History Of The U.S. Open In Queens, New York

History Of The U.S. Open In Queens, New York

Feature Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com

Before going into the history of the presence of the U.S. Open in Queens, New York, let’s get into how this tennis tournament first began in North America. The first tennis tournament was held in Newport, Rhode Island during the summer of 1881. It was held on the grass courts belonging to the Newport Casino. This is the exact same place that later became the location of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In the beginning, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association held the tennis tournament exclusively for its club members. In the men’s singles category, Richard Sears won what became the first of his seven championship titles since it began in 1881. At one point, the rules of the tournament allowed the defending champion of the tournament to skip all the matches leading up to the next year’s final. From 1884 until 1911, all the challengers would play against each other, elimination style, until there was only one man left. From there, he would enter the final, hoping to dethrone the champion and take his place.

At first, the U.S. Open was a sport that only had men compete in the tournament. At the time, it was referred to as the U.S. National Singles Championships for Men. It wasn’t until September 1887 the women would have a tennis tournament of their own with the USNLTA. Their matches were held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. The first winner of the U.S. Women’s National Singles Championship was a seventeen-year-old Philadelphian, Ellen Hansell. This was also the same year the men’s doubles began as a championship run. This categorized tournament was held at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, New Jersey.

From 1888 until 1916, the women’s tournament used a similar challenge system as the men’s. From 1890 until 1906, the matches in the tournament were broken up where some were played in the nation’s east while others were in the west. This system would determine who are the two best double teams that would later compete in a playoff system. From there, the best would move on to take on the defending champion in the final.

Among the men, their doubles tournament took place at the Staten Island Cricket Club in Livingston, Staten Island, New York, in 1888 and 1889. Up until 1915, these tennis tournaments didn’t really have a singular fixed location. Even as 1892 witnessed the U.S. Mixed Doubles Championship and the 1899 U.S. Women’s National Doubles Championship join in on an event that was expanding as it grew more popular. However, starting in 1911, there were discussions about finding a fixed location in New York City. This was led by tennis player turned banker, Karl Behr. This is the same man who miraculously survived the RMS Titanic when it sank during its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912.

Hello, New York

The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, New York City, officially became the new home of the U.S. National Tennis Championship. This came about after approximately one hundred tennis players signed a petition in favor of the move. It was brought up in the argument that the majority of players and fans came from New York City. However, there was another group that was led by former tournament champions that felt otherwise. It wasn’t until the USNLTA voted on the matter on February 5, 1915, that an official decision was made. Of the 247 votes that were cast, 128 were in favor of the move.

August 1915 witnessed the men’s singles tournament held at the West Side Tennis Club for the first time. Meanwhile, the women’s tournament was still held in Philadelphia. It wouldn’t be until 1921 that the ladies would have their tournament relocated to the same venue location as the men.

As for the doubles events, the men held theirs at Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts from 1917 until 1933. In 1934, both the men’s and ladies’ doubles were held in Massachusetts.

Sewing Seeds

Now with this prestigious tennis tournament held in New York, the need for the USNLTA to have its own venue that could better accommodate began to take fruition in 1921. It would be at this time Forest Hills Stadium was built from the ground up to host up to fourteen thousand spectators at the West Side Tennis Club. In the meantime, the men’s singles tennis tournaments were held at the German Town Cricket Club in Philadelphia. In 1922, the U.S. National Championships began using a draw system among seeded players as a means to prevent the top leaders of the sport from facing off against each other during the earlier rounds of the tournament.

As of 1924, the USNLTA’s tournament was regarded as a world-class event by the International Lawn Tennis Federation. This was followed by the doubles tournaments that started to be held in Massachusetts in 1935. It continued until 1941, before resuming in 1946. After 1967, the doubles were relocated out of the state.

Opening Up

America’s most prestigious tennis tournament remained as a club members-only championship until 1967. 1968 marked the first year it opened up to allow professional tennis players to compete in the Grand Slam Tournament that was held at the West Side Tennis Club. Up to this point, it was a membership exclusive extended to the best of its amateur players. Aside from the mixed doubles tournament, it was an open invitation for national and international professionals to compete in Queens.

The first year witnessed ninety-six men and sixty-three women compete in their respective categories. At the time, the total prize money was $100,000.00 USD. Two years later, the U.S. Open witnessed its first Grand Slam tiebreaker that witnessed Pierre Barthes and Nikola Pillic defeat Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. This was the first “Sudden Death” overtime, which came about after the two players were tied 6-6. For Jimmy Van Alen, his dream of this tiebreaker event to take place became a reality after lobbying for this revolutionary approach to tennis for about twenty years.

Flagged

When it was realized there was a tiebreaker, the red flags the spectators were carrying were out in full force. When they were unfurled at Forest Hills, this heightened the tension around the court that a match has just reached Sudden Death. The white S and D letters that were printed in white on the flags and banners also had smaller initials of V and A on them. The S stood for Sudden while the D stood for Death. V and A stood for Van Alen.

The history of Van Alen and the Sudden Death tiebreaker got its start at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island. In 1954, there was a finals match played by Ham Richardson and Straight Clark. The casino belonged to Van Alen and was gearing up to feature a men’s doubles final which was supposed to be the highlight match of the tennis tournament. Australia’s rising tennis stars, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, were the main draw for a crowd that couldn’t wait to see these two men perform on the tennis court.

However, Richardson and Clark somewhat stole the show in an epic tennis battle that eventually saw Richardson walk away as the winner. Because their match took so long, Hoad and Rosewall had no choice but to hold their match on an outside court. Instead of remaining indoors, the patrons stood outside to watch. For Van Alen, this sparked the idea to have better control over the length of tennis matches so that inconveniences such as this could be avoided. This wasn’t only for the hosting venue’s benefit but for the players and the spectators.

The Newport Bolshivek Van Alen was on a quest to put an end to the deuces that made the matches seem interminable. He knew there needed to be a better scheduling system when it came to hosting tennis tournaments and their matches. Hence, the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System (VASSS) was born. Over the stretch of time, it has made adjustments to better accommodate the sport, including the replacement of “Simplified” with “Streamlined.”

At first, Van Alen met with strong opposition in his home nation that ultimately gave him cause to take his idea to the professional tennis circuit. When the VASSS system was finally used in Newport in 1965, it was for what was dubbed The Guinea Pig Derby. Designed as a timed event not to exceed half an hour, there was a tracking system in place that counted each point as they were scored by a player. Whoever reached thirty-one points first was declared the winner. At the time, each point was worth five dollars. This system eliminated an obsolete practice that had regarded some points as having more value than others. As far as Van Alen was concerned, each point was considered equal and needed to be treated as such. It was thanks to this system he came up with a tiebreaker idea that would make its presence felt for the first time in Queens, New York.

Changing Systems

Up until Van Alen and VASSS, the United States National Tennis Association kept the sport of tennis in what it felt was as pure and traditional as possible. However, once color television offered an opportunity to popularize the sport even further, it reconsidered Van Alen’s colorful approach to the sport that would see yellow tennis balls and red flags. However, the popularity of Van Alen’s Sudden Death had yet to impress the players enough to agree to it. They admitted they hated the pressure. As for the fans, they loved it as it was exciting to watch.

Despite Van Alen’s attempt to keep deuce out of the sport of tennis, it still managed to eventually smuggle its way back into the sport. However, his VASSS system still remains, albeit it somewhat facelifted since its 1965 debut.

From 1970 until 1974, the U.S. Open altered the system from what first started out as a best-of-nine-point sudden-death tiebreaker to the International Tennis Federation’s best-of-twelve-points system. It was also during this time the tournament had the prize money between men and women equalized.

Changing Courts

Starting in 1975, there were complaints about the impact the ball had on the grassy surface of the tennis court. This prompted the introduction of clay courts that would replace the grass. It was also during this time floodlights were added to the court so that the matches could be played at night. This also made it easier to watch on television.

Going into 1978, the tournament relocated to the newly constructed USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens. This was just three miles north of West Side Tennis Club. Not only was the court’s physical location changed but the surface as well. Matches were played on a hard court instead of clay. This move resulted in tennis hero, Jimmy Connors, becoming the only player to win the U.S. Open on all three court surfaces. As for the women, Chris Evert became the only U.S. Open champion in the ladies’ division to earn her titles on clay and hard surfaces.

Currently, the grounds belonging to the U.S. Open have twenty-two outdoor courts, thirteen field courts, and five practice courts. There are also four show courts that have utilized the Grandstand, Arther Ashe Stadium, Court 17, and Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Opened in 1997, the largest of the four courts, Arthur Ashe Stadium, was named after the tennis star who won the first U.S. Open in 1968, then the Australian Open in 1970, and the Wimbledon in 1975. This is the same Arthur Ashe who became the first and only African-American to win the U.S. Open men’s singles. Unfortunately, because he was an amateur, he wasn’t able to accept the $14,000.00 USD prize money. He did, however, become the number-one-ranked tennis player in the country by the USLTA. It seemed only fitting in 1997, the 23,771-seat stadium not only the largest of the four belonging to the U.S. Open but became the largest tennis venue in the world.

The Louis Armstrong Stadium seats 14,061 patrons, a venue that opened up in 2018, two years after the Grandstand and its 8,125 seating availability. The smallest of the four, Court 17, started out as a temporary venue in 2011 before becoming a permanent structure in 2012. Also known as The Pit, this sunken playing surface holds up to 2,800 people as a general admission venue.

The court complex was renamed to USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the 2006 U.S. Open, paying homage to the four-time U.S. Open singles champion who pioneered the sport of tennis for women. She played an instrumental role throughout the 1960s and 1970s as a team member of the United States as it dominated the sport of tennis during this time. The first U.S. Open she won was in 1967, defeating Ann Hayden-Jones on a grass surface. In 1968, she lost the U.S. Open to Virginia Wade but bounced back in 1971 with a win against Rosemary Casals. Her third U.S. Open win came in 1972 against Kerry Melville Reed, and her fourth was in 1974 against Evonne Goolagong. She continued competing in the tournament until 1984.

Changing Schedules

It was in 1984 the U.S. Open introduced a scheduling system that would be referred to as “Super Saturday.” The practice of using Saturdays and Sundays to feature the finalists from the men’s and women’s singles divisions would serve as tournament closures. Going into 2001, the women’s final was moved to the evening so it could be watched on primetime television. This move spiked the popularity of women’s tennis across the nation. However, it came at the cost of players who had less than a full day’s rest going from the semifinals to the final. As for the men, Roger Federer benefited from the Super Saturday schedule. He won his first U.S. Open championship in 2004, then his fifth in 2008.

From 2008 until 2012, the men’s final had their tournaments postponed due to inclement weather. As it turned out, the move to Mondays became intentionally scheduled by the USTA in 2013 and 2014. For the men, this allowed them to rest an extra day after the semifinals. Unfortunately, this met with criticism as it was not a practice shared by the other Grand Slam tennis tournaments.

The 2015 U.S. Open witnessed the Super Saturday schedule drop as it returned to the traditional format that was used by other Grand Slam events. The finals were still scheduled for Saturday and Sunday but it became a tighter-than-expected schedule as bad weather forced the semifinals to be crammed in on Friday.

Sign of the Times

On September 12, 1992, the U.S. Open witnessed the longest match on record as it took Stefan Edberg five hours and twenty-six minutes to defeat Michael Chang so he could advance to the final against Pete Sampras. Edberg won what became his final Grand Slam title as a player. The increasing prestige of the U.S. Open also meant an increase in prize money. In 2012, the USTA agreed to increase the prize money to reach the fifty million dollar mark by 2017. This money summed up about seventy percent of the total player base compensation whenever competing in the tournament. In 2021, the organization raised the highest amount of prize money with a total player compensation of $57,462,000.00 USD. For 2022, it surpassed the sixty million dollar mark.

Over time, as technology made it easier to iron out the flaws of sports like tennis, 2006 witnessed the U.S. Open begin using instant replay when it came to reviewing line calls. It was the first Grand Slam tournament to use the Hawk-Eye computer system, which came out of necessity after the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Cariati that met with so much controversy.

At first, the instant replays had limited usage before all competition-graded courts were fitted with the Hawk-Eye system by 2018. In 2021, the U.S. Open fully incorporated the Hawk-Eye, using it to determine all line calls electronically. This put an end to the challenges made by players who disputed line calls.

As of 2018, the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to introduce the shot clock in order to keep track of the time players used up between points. This came as a necessity to increase the game’s pace as the players could see how much time they were taking up between plays. The chair umpire and fans were also able to watch the clock as the match carried itself out. Going into 2020, this system was included in all Grand Slam tournaments, as well as other world-class tennis events.

Still Making History

To date, the U.S. Open remains the only Grand Slam tournament to remain open ever since it began. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic had such an impact that the USTA held the event for the first time without spectators. The USTA also underwent heavy criticism when it decided not to hold the wheelchair tennis division of the tournament. The physically challenged athletes were not consulted like their counterpart athletes were and saw this as a form of discrimination. Because of this, the USTA was forced to admit it should have been more transparent. The disabled competitors were financially compensated as a means to make up for the error of judgment.

Aside from the Kentucky Derby, the U.S. Open is America’s oldest sporting event still going. The move to New York shifted tennis to earn its place as an American classic that continues to draw in scores of dedicated fans. As a world-class event, it shares the same prestige as the Wimbleton and the French Open. It’s also been the home that witnessed the 1994 unseeded Andrei Agassi become champion for the men. The youngest U.S. Open winner among the men was a nineteen-year-old named Pete Sampras to win in 1990. Among the ladies, it was Tracy Austin at sixteen years old when she won in 1979.

Going into 2022, the U.S. Open continues to make its global impression as one of the premier events in the sport of tennis. On its website, it allows live streaming and is the only Grand Slam tournament that doesn’t engage in video-on-demand services. ESPN, which took over the event as a televised broadcast in 2015, ended the forty-seven-year run CBS had previously.

References

https://www.tennis.com/news/articles/1970-the-tiebreaker-is-introduced

https://www.tennistours.com/us-open/history

A History of the US Open in New York (Infographic)

https://www.si.com/tennis/2016/06/24/us-open-stadium-history-flushing-meadow-new-york-arthur-ashe

https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-facts-tennis-nyc-us-open-20220827-5neer6jjxjftnlehdxtubulife-photogallery.html

https://www.tennismajors.com/our-features/september-12-1992-the-day-stefan-edberg-beat-michael-chang-in-the-longest-ever-us-open-match-288974.html

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

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