It Happened at the Open

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 /by

BE024148 For a tennis writer from New York, there’s a Groundhog’s Day effect to the U.S. Open. Every time I get back out to Flushing Meadows, I immediately feel as if I’ve never left—I mean never left. Walking around the grounds, I’m not sure if it’s 2009 or 2006 or maybe even 2003.

I know the National Tennis Center has evolved around the edges. The event is always bigger—that’s pretty much the law by now—but it’s also greener and measurably more hospitable than it used to be. Still, just like a corned beef sandwich from the Tiananmen-sized food court, the place can lose its pungent Gotham punch after a few days. The sizzle is always closely followed by the frazzle. By the final Sunday the two are usually locked in a death grip in the middle of my skull.

If there’s a difference for me this year, it’s that I’m walking into the Open with a skull newly full of the tournament’s history. As I’ve said here before, I’m writing—i.e., typing a few words, deleting a few words—a book about men’s tennis in the late 70s and early 80s, with a special eye toward the 1981 U.S. Open. Researching it has been a fast lesson in all kinds of tennis history, and in particular all kinds of Open history. To get you in the mood for tennis in New York, where it sizzles and frazzles and overheats like nowhere else, here are five of the more entertaining Open stories I’ve come across in recent months.

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5. The past can seem like a foreign place. How many stories do you read where you end up asking, “Can you imagine that happening today”? The answer is always no. The history of tennis is as a good a barometer as any for how much has changed. For example, in the semifinals of the 1926 U.S. Championships (now the Open), there was a need for one more line judge to work the match between Rene Lacoste and Henri Cochet. Who volunteered and sat down to call the line? The defending champion and consensus greatest player of the first half of the 20th century, Bill Tilden.

Speaking of Tilden, here’s another story from his days at Forest Hills that boggles the modern mind. In the middle of the 1920 final, between Big Bill and Little Bill Johnston, a bi-plane—they were a novelty in those post-war days—buzzed over the stadium and swooped to within a couple hundred feet of the crowd, annoying and frightening everyone in equal measures. A photographer hung out of one window, snapping pictures. After a few turns around the grounds, the plane suddenly fell out of the sky and crashed, killing pilot and passenger. As smoke climbed nearby, the chair umpire turned to Johnston and said, “Can you go on?” Johnston nodded. The umpire looked at Tilden, who also nodded. “Play!” the umpire yelled. Tilden later bragged that only 50 of the 10,000 people in attendance got up and left.

4. Two of tennis' greatest myths: It’s an individual sport, and Pancho Gonzalez was one of the toughest and most ruthless of those individuals. Those two things are true to an extent. But it should be noted that there was no rule against coaching until Ion Tiriac started blatantly signaling Guillermo Vilas in the mid-70s; and Gonzalez wasn’t above getting a little help when he could.

Down two sets to one in the 1949 Forest Hills final to his nemesis Ted Schroeder, Gonzalez went to the locker room for the mid-match break. There he met his friend and fellow player Frank Shields, Brooke’s grandfather. Shields told Gonzalez that Schroeder, any time he was ahead in a game, was tossing in a soft first serve, which Gonzalez was unable to exploit because he was standing too far back. Shields, who was sitting in the front row, told him to look up at him when he was returning, and he would give him the signal when to move in. “It paid big dividends,” Gonzalez said. He won the last two sets for the Forest Hills title, a win that allowed him to turn pro the next season.

3. There is no really no end to Ilie Nastase stories. Here’s a guy who showed up in black-face to play doubles with Arthur Ashe, after the tournament had stipulated that teams wear matching uniforms. Here's a guy who hired someone to kidnap a black cat so he could take it on court and have it cross his superstitious opponents' path before a match at Roland Garros (Nastase’s team won). One of my favorite of Nasty's U.S. Open stories happened during his final-round victory over Ashe in 1972. Down two sets to one and 2-4 in the fourth, he was on the verge of giving up, having, naturally, already hit a ball at a line judge and given the audience the finger. But Nastase, who always played for the approval of others as much as for himself, spotted a fan who was begging and pleading for him to win, dying with every point. Nastase thought he should at least try to win it for him. And he did.

2. There’s also really no end to the stories about the 1977 Open, the last one at Forest Hills, held at the tail end of the infamous Summer of Sam. It was the lawless Slam, where the fans staged a sit-down strike, the soon-to-be-illegal spaghetti racquet was used, a transsexual played the women’s tournament, and Jimmy Connors ran around the net post to rub out a mark on the other side of the net. Connors was the master of ceremonies that year, the straw that stirred the fetid New York drink. His father had died earlier in the year and he had careened into New York after an up-and-down summer. In press conferences, he called one reporter “another a—hole,” and told one female spectator who heckled him . . . well, I won’t say what he told her. My favorite moment from Jimmy’s '77 Open, though, was the last one. Rather than try to shake hands with Vilas, who had just beaten him in the final and was being mobbed by fans (they ripped his headband off pretty violently), Connors took a swing at a photographer, clenched his fists and his teeth, and yelled, “Who’s next!!!????”

I like to imagine Roger Federer doing that this year. 

1. The 1981 final ended an era and took us to what may have been the absolute peak performance by any player in history. Bjorn Borg lost, walked off the court and straight through the kitchen, and was escorted by Queens cops off the grounds. There had been two death theats aimed at him, though my favorite part of the story is that he took a moment from his fear or despair in the kitchen to warn his coach, Lennart Bergelin, that there was a grease puddle ahead and to make sure he didn’t slip. Who knows if the threats were real, but if there was a player who would have gotten them, it would have been Borg. Like John Lennon, there was magic around the guy in his prime, a magic that has long since worn off.

Unfortunately that exit overshadowed McEnroe’s day, which was one of his greatest (watch the amazing highlights here). He had so mastered the sport, and everyone else who played it, that he beat Bjorn Borg with a shot he rarely even tried, the topspin lob. He broke Borg in the third set with two of them—you could see the Swede physically cave in after the second one. Afterward, McEnroe said, “I felt like I could hit any shot I wanted.” Those words have always rung loudly in my ears. What would it be like to feel that? Only Johnny Mac knows.

1A. I have one more Nastase at the Open story that should be told. It happened in 1979, at Flushing. That was the year he almost started a riot against McEnroe in a night match, but he made up for it in another, less-publicized way by playing mixed doubles with man-turned-woman Renee Richards, who had been largely shunned by other players, including members of the WTA.

“All of the women had refused to play with her," Nastase said, "and men wouldn’t play with her in the mixed. I thought it wasn’t fair, after all that she’d been through. I was thinking, why doesn’t someone give her a chance? I asked her to team up, but I said, “Let’s make it fun,” so that’s how we played."

On the first point of their first match, Nasty put away an overhead and Richards slapped him on the shoulder in congratulation. He fell down on the court and acted like she’d hurt him. The crowd loved it. They made the semifinals.

"I got teased the whole time by the other players," Nastase added. "‘Only you can play with that person, not man or woman,' they said. But it was important for me to help someone who no one else was helping.”

A former No. 1 playing mixed with a 42-year-old woman who was once a man. Can you imagine it today? It happened, at the Open of course.

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