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TBT: 1975 US Open Begins with two innovations
The short-lived switch to Har-Tru, and the long-lasting US Open signature, night matches under the lights.
Published Aug 27, 2020
When Open tennis arrived in 1968, no major pursued change with more vigor than America’s Grand Slam, the US Open. In 1970, tournament director Bill Talbert launched the tiebreaker, a step taken to both add more drama and streamline the length of matches. In the face of player complaints, Talbert said, “I never knew a player who bought a ticket.” Three years later, the US Open became the first major to offer equal prize money.
Now, on this late summer day in 1975, two changes arrived for that year’s US Open. The first was a new surface. Since 1881, the tournament had been played on grass courts. But by the early ‘70s, everything from big serves to bad bounces to staccato-like exchanges had made the tournament far from viewer-friendly – and, arguably, unfair to the many players from around the world who’d honed their games on much slower surfaces. It was one thing for tiebreakers to limit the duration of a match. It was another for the points to be decided so swiftly and even capriciously.
Beginning in 1975, the US Open would be played on clay – that is, Har-Tru, the popular American version, somewhat faster than the red clay commonly seen in Europe and Latin America. In the spirit of anti-jingoism, the shift to clay would be detrimental to a great many Americans, the vast majority of whom played attacking, serve-and-volley tennis. Arthur Ashe, who’d just won Wimbledon, believed that neither himself nor defending champion Jimmy Connors were likely to take the title. “This tournament is going to be full of upsets,” said Ashe. “In the end, it will come down to four guys – [Guillermo] Vilas, [Bjorn] Borg, [Ilie] Nastase and [Manuel] Orantes.”
As Ashe predicted, Manuel Orantes won the 1975 US Open. (USOpen.org)
Innovation number two called for night tennis – the first time a major had explicitly scheduled evening sessions. The first match under the lights was supposed to pit Nastase, the ’72 US Open singles winner, versus Bob Lutz. But with Nastase still competing in a delayed event in New Jersey, the schedule was shifted. Instead, another past US Open champion, ’71 winner Stan Smith, would take on New Zealander Onny Parun.
A year earlier, Smith had been seeded third. But 1975 had been the hardest time of his career. Smith had lost in the first round of Wimbledon, arrived in New York not having won a singles title all year and was now unseeded.
Parun personified the term “sturdy campaigner,” renowned for putting in more weeks on the road than anyone on the tour. Earlier that year, he’d reached a career-high singles ranking of #19.
In front of a West Side Tennis Club crowd of 4,949 spectators, Parun beat Smith that evening, 6-4, 6-2 (as a concession to the physical demands of clay, the first three rounds of the men’s event were best-of-three sets long).
Clay, though, would last but three years, the experiment ended after the ’77 US Open when the tournament relocated to Flushing Meadows and installed hard courts.
In that debut year of ’75, Ashe was proven right on at least two counts. Seeded fourth, he was upset in the round of 16 by an excellent clay courter, American Eddie Dibbs. Per Ashe’s second assertion, Manuel Orantes upset Connors in the finals.
While Ashe was one of many Americans who struggled on the dirt, two fared quite well. Connors reached the finals from ’75-’77, beating Borg in the ’76 final. On the women’s side, Chris Evert, won her first of six US Open singles titles in ’75 and would never lose a US Open match on clay.
But while clay had quickly gone by the wayside, night tennis proved a game changer. Lights were a natural fit for the new venue. If at first playing at night made such players as Bjorn Borg uncomfortable, soon enough, its visceral appeal – particularly to boisterous New York fans and millions more watching all over the world – rapidly made it a US Open signature shot.