The only fan at the US Open, and his unlikely friendship with a playerBy Sep 01, 2020
In making a muscular show of support for Ukraine at the US Open, the USTA chooses a third wayBy Aug 09, 2022
Unvaccinated Novak Djokovic still hopes to play at US OpenBy Jul 30, 2022
Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic on US Open entry list—but might not playBy Jul 20, 2022
Daniil Medvedev happy USTA will allow his title defense at US OpenBy Jun 16, 2022
USTA to permit tennis players from Russia, Belarus to compete at US Open under neutral flagBy Jun 14, 2022
Rajeev Ram, Joe Salisbury plan to continue partnership following second Slam titleBy Sep 16, 2021
US Open's return attracts 631,134 fans to groundsBy Sep 14, 2021
Emma Raducanu's US Open triumph garners blockbuster ratings on British TVBy Sep 14, 2021
Recognizing the value of a disarmingly honest Daniil Medvedev and his PlayStation-inspired celebrationBy Sep 13, 2021
The only fan at the US Open, and his unlikely friendship with a player
David Chen has traveled the world to play tennis tournaments for over 20 years, but he's never been on a journey like this.
Published Sep 01, 2020
NEW YORK—Will you get up at any hour of the night to watch your favorite player’s matches? That’s nice, but I’m sure you have some company around the world. Does your “RF” tattoo prove your Fed-fandom beyond reproach? That’s deep, and I’m sure Roger appreciates your passion from afar. But I doubt he’d be comfortable bringing you to a Grand Slam tournament as part of his team. Especially if the choice was between a diehard Fedfan and his someone from Federer’s own family.
Suffice it to say that Sachia Vickery is not like Roger Federer, and that David Chen is not like any other tennis fan.
“Sachia’s mother saw that her and I got along so well, and that we were having an amazing time as friends,” says Chen, a 48-year-old married man who is part of the 25-year-old’s three-person team inside the US Open bubble. “She sees that I’m a positive influence on Sachia.
“In general I’m a very happy person—borderline crazy, but positive and happy.”
Some might call Chen’s fascination with tennis unequivocally crazy. He started playing at 10, but has never taken the sport more seriously than now, thanks to his profession. Officially, Chen lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but the majority of his time is spent 36,000 feet in the air, or at ports of call around the globe.
A Delta flight attendant for the last 22 years, Chen was able to parlay his work responsibilities into leisure opportunities, primarily the ability to enter Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance tournaments across the U.S. and Europe. In 2019, the 4.0-level player played 22 tournaments in 13 different countries. This year, he got sponsored by Yonex. Staying with host families as he jaunts from city to city, Chen’s schedule resembles those of many professional tennis players.
Then came the pandemic, and a voluntary leave from work, which halted Chen’s itinerant lifestyle. But not before this year’s Australian Open. It was there that Chen, who loves cheering at matches and seeking selfies with players, thought he recognized a famous pro after her practice session.
“I walk by and go, ‘Hi, are you Sloane Stephens?’ And she goes, ‘No, I’m not.’”
It was Vickery, and the encounter could have understandably ended right there. But after Chen apologized, Vickery kept the conversation going, diffusing any tension like a backhand slice against a whizzing serve.
“I said, ‘Hi Sachia, do you get that a lot?’ And she said, ‘I do.’
“I said, ‘Well embrace it, and use it to get free stuff,’ and she started laughing.”
Chen's and Vickery's first photo together, after an awkward introduction. (David Chen)
Chen and Vickery kept talking. They realized they lived near each other in Florida, and they exchanged Instagram follows. A few weeks later, when Vickery posted a picture of her new home in the Sunshine State, Chen messaged her with congratulations. Vickery wrote back that Chen had to stop by for homemade apple pie.
Their breezy dialogue continued as their friendship deepened.
“We just clicked,” says Chen, who returned the favor by having Vickery, her mother and sister-in-law over to his house for a quarantine trivia night. “She’s generally a shy and reserved person, but when we’re together she’s so funny and open. We laugh so much together.”
An African-American, Vickery has talked with Chen about her passions, including the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2018, the 100th-ranked Vickery flashed the “Wakanda Forever” sign after rallying from a set and 3-0 down to stun third-ranked Garbine Muguruza at Indian Wells. The salute originated from Chadwick Boseman, an actor in the blockbuster film Black Panther, and who tragically died last week from cancer at 43.
Vickery’s Twitter account is lined with messages denouncing racism, police brutality and social injustice, causes that Chen has taken to heart.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned in our friendship are the Black Lives Matter issues,” he says. “I’ve since become more outspoken and bring awareness whenever I can.”
At the same time, Vickery has supported Chen and causes he stands for. In June, Vickery tweeted about same-sex marriage laws and job discrimination, two issues that have affected the LGBTQ+ community.
“I may not be a part of your community,” Vickery wrote on Instagram,” but I will always stand for what’s right.”
For Vickery and Chen, their unlikely friendship is a point of pride. (David Chen)
Like many other activists, Vickery’s timeline also includes bits of comic relief—in her case, “my bestie,” Chen. A TikTok video of the two, shot in the hotel room they currently share in the US Open bubble, let Vickery’s followers know what tournament was coming up in a most humorous manner:
“We knew coming here that we’re going to be in quarantine,” says Chen, who graciously accepted an invitation to accompany the wild-card entrant to New York from Vickery’s mother. “That can drive a lot of people crazy. It’s kind of like we’re taking a chance on each other to come here.
“You never know how two people in such close proximity for such a long time is going to go. So far it’s been good.”
Another Vickery tweet showed Chen during last week’s Western & Southern Open, donning a tennis-playing Pikachu tank top with pride mask and watching some of his other favorite players, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka. All three can be seen near the top of Chen’s Instagram, but not just in ordinary pictures.
Serena is shown in a video, practicing with Vickery—with Chen watching on the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“In that situation, I’m kind of like the assistant coach-slash-ball kid,” says Chen, who can now lay claim to being on the opposite side of the net with a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion.
Azarenka, meanwhile, is shown standing alongside Chen, each giving a thumbs up. The Western & Southern Open champion didn’t play in front of many people en route to the title, but Chen—who Azarenka calls “my lucky star”—was watching, clapping and gyrating each time.
“Every time I would go to a match, I was the only person cheering,” says Chen. “I feel like I’m the only fan here.”
There were no cameras capturing Chen’s GIF-able signature moves Tuesday night, when Vickery began her US Open against Taylor Townsend. Originally scheduled as the fifth match on Court 8, it was moved to the non-televised Court 10 after a backlog of matches earlier in the day.
One can only imagine Chen’s reactions to Vickery’s impressive, 6-2, 6-4 win over Townsend, who reached the fourth round at Flushing Meadows last year. During her 2019 run, the Chicago native and Atlanta resident served-and-volleyed her way past Simona Halep, and she took eventual champion Bianca Andreescu to three sets before exiting to resounding applause.
Against Townsend, Vickery knew her reactions from the baseline needed to be as quick and as accurate as possible.
“I worked hard on my passing shots in practice,” said Vickery, as her and Chen made their way toward the hotel-bound bus just before midnight.
But it was more than just on-court tactics that helped Vickery advance, particularly when her frustration began to mount in the second set. She continually made inroads on Townsend’s serve, but she couldn’t break it, even after taking a o-40 lead.
“Seeing you there, and I heard what you said, made me calm down,” Vickery told Chen after the match, which she ended with a satisfying break.
Heading into Tuesday, Vickery and Townsend had split their six prior meetings. (David Chen)
On Wednesday, Chen and Vickery will each wake up to another day in the US Open bubble, and another opportunity to do what they love. For Vickery, ranked 160th on tour, it’s a chance to reach the third round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time, and collect all the accolades that comes with it. She’s 0-4 in the second round of majors, and will try to snap that streak against 19-year-old Iga Swiatek.
For Chen, it’s a chance to cheer at more matches and meet more players, although there seems to be few Americans he hasn’t already said hello to. He’s met Coco Gauff, he now texts with Hailey Baptiste, and he chats up Lauren Davis and Madison Brengle whenever they cross paths.
“I’m hoping in the long run I can continue to cheer for them and talk to them, and we’ll see what happens,” Chen says. “This is really just the beginning of this amazing journey that I believe I’m about to have.”
The future can wait for both Vickery and Chen, even if that future—hopefully—gives way to a 2021 US Open with thousands of fans, rather than just one.
“The pandemic is a very sad thing to have,” says Chen, “but I think it’s because of it that I’m able to have this opportunity. Normally, Sachia would be on the tour doing her thing, and I’d be on my tour doing my own thing. We probably wouldn’t have had these special moments together.”