It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
There are a few things that everyone seems to agree on when remembering tennis visionary William Ewing “Slew” Hester, Jr.: He loved his cigars, he ignored his critics and he got things done.
Tennis fans have Hester’s forward-thinking mindset to thank for making the U.S. Open the two-week sporting spectacle it is today. Soon after his election as USTA president in 1977, the successful oilman from the small town of Hazlehurst, MS, spotted the remnants of the 1964 World’s Fair from the air on a flight into New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
The sprawling 200-acre piece of land was covered in snow at the time, but Hester could clearly see the only detail that mattered: Louis Armstrong Stadium. The centerpiece of his mental blueprint, the little-used venue and the surrounding grounds in Flushing Meadows were 10 times the size of the longtime site of the U.S. Open at West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills. The event had long suffered overcrowding issues, and Hester saw Armstrong Stadium as the solution.
As a perceived outsider from the Deep South, Hester had a difficult task ahead. Tennis traditionalists balked at moving the event from a charming country club to a planned public facility, and few thought Hester could make the switch in his planned timeline of less than a year.
Hester’s risk proved to be the tennis community’s reward. The National Tennis Center opened as promised on August 30, 1978, with capacity crowds of 18,000 packing Armstrong Stadium. Spectators took in the sport’s first night matches, with attendance growing from 218,480 in the last year at Forest Hills to over 275,000 in 1978.
He may not have been a native New Yorker, but Slew knew his audience. He created a uniquely American experience that has grown into the largest-attended sporting event in the world. Christened the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006, the U.S. Open site is still known by some as “the house that Slew built.”
The USTA invested $10 million in Hester’s vision back in 1977. Then, after years of incremental expansion, including the opening of Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997, the organization announced a $550 million renovation in 2014. The ambitious plan to install a roof over Ashe Stadium by 2016 was taken right out of Hester’s playbook.
Hester was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981, and passed away 12 years later at the age of 80. His legacy lives on in his home state.
“We’re all extremely proud of him,” says Hester’s son, Bill. “When you talk tennis in Mississippi, the first name that pops up is Slew Hester.”