1977: The wildest event of all, the '77 Open—the final Slam at Forest Hills

by: Steve Tignor | May 21, 2015

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Police comb through the crowd at the 1977 U.S. Open on September 4, after a stray bullet hit a fan in the leg. (AP)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.


All in all, it was a helluva way to say good-bye.

If the early 1970s brought us the tennis boom, the 1977 US Open, the last to be played at its traditional home in Forest Hills, could be called the bust. The sport, after a decade of explosive growth, had outgrown its clubby surroundings. At the ’77 Open, the game’s past—in the form of the West Side Tennis Club, where members still wore all white—came face-to-face with its colorful, big-money present. It was clear from the start that the sport’s new audience had grown too large and unruly to fit into West Side’s old Tudor clubhouse or stroll across its quaint stone walking paths.

By the close of its two weeks, the event had gone from chaotic to sinister. When it was over, Bud Collins of the Boston Globe wrote, “It blended elements of the evacuation of Saigon, Twilight of the Gods, The Day of the Locust, and a fiesta.” To Peter Bodo of TENNIS Magazine, “It was tired, tense, jaded, cynical, ruthless, a messy and dying tournament,” and in the end, “a wide, psychotic edge remained like an electric outline around all things.”

Does all of that sound a little overheated now? Not when you consider what was happening at the time in the city that encircled Forest Hills. The ’77 Open came at the tail end of the “Summer of Sam,” when decades of industrial decline had left New York broke and the landscape hollowed out. It was the year of the blackout, of looting that left neighborhoods in ruins, of Studio 54 and CBGB, of Reggie Jackson and the feuding New York Yankees, and of the serial killer known as the Son of Sam. Two of his murders took place in Forest Hills Gardens, a few blocks from where the Open began on August 29.

The tournament wasted no time following him onto the front pages. It began with a bona fide cultural event: Renée Richards’ first-round match. Richards had played the U.S. Championships 22 years earlier as Richard Raskind. Now, at 43, after undergoing sexual-reassignment surgery, she entered the women’s draw. The game’s authorities fought to keep her out, and there was fear that she would dominate the competition. Richards said she “felt like a monkey inside a glass cage,” but any anxiety about her strength or athleticism dissipated as her first-round opponent, Virginia Wade, powered her way to an easy win. 

The sideshows, as well as a spirit of lawlessness, soon began on the men’s side, too. U.S. player Michael Fishbach made a one-man technological advance by using the "spaghetti racquet." A frame strung with fishing line, tubing, rope, tape and who knew what else, it produced massive spin and helped him upset Stan Smith. In those innocent days, there were no parameters for tennis frames, but the racquet was soon banned.

A few days later, fans staged a sit-in when it was announced that a match featuring their new hero, Guillermo Vilas, would be moved from an afternoon to an evening session. The 12,000 people in the old horseshoe stadium threw whatever they could find and chanted, “We want Vilas!” Officials relented and put the match on. The same week, during a night match featuring John McEnroe, a fan was hit by a stray bullet from outside the grounds. He was carried away on a stretcher but survived. 

In some ways, Forest Hills that year was the perfect dark stage on which the leading man of the ’77 Open, Jimmy Connors, could strut. It had been a rocky season for Jimbo. His father had died, and Bjorn Borg had usurped him at the top of the game. By the time he got to New York City, Connors was a one-man whirlwind of antagonism. 

“This is my championship, I own it!’ Jimbo bellowed. He clashed with reporters, saying they annoyed him with their “stupid” questions. He did the same with fans, too; during one match, Connors flashed his middle finger at the crowd and engaged in a profane war of words with a woman in the stands.

The last straw with the Forest Hills fans came in the semis. Connors, playing Corrado Barazzutti, hit a ball that was called good for a winner. The Italian pointed to a mark outside the line (the tournament was played on clay from '75 to '77), but before anything could be done, Connors barreled around the net and rubbed it out. The audience turned on their fellow American, but Connors fought them, and Barazzutti, to a straight-set win. “I’m the last one you’ve got, so you better pull for me!” Connors yelled.

In the final, where he played Vilas, Connors finally came undone as the crowd roared for his Argentine opponent. Watching from the press box, Arthur Ashe said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. These people want blood.” They nearly got it.

On match point for Vilas, Connors hit a forehand close to the sideline; Vilas’ fans shouted “Out!” Finally, the aged line judge at the back of the court raised his arm. Vilas jumped in the air, and his supporters streamed onto the court. They raised him onto their shoulders and grabbed at his headband—“I thought they might pull my head off,” Vilas said. In the chaos around the net, the two players never shook hands. Connors, half-dazed, lunged at a photographer, clenched his fists, and shouted, “Who’s next?”

There would be no next at Forest Hills. How could anything have followed the ’77 Open?

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