U.S. Open fans jockey for autographs

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The tennis balls pounding the courts at the U.S. Open in Queens Sunday didn't come with record-setting stats and prizes -- the players were only practicing -- but the fans corralled behind the blue security gates were just as enthusiastic.

They had seen the pro tennis players on television, waving their rackets and grunting in dramatic fashion. But now the world-famous athletes -- who were busy practicing the day before the Open was set to begin today -- were before their eyes and autographs were a must-have.

"It's really exciting being close to all these people I see on TV all the time," said Autumn Harris, 17, of Atlanta, a tennis player herself, who had collected autographs from the celebratory chest-bumping twin brothers who play doubles, Robert and Michael Bryan.

Victories in the art of autograph seeking come small and large. In the case of players such as Venus Williams or the Bryan Brothers, for example, it's a grand slam. And with no matches to watch Sunday, autograph seeking became akin to its own sport.

Grandmothers instructed their young charges to run in the direction of a player, even if they were unsure of who exactly that player was. Fathers directed daughters to get close just in time to snap a picture.

Aura Canas, of Queens, sent her granddaughters -- Dyance, 11 and Delaylah, 9 -- running in the direction of a blonde woman who signed balls for several people. None of the autograph seekers knew her name. She was gone in a flash and remains anonymous.

The Canas girls, however, quickly learned the name of Juan Martin del Potro, a popular Argentine player who was doing a TV interview outside. Quickly, he was surrounded by fans.

"Venir aqui!" which is Spanish for "Come here!" the grandmother shouted. The player, also known by his nickname of Delpo quickly obliged, signing autographs to squealing fans.

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"My grandpa loves tennis," said Dyance, a sixth-grader. "I'm starting to."

Niko Papaioannou, 10, of Fort Lee, N.J., was spending Sunday adding to his already huge collection of autographs he got last year while attending the Open with his parents.

"Like a million," he said, when asked how many he scored. "A lot, Andy Murray, Roger Federer."

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Becker sisters Kyra, 14 and Lexi, 9, of Port Jefferson and their friend Taylor Consiglio, 16, of Hauppauge, were also on the hunt. Lexi made a mad dash and was able to score a picture of Swiss player Stan Wawrinka.

"I yelled, 'Stan!' " she said. "He posed for the picture."

At Court 4, Venus Williams, with long and bright pink braids, emerged from the court after about two hours of practice and signed autographs.

Didette Endrina, 47, a high-school science teacher from Brooklyn, was one of the lucky ones that got Williams' autograph. She said the "close encounter" with her favorite athlete was worth standing crammed in a small space with people in the hot sun.

"For 47 years and it's my first time" being at the Open, Endrina said. "It's exciting. It's inspiring."

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