NEW YORK — They’re at the top of their sport. They’re primed to run down tennis balls. So perhaps it’s perfectly natural that about 3,000 top-flight canines are converging on the grounds of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, where the Westminster Kennel Club dog show began Saturday.
It’s a new venue for the nearly 150-year-old event, now back in New York City after a two-year, pandemic-induced sojourn in the suburbs.
As the show began Saturday with an agility competition and other events, there were a few double-takes, if not double-faults.
Barks, not the pock of tennis balls, were heard across the sunny, 40-acre grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Westminster’s traditional green carpet had been rolled out in Arthur Ashe Stadium for fleet-footed — but four-footed — competitors.
The fan-friendly South Plaza was set up with a 27,000-gallon pool for a canine dock-diving demonstration. Turn in any direction, and a dog of some sort was likely to be passing by.
“It’s kind of weird to see them out and about at a place where you don’t usually see dogs,” spectator Haili Menard said as she watched the dock diving to pick up pointers for her Dalmatian back at home in Bristol, Conn. Menard had been to the U.S. Open but never to the Westminster show.
“The sport of it is highlighted” by the environs, she said.
Up on the artificial-turf-covered platform, Fletcher the Malinois took the plunge. Owner Jenine Wech had been quick to sign him up for the first-ever dock-diving demonstration at U.S. dogdom’s most illustrious show.
“We’re never going to get to Westminster any other way,” laughed Wech, of Schellsburg, Pa. When not doing dock diving or other sports, Fletcher works as a bedbug-detection dog.
For most of its history, Westminster was held in Manhattan, where the show long crowned its top dogs at Madison Square Garden. In order to hold the event outdoors during the COVID-19 crisis, organizers moved it to the grounds of an estate in suburban Tarrytown, N.Y., for the last two years.
The club was eager to return to New York City and initially envisioned going back to the Garden. But amid factors including construction plans at a Manhattan pier building that formerly hosted part of the show, the tennis center emerged as a good alternative.
Besides hosting one of tennis’s Grand Slam tournaments, the facility in Queens also has had wrestling and video gaming competitions in recent years. Its management embraced letting dogs have their day.