children each year. As part of the festivities, NJTL kids participate in the national Arthur Ashe Essay and Art Contest (AAEAC) by creating original pieces based upon the life lessons and accomplishments of Ashe. Earlier this summer, 14 winners were selected for the grand prize of a New York City travel package from Aug. 24-26, highlighted by attending – and being honored at -- Kids’ Day.
This year, Darlene Barton and her sons, nine-year-old Anthony and seven-year-old Darnell, celebrate Kids’ Day for the very first time after participating in an organized parks youth tennis league in Philadelphia.
“(My kids) love tennis and coming to visit their grandfather in New York, so we’re here and loving it,” said Barton, who will also be taking the two boys and her sister to the Open for a day session next Wednesday as part of their vacation. “They’re into basketball and football, but tennis is the sport where I think they’re getting best at.
“(Anthony) is starting to get really good at serving, and (Darnell) never gets tired of hitting and playing points. They’ll come home from the park and start playing on the driveway. It's crazy. We’re going to check out all the courts and see what’s happening.”
Follow USOpen.org's Nicholas J. Walz on Twitter: @ifwalzcouldtalk