SHENANDOAH — A trip that had been in the works for many years turned out even better than one Shenandoah woman could have imagined.
After retiring from teaching at Shenandoah Elementary, Marcia Johnson was finally able to take her trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York last month after dreaming about it for more than 20 years.
While seeing the sights of the country’s largest city, one she hadn’t seen before, and enjoying four days at the top tennis tournament in the country would have been enough for Johnson, an impromptu outing found her chatting with Carson Daly live on national television. This year’s U.S. Open was set to begin, Monday, Aug. 26 and Johnson and lifelong friend Kim (Holman) Beltran had tickets for the first four days of the tournament.
After a day of sightseeing the day before the tournament started, they decided to go watch NBC’s “Today Show” at the studios, which were about one mile away from their hotel, before leaving for their first day of tennis.
Johnson said they completed online RSVP cards that night stating they would be there the following morning. A production assistant worked the crowd prior to the show and, thanks to some encouraging from Beltran, Johnson shared her story with the assistant of finally being able to attend the U.S. Open after retiring from teaching.
The production assistant liked the story and just prior to the beginning of one of the outdoor segments, without them knowing what he was doing, moved Johnson and Beltran into position to talk with Daly. As the segment started, Daly quickly strolled over to where Johnson and Beltran had been placed and had a conversation with Johnson. Daly had been told of Johnson’s story and had her share that with the television audience. The conversation lasted about 40 seconds and ended with Daly giving Johnson VIP tickets to that evening’s session of the tennis tournament.
The Monday evening session was the one session that Johnson and Beltran had not secured tickets. Johnson was still hoping to buy those tickets because women’s tennis stars Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were scheduled to square off that night.
While the “Today Show” airs live in New York, it can’t be seen in Shenandoah, and the rest of the central time zone, until one hour later, so Johnson had an hour to let friends and family know they needed to tune in. She said she didn’t tell anyone exactly why they needed to tune in, but her “phone started blowing up” very quickly with lots of messages saying they were excited to see Johnson on TV.
After that incredible experience, much of the rest of the trip focused on the reason they were there in the first place, tennis.
Johnson spent 35 years as an elementary teacher at Shenandoah before retiring at the end of last school year. She is also an assistant coach for the girls tennis team at Shenandoah and a huge tennis fan.
Watching the US Open in person has been a dream of Johnson’s for well over 20 years, but it always conflicted with the beginning of the school year, and she felt she couldn’t miss those first days of school.
As soon as Johnson decided to retire, the tickets were booked and decisions were made for the trip, using mostly money that had been set aside in its own “U.S. Open bank account” for more than 20 years.
Johnson said taking Beltran was an easy decision. They grew up together in Farragut, hitting tennis balls against any wall they could find. Beltran lives in California now, but she was the one to take because Johnson said “I needed someone who could watch as much tennis as I would want to.”
Johnson and Beltran had tickets to Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main venue for the tournament, for every session they were there. Johnson said having tickets to Ashe Stadium gives you access to every match on every court, including the practice courts.
With this, they were able to see just about all of the big stars. They saw Serena Williams and Roger Federer play twice each. They saw Rafael Nadal, and watched him practice twice. They saw Coco Gauff, the 15-year old American who has had an outstanding season, and the Bryan brothers, who have won 16 grand slam titles together.
She said her favorite match they saw was probably when Taylor Townsend, another up and coming American who had to qualify for the tournament, upset fourth-seed Simona Halep, who won Wimbledon earlier this year, in the second round.
Johnson said the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which is where the U.S. Open is held, is an enormous venue, but they had it figured out pretty well by the time their fourth and final day of tennis rolled around. She added the crowds “were unbelievable,” and it was easy to see Nadal and Williams because “that’s where the crowds were.”
Johnson and Beltran spent the two days prior to the tennis tournament sightseeing in New York and Johnson said they saw “about everything.”
A trip that Johnson had waited to take for more than two decades became an “experience I won’t forget.”