IT'S the last stop on the Grand Slam tour, the event no player wants to miss, despite the fact that it's rather like playing tennis on Madison Avenue.
The two-week US Open tournament, which begins here Monday, is not the players' favorite venue. Its restless crowds, thundering aircraft, sizzling hamburgers, and frenetic cicadas all conspire to distract participants from their pursuit of that first prize - strictly the same for men and women - of more than half a million dollars apiece.
"But why shouldn't they have a little hardship?" says the doyen of United States tennis commentators, Bud Collins. "They have a pretty good life overall. They find [Flushing Meadows] distracting, they find it noisy. But I think some of the players relish it. They're young. Why shouldn't they enjoy the chance to come to a town like New York?"
This year, electronic lines will be used officially for the first time in a Grand Slam event. (The were used experimentally here last year.)
The TEL system designed by Tennis Electronic Lines, an Australian company, will be operated by the chair umpires on four of the 16 courts - the main Stadium and Grandstand courts, and on outer courts 16 and 17.
The players will use special tennis balls that contain a metallic powder that is detected by wires beneath the court. That enables the machine to call balls up to 10 inches inside and 12 inches outside all lines.
A special "beep" will identify balls that are out of play, although there will still be human judges on every line.
This will give players, officials, and spectators more than enough to talk about over the 14 days of competition - two sessions a day for 11 days, including Sundays and the controversial "Super Saturday." Super Saturday - designed for television not players - features both men's singles semifinals and the women's final. The next day, the men's finalists will take to the court at 4 p.m. after very little rest.
This year, for the first time, 500 ground passes will be available daily at 9 a.m. for the first nine days. This will give fans access to matches on all courts except the Stadium (center) Court.
Along with 21,000 other people each day, they'll enjoy a feast of entertainment, despite the fact that this year the women's field lacks the depth of the men's. Steffi Graf, who won this year in Paris and at Wimbledon, will seek her third US Open title, a goal made easier by the fact that Monica Seles, the winner of eight Grand Slam events (including the last two US Opens) won't be playing, having not yet fully recovered from being wounded by a spectator in Germany late in April.
Five years ago, Graf became only the sixth player to win a Grand Slam - the Australian, French, and US Opens, plus Wimbledon - in one year.
No one seems likely to challenge Graf seriously at Flushing Meadows, although she will have to watch out for Gabriela Sabatini (who won here in 1990), Mary Joe Fernandez (runner-up to Graf in the French Open in June), Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (runner-up to Seles here last year), Jana Novotna (she played very well against Graf in the Wimbledon final), and Olympic champion Jennifer Capriati.
Capriati has reached the quarterfinals in all three Grand Slams this year only to lose each time to Graf.
Then there's 36-year-old Martina Navratilova, who has contested eight US Open finals and won four of them. She will be making her 21st appearance at the US Open.
The men's championship would seem to rest between the world's top two players, Australian Open champion Jim Courier, who regained the No. 1 spot this week, and Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras, who was beaten in four sets by Stefan Edberg in last year's final.
But the quiet-spoken Edberg, who will be seeking his third successive US Open title, will be shadowing them as usual, avoiding the high life and concentrating on the serve-and-volley game that has won him six Grand Slam titles in all.
Also challenging strongly: 1989 US Open champion Boris Becker (despite his loss in straight sets to Jim Courier a few days ago in an Indianapolis final); Becker's countryman and 1991 Wimbledon champion, Michael Stich; and Andre Agassi, who seems to have recovered well from his wrist injury.
On the fringes will be Goran Ivanisevic, runner-up to Agassi at Wimbledon two years ago; Michael Chang, a semifinalist here last year who recently beat Edberg in a final in Cincinnati; 18-year-old Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, who over the weekend won his first hard-court title, in New Haven, Conn.; and Ivan Lendl, who reached the final here a record eight straight years, and won three in a row (1985-87).
There will be special interest in 20-year-old Patrick Rafter, who may be leading the most stimulating revival in Australian tennis since Pat Cash six years ago. Rafter is hoping to qualify for the main draw after beating Sampras in a quarterfinal and pushing Becker to three sets in the semifinals of the Indianapolis tournament last weekend.