The 'open' US Open: a carnival of competition, commerce and commotion

The 'open' US Open: a carnival of competition, commerce and commotion

Fans flock to watch tennis at the New York major, but also enter a realm that once upon a time didn’t exist. Flushing Meadows is a place where the past, present and future circle one another.

NEW YORK—Board the 7 train at Grand Central Station. Head east and exit at the Mets-Willets Point station. Go south, half a mile, across a wooden pier, alongside your fellow tennis zealots. Enter the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center through the East Gate. On your right, the US Open Collection, the shop where you can buy US Open hats in pink, navy, white, orange, black; water bottles in green, pink or silver; bags in orange, light blue, navy, black, pink. On your left, a Mercedes showroom and, just in case, a couple of Chase ATMs. 

This year, check out the exhibit honoring Billie Jean King, featuring everything from highlights of her great triumphs to personal connections with such cultural icons as singer Elton John and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. 

Now stroll through the food village, where you’ll have 13 culinary options. Or drink a Grey Goose Honey Deuce. Listen to the music in the plaza near the water fountains. Take in the action on the large TV screens. Just outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, take note of the new statue honoring Althea Gibson, the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title, including a pair of US singles titles in 1957 and ’58.

“I knew if Althea had gone through what she had gone through and changed the world, that I had a chance to follow in her footsteps and help change the next generations,” said King the day the statue was dedicated. “She totally inspired me.” 

Had you entered through the South Gate, you would have walked past the US Open Court of Champions, a celebration of players who have fared exceptionally well here over the last 100 years. You also would have seen the massive Unisphere, the 140-foot high and 120-foot wide replication of Earth built for the 1964 World’s Fair that has inadvertently become an exemplary symbol of what the US Open has become: athletic excellence gone global, like no other sport.

You have come to watch tennis. But you have also entered a realm that once upon a time didn’t exist. The US Open is not simply a tennis tournament. It is a carnival of competition, commerce and commotion, where past, present and future circle one another.

Getty Images

The Sport That Couldn’t Get Out Of Its Way

 It hadn’t always been this way. A beautiful, fantastic, incredible, competitive, engaging sport, tennis had so much going for it. It was physical, mental, social, personal; truly a sport for a lifetime that you could play all over the world. “Tennis is democracy,” said Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst at the tournament for the last ten years. “It’s fair and square competition.”

What more could you ask for? Those who’d created it in France and England had tapped into something elemental and powerful: the desire to hit a ball with a stick while interacting with another person. Add in movement, strings and that rectangle of a court and all was in place for something downright magical.

But for nearly 100 years, the sport couldn’t get out of its own way. “It was a tough situation,” said Rod Laver, who 50 years ago completed his second calendar year sweep of all four majors. Alas, as much as Laver was known as “Rocket” inside the lines, it wasn’t so easy to get the tennis ship off the ground. Said Laver, “You couldn’t make a living as an amateur, but if you turned pro and wanted to make money, you weren’t allowed to play the big events.”

America’s tennis epicenter was the West Side Tennis Club, located in a comfortable—but not super-rich—Queens neighborhood known as Forest Hills. Since 1915, this had been the site of the U.S. Nationals. It wasn’t called the US Open because there was no such thing as Open tennis. A 1960 Tennis Industry story cited a study that estimated 5.5 million Americans played tennis. Well into the decade, amateurs were capriciously rewarded, paid under the table by officials who treated more like hired help than world-class athletes. Pros like Laver had many a moment when they were stiffed. 

1968 and the Tennis Revolution  

Then came the big change. Tennis revolutionized itself and at last became an open sport in 1968. This was also one of the most tumultuous years in history. There was the raging Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, riots and protests all over the world; unrest even crossing over into sports at the Summer Olympics. Arthur Ashe, who turned 25 that year, would later say of 1968, “You didn’t get five minutes to breathe.”    

Fittingly, Ashe won the first US Open. Gibson had been the pioneer. But her triumphs had come in the murky amateur years. A decade later, tennis at last entered the contemporary world, just as sports leagues like the NFL and NBA were going Technicolor. Ashe fit this zeitgeist perfectly. The week after his US Open victory, he was featured on the cover of Life Magazine, the headline reading, “The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe.”

Beneath that ice, though, there was fire. In the wake of Ashe’s landmark trip to South Africa in 1973, a local poet named Don Mattera had written this about Ashe’s time in that apartheid-ruled nation:

And I loved you brother —
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul,

Trained to be rebuked or summoned

As Ashe often noted, just his very presence changed the landscape of the sport.

Call it the revolution of color.

From white balls to yellow balls.

From white apparel to blue, red, yellow, purple and beyond.

From white crowds to the broad spectrum of cultures that comprise New York City and the world. 

From the surface associated most with private clubs – green grass – to the surface seen at most public facilities – hard courts, now in viewer-friendly blue.  

From predominantly white elite players, to a wide range of nations and ethnicities competing for the biggest prizes in tennis.

From exclusion to inclusion.

In one of the many stories that so reveal Ashe’s ability to be both subtle and forceful, a member of an old school club once boasted that many of its best players were black.

Countered Ashe: Why aren’t some of your worst?

The 1972 men’s singles final featured Ashe and Ilie Nastase. This was the first time the finalists wore non-white shirts, Ashe in yellow, Nastase in blue. In contrast to Ashe, Nastase was impish, cheeky, brash and so rude to officials that his behavior triggered the need for a code of conduct. He also played dazzling tennis, fighting from two sets to one and 2-4 down in the fourth to beat Ashe in five sets. No loss ever caused Ashe more anguish. Mid-conversation with a friend, Ashe suddenly blurted out, “How could I lose to that clown?”        

For better or worse, color in tennis was taking many forms, be it Nastase turning the court into a circus act, Billie Jean King’s blue suede shoes, Chris Evert’s yellow backless dress, the lucky pink shirt worn by 1973 men’s champion John Newcombe, or the red one donned by Nastase’s fellow rogue, Jimmy Connors. 

When Tennis Was America’s Fourth Most-Popular Sport

A 1970 study conducted by A.C. Nielsen—the same group that compiled TV ratings—estimated there were ten million American tennis players. Six years later, the figure had tripled. At some point in the ‘70s, another study revealed that tennis was the country’s fourth most popular sport. But while the Australian Open, Roland Garros and even Wimbledon were rocked on their heels by the Open era, the US Open barreled ahead, leading the way. There it was, the Open—the only major that described not just an event or city, but a state of being. Open for business. Open to change. Open to the people.  

No longer did the tournament revolve around its patrician, insular culture. Enter the marketplace. Enter sponsors such as Marlboro. Enter extensive TV coverage on CBS. Prize money leaped, from $100,000 in 1968 to over $300,000 in ’75 to more than $1 million in ‘81.

This was accompanied by a series of worldwide innovations that were first commenced at the US Open. The fan-friendly tiebreaker was introduced in 1970. When players complained, tournament director Bill Talbert said, “No player ever bought a ticket.” In 1973, the US Open became the first major to offer equal prize money for men and women. For three years, from ’75-’77, the event was played on clay, with the men playing best-of-three in the early rounds (that continued in ’78). Night play began at the tournament in 1975, a kernel that within a few years burst into popcorn.

With the lights came a new spectator: people who worked by day—and also, fans who wished to attend not just an athletic contest, but a cultural event. The acoustic garden party had gone electric. Attendance at Forest Hills leaped, from 97,294 in ’68 to 218,480 in ‘77.

Tennis, peripheral so long, had become cool, keenly in sync with the times. The movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977 was Annie Hall, written, directed and starring lifelong New Yorker Woody Allen. The two protagonists first met while playing tennis. That same year also saw the opening of Studio 54, a New York night club that rapidly become a major hangout, boasting such attendees as artist Andy Warhol, rock star Mick Jagger and, a member of the West Side Tennis Club, Vitas Gerulaitis.

It’s Up to You, New York

But while the US Open boomed, its hometown busted. Students of urban life will have a field day examining the aches and pains of New York City in the ‘70s. With the city nearly bankrupt, with crime rates soaring, the Big Apple rotted. The nadir came in 1977, when everything from a looting-laced power blackout to the “Son of Sam” murders took the notion of urban dystopia to new depths.

“These have been hard times,” New York’s new mayor, Ed Koch, said at his inaugural on January 1, 1978. “We have been tested by fire... We have been shaken by troubles that would have destroyed any other city. But we are not any other city. We are the City of New York, and New York in adversity towers above any other city in the world.”

Nineteen-seventy-seven also happened to be the same year the USTA made plans to build a new facility for the US Open at Flushing Meadows. The US Open had outgrown Forest Hills. It was time to leave the pristine club behind and take it to the streets.  

The story goes that in early 1977, USTA president Slew Hester, an entrepreneur from Mississippi, had flown into New York and seen a large plot of land he thought would be the perfect spot. Aware as Hester was of its geographic viability, did he also recognize that a locale that had previously hosted the World’s Fair was also metaphorically powerful? Among that fair’s cornerstones: a Disney-themed ride titled, “It’s A Small World.” 

Per Navratilova, tennis was democracy. World’s Fair. World is fair. A global game with a global symbol in the form of that massive Unisphere; well, at least that was a start, along with the abandoned Singer Bowl that in 1973 was renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium, in honor of the recently deceased musical icon who lived in the area.

Meet the New US Open

Those first 19 years at Flushing Meadows, from ’78-’96, set the template of what the US Open has become. Call them the years when the US Open couldn’t breathe for five minutes.

So many memories were made in Armstrong by such champions as Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Navratilova, Tracy Austin, John McEnroe, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg. Had Armstrong lived to see how his name has lived on, imagine his trademark song rewritten: “And I think to myself, what a wonderful stadium.”

In the ‘80s, the arrival of USA Network added round-the-clock TV coverage, matches airing deep into the night. Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo had grown up in Queens and first attended the US Open as an 11-year-old in 1968. An excellent junior, she’d hung out at Forest Hills with her dear friends, Ruta and Vitas Gerulaitis. Thanks to Vitas’ membership, Carillo also had the chance to go backstage when the US Open was played at the West Side Tennis Club. By the ‘80s, she’d become a broadcaster.

Said Carillo, “I’d be sitting in the booth, preparing for the evening’s matches, and then I’d see these shots of people driving into the US Open. Tennis had really become a big deal.”

The Woodstock of those early years at Flushing Meadows happened on September 8, 1984. This was “Super Saturday,” a day into night yellow-balled medley that lasted more than 12 hours: past champs Stan Smith and Newcombe in a legend’s match, Lendl over Pat Cash in a fifth-set tiebreaker, Navratilova squeaking past Evert 6-4 in the third, the grand feast inevitably capped off by McEnroe and Connors playing their highest quality match, won by McEnroe in a five-setter that finished at 11:14 p.m.  

Getty Images

The avatars of those first years at Flushing Meadows were Navratilova and Connors. Navratilova had defected to the United States in the middle of the 1975 US Open. In the summer of 1981, she became an American citizen. That year in New York, Navratilova in the semis beat Evert for the first time at the US Open, but lost the final to Austin in a third-set tiebreakers. Following that defeat, the crowd cheered so loudly for Navratilova that she burst into tears. The message had come from thousands, aimed at one singular new citizen: Welcome to America. Over the next ten years, Navratilova would reach seven more US Open singles finals, winning the title four times.  

Connors’ message was different: Welcome to the jungle. This had jarred Forest Hills, Connors downright devilish with his red shirt, cocky self-belief, crude behavior and willingness to express what tennis’ warriors had long known but never stated. “People don’t understand,” said Connors, “that it’s a goddamned war out there.” Compelling as Connors’ tennis was, for old school tennis fans, it was tough to accept the argot of combat, of spilling blood and guts while also wielding a steel racquet. 

It proved perfect for Flushing Meadows. “It seems every time I come to New York I play my best tennis,” Connors said upon breaking in the new venue and winning the singles title in 1978 and becoming the first and likely only player to win the US Open on three different surfaces. “Whether you liked me or not, I like you.” Ed Koch was the mayor of New York, but Jimmy Connors had come in from the cold to become the mayor of the US Open. The new breed of US Open fan was thoroughly in Jimbo’s corner through his many thrills and spills, all the way to the last hurrah, a semifinal run at the age of 39 in 1991. “Those 20,000 people,” Connors said of the crowd following his epic ’91 Labor Day win that year over Aaron Krickstein, “sounded like 60,000.”

The US Open and New York City also formed a powerful connection. Koch’s successor, David Dinkins, was a good friend of Ashe and a tennis lover. In 1990, Dinkins arranged for jets flying into LaGuardia Airport to be diverted from Runway 13, the path that went over Louis Armstrong Stadium. Dinkins remains a frequent attendee.

Getty Images

Bright Lights, Big Tennis

And as night-time at the US Open sparkled, New York notables frequently surfaced, from the likes of movie directors Spike Lee and Woody Allen, to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, baseball star Keith Hernandez and a Queens-raised real estate developer whose current residence is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. New York City during these years also recovered. Crime rates dropped, the streets got cleaner and the Big Apple glittered once again.

Slew Hester died on February 8, 1993—two days after Ashe’s death. That same year, Mayor Dinkins signed a lease extension, allowing the USTA use of additional acreage to build a new stadium and renovate Armstrong.

Meet the New Avatars: Venus & Serena

Arthur Ashe Stadium opened in 1997. With 23,500 seats, it was, and still is, the world’s largest tennis stadium. Fitting indeed that was also the year Venus Williams, a 17-year-old raised in Compton, California, reached the singles final. Two years later, another 17-year-old, Venus’ sister Serena, took it one step further, winning the title. And in 2001, the sisters played one another in the US Open’s first prime-time final.

That 2001 U.S. Open further linked the tennis to New York. Two days after its conclusion came the tragic events of 9/11. A year later, the USTA honored the victims and the resiliency of New York in a special on-court ceremony that featured New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, singer Tony Bennett, actress-singer Queen Latifah, and actor Judd Hirsch. By this time, many colors had made their presence felt at the US Open. That year, though, the predominant colors were red, white and blue. All four singles finalists – Serena over Venus, Sampras beating Agassi – were American.

Venus and Serena had become the new avatars of the US Open. They have collectively won the singles title eight times. Serena, wrote Claudia Rankine in a 2015 New York Times Magazine story, “shows us her joy, her humor and, yes, her rage. She gives us the whole range of what it is to be human, and there are those who can’t bear it, who can’t tolerate the humanity of an ordinary extraordinary person.”

Getty Images

The Globe Continues To Turn

What Gibson had started, what Ashe continued, the Williams sisters accelerated, along the way inspiring so many more. Witness now the diversity embodied in the notable competitors who have made a major mark on the US Open: Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff. Witness also the many nations that have seen players blossom during this time, from Serbia and Switzerland to Croatia, Japan, Canada and more.

The old icons endured, too. Once his playing days ended in 1992, McEnroe became one of several unofficial US Open ambassadors, his stature as exemplary New Yorker present everywhere from the commentary booth to numerous commercials and events. Navratilova didn’t just endure; she excelled. At the 2006 US Open—one month shy of turning 50—Navratilova partnered with Bob Bryan to win the mixed doubles.  

And the venue continued to evolve. Court 17 opened in 2011. The new Grandstand made its debut in 2016, the same year a roof was added to Ashe Stadium. Two thousand eighteen marked the debut of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, a 14,000-seat stadium, also with a roof.

***

On the Sunday before the start of the 2019 US Open, the 127-year-old West Side Tennis Club held its third annual Heritage Day. Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the US Open, the club honored Ashe and the ’68 women’s champion, Virginia Wade. This year there was only one logical honoree, the one and only Laver. It was a beautiful evening, Laver joined on the speaking agenda by such notables as International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO Todd Martin, Hall of Famers Nick Bollettieri and Mark Woodforde, Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon, and Beryl Lacoste, granddaughter of another all-time great, Rene Lacoste. Said Woodforde as he introduced Laver, “I’d like to see today’s players come here and have a look at where the US Open was first played.”  

Getty Images

The master of ceremonies was Luke Jensen, the West Side Tennis Club’s director of racquet sports who with his brother Murphy had won the doubles title at Roland Garros in 1993. It was fascinating to see how Jensen—a passionate mix of competitor, instructor, racquet-toting rock star—had become so smoothly integrated into this old school club: past and present, zooming into the future.

This was where Laver had first played Davis Cup—and, most notably, where he’d capped off his two calendar Grand Slams in ’62 and ’69. With trademark understatement, he addressed the challenges of those matches. “I guess there’s pressure,” he said, “but you’re just playing one opponent at a time.”  

And then the night ended and the next morning, the tournament began. Many evenings inside Ashe Stadium, Laver would take a seat in the President’s Box. On changeovers, the large video screen would occasionally show his face, accompanied by “Rocket Man,” the song written and performed by Billie Jean King’s friend, Elton John.  

Laver earned $14,000 when he won the ’69 US Open men’s title, the grand finish to a year that saw him win what was then a record $124,000 in prize money. This year’s US Open singles champion will earn $3.85 million.

But raw dollars aren’t really what has kept the US Open’s heart beating. Be it the savage '70s, the resurgent '80s and '90s, post-9/11 or the world we live in now, there has always been a powerful connection between the tournament, New York City and the greater world. The times we live in now are uncertain, demanding, anxiety-laden. Credibility is elusive. On a daily basis, we are witness to violence from those we don’t know and disappointment from those familiar.

Getty Images

And so we find power and meaning in the authentic struggles of athletes, be it in the heat of battle or even moments after. Does anything more demonstrate what competition is all about than how Osaka reached out to Gauff following their match on the tournament’s first Saturday night?

“She just proved that she’s a true athlete,” Gauff said. “For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy but off the court can be your best friend.”

This was precisely the code Laver and his Aussie mates had always followed.

“History is not about the past,” said Billie Jean King. “It is living history. History is constantly living. Every single thing you do during the day is history. Everything we all do, each one of us is accumulating history.”

But now, with Osaka and Gauff, it had happened inside the world’s biggest tennis stadium, with all the lights, noise, music and energy you’ll only find in New York. The Open: open yourself up to all of the colors, to all of the people, to color as an expression of emotion. The Open: a state of being. Welcome to the world.


Wake up every morning with Tennis Channel Live at the US Open, starting at 8 a.m. ET. For three hours leading up to the start of play, Tennis Channel's team will break down upcoming matches, review tournament storylines and focus on everything Flushing Meadows.

Tennis Channel's encore, all-night match coverage will begin every evening at 11 p.m. ET, with the exception of earlier starts on Saturday and Sunday of championship weekend.