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US Open – Last & First Reflections

In 1977, the last US Open was contested at the venerable and very exclusive West Side Tennis Club located in Forest Hills, New York. The next year the tournament moved to a plot of land that was just a short automobile ride away.

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William “Slew” Hester Jr., the incoming United States Tennis Association President, spotted the enormous expanse of land on a flight into La Guardia Airport. It was actually just across the boardwalk from Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets played baseball and the Jets played football. The facility – the Singer Bowl/Louis Armstrong Stadium – was in disrepair. But, Hester, who was a bear of a man in size, with a charming Southern drawl that seemed like it was right out of the movies, had a captivating personality, and in truth was a visionary. A successful oil investment executive, and an outstanding tennis player, he managed to convince New York City officials that the stadium and surrounding land would be the ideal new home for the US Open.

 

Now called the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the initial ten-million-dollar investment fostered by the cigar smoking libation loving Hester, (which was the reason that “Slew’s Place”, a cozy little bar, was part of the facility’s initial ambience), turned the site of the 1964 World’s Fair into a major tennis venue. In the last year at Forest Hills, 218,480 spectators were on hand. The first year at new facility, attendance jumped to 275,300. Proof positive that it was a good deal, all the way around.

Guillermo Vilas became the first Argentine to win the US Open in 1977. It was played on Har-Tru (clay) for the third consecutive year, after having been a grass court event since 1915. Vilas downed Jimmy Connors 2-6, 6-3,7-6, 6-0 in the trophy round. Chris Evert claimed her third consecutive singles title, overwhelming Wendy Turnbull of Australia, 7-6, 6-2. The doubles provided the last Forest Hills double-double.  Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillian of South Africa were the men’s champions. The women’s final was more noteworthy because Martina Navratilova and Betty Stöve of the Netherlands defeated  Renée Richards, who had to sue the USTA to get into the tournament, and her partner, Betty-Ann Stuart, 6–1, 7–6. McMillian and Stöve scored a “double” escaping with a three-set mixed win over Vitas Gerulaitis and Billie Jean King, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

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The horseshoe stadium at Forest Hills, when grass was the surface, had enough space to hold three courts that were used alternately to save on surface wear. It seated 13,500 but was deemed too small for a tournament of the magnitude of the US Open. The Louis Armstrong Stadium had room for more than 20,000 spectators, and also had the Grandstand, a demi-bullring court attached on one side, that had room for 6,000 fans.

Looking back, there is a smorgasbord of recollections from the last year at Forest Hills and the first year at Flushing Meadow, (It didn’t become Meadows until the “s” mysteriously appeared after a number of years.), Corona Park in Queens, New York.

One of the highlights was standing in front of the Forest Hills clubhouse one afternoon, talking with Tony Trabert, the former tennis icon, and Pat Summerall, an ex-New York Giants football star, who were handling the television commentary for CBS. Dick Savitt, the 1951 Australian and Wimbledon winner, was there too, and so was his girlfriend at the time. Renée (French for “reborn”) Richards, who we had known until recently as Richard Raskind, approached. He was a highly successful ophthalmologist before transition surgery. Actually, it was what had made the chat memorable.

A top intercollegiate tennis player at Yale University and good enough to play Forest Hills, in her pre-surgery days, she sued the USTA and after Judge Ascione stated, “This person is now a female”, had her entry in the tournament accepted.  Richards moved from individual to individual, greeting each of us with “air” kisses. Savitt was at the end of the line and as she approached, he tried to ooze further away from the group. Richards, who is an adept conversationalist and a delight to chat with, picked up on Savitt’s “slip away” attempt. She walked up to him and gave him a solid kiss. Savitt looked as if he had had a heart attack.

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Michael Fishbach is another “last US Open at Forest Hills” remembrance. He was a journeyman, a player who earned a place in the game’s history when he debuted a double-strung racquet which allowed him to put excessive spin on his shots. Australian Barry Phillips-Moore was the first to use a racquet strung in this manner. The “spaghetti” strung racquet (as it was called) enabled Fishbach to upset Billy Martin and Stan Smith. He lost to John Feaver of Great Britain, who admitted that the ball coming off his opponent’s racquet looked like it was an egg.

John McEnroe, who had reached the Wimbledon semifinal as a qualifier earlier in the summer, plays a role in the lookback. At 18, he made his tournament debut. As did 14-year-old Tracy Austin. McEnroe’s third-round night match against Eddie Dibbs, the No. 9 seed, was filled with New York “action” (It must be remembered that these were the days and nights of “Son of Sam”). The contest was interrupted by a gunshot that was fired from outside the grounds. The bullet wounded a spectator. Being a Douglaston, New York native, the young McEnroe was inured to the “turmoil”. Dibbs, who was known as “Fast Eddie”, cared about nothing more than getting out of there alive. He still lives, but he lost to McEnroe.

Connors, one of the most crassly behaving individuals to ever play, was in “Jimbo Form” in the semifinals against Corrado Barazzutti. The Italian challenged a line call, but before the chair umpire could extricate himself from his seat to check where the ball had landed, Connors, being true to his competitive dysfunction, sprinted around the net, went to the mark and quickly erased it with his tennis shoe.

The move to the sixteen-acre Flushing Meadow location was like having been a college student living in a dorm room for years, then taking up residence in a large house. It was “freeing”. Having regularly covered the US Open at Forest Hills, the new site was spacious. Initially, it seemed that a map would be needed in order to keep from getting lost just walking around the grounds.

Size aside, mention of the 1978 US Open immediately brings about memories of the flooding that happened. There was so much rain that, at times, it seemed practical to visit the locker room on the lower level of the Louis Armstrong Stadium wearing scuba gear. Because of the just finished construction, the drainage system didn’t do its job. I recall walking into the area where the photographers had storage lockers and realizing that a huge amount of very expensive equipment had been damaged or destroyed.

But, the multi-level press center tower dwarfed the “water park” memory. The press seating area, which had been miniscule at Forest Hills, was massive. There were descending rows of writing desks. They weren’t actual desks, but rows and rows of wooden planks with barstools to sit on. The layout, which on first sight appeared sizeable, was actually claustrophobic. It was almost like spending the day working at Slew’s Place but without the ambience. It was cramped, and it was in the days before everyone used a laptop. Even worse, late in the afternoon the sun blazed on the gigantic aquarium-like window facing the center court below. It was similar to trying to write a story in a sauna, which made staying hydrated essential.

Even in the pre-Nadal days, there were complaints about the Deco Turf II hard courts. Those whose careers were founded on their Terre battue (or Har-Tru) accomplishments believed the new surface was too quick. The unhappiness reached a crescendo thanks to the La Guardia and Kennedy Airport “fly overs” that regularly disrupted matches. (Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins [who is a tennis fan extraordinaire] stepped up and was able to have flights re-routed during the tournament.) As a group, though, the players were impressed by many of the amenities offered including the fact the locker rooms, dining areas and spots to relax were larger and all contained in one building. In short, the space provided a comfortable spacious atmosphere.

It was almost fitting that Connors, a fan favorite to many, after losing to Vilas the year before, picked up his third US Open title (on the third surface that the event had been played on) defeating Bjorn Borg of Sweden, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. The women’s final was an unveiling long before “the future is now…” concept had legs. True, Evert claimed her fourth consecutive championship, 7-5, 6-4, but the focus was on Pam Shriver, a lanky 16-year-old amateur, whom she defeated. Shriver, the youngest tournament finalist, was the “surprise” of the championships after defeating Navratilova in the semifinals. Playing only her second Grand Slam tournament, she drew even more notice using the oversized Prince racquet. Bob Lutz and Stan Smith earned the doubles crown, and King and Navratilova took women’s honors. McMillian and Stove continued their dominance, winning yet another mixed doubles final.

From a personal standpoint, Forest Hills was an elegant, historic location that wasn’t suited to host a later day US Open. Initially, Flushing Meadow wasn’t either but look at it now. “The House that Slew Built” has become a mansion.

ATP

Intriguing Team-Ups Lure Eyes Doubles’ Way. Will They Stay For The Problems, Too?

Will the recent surge in high-profile double partnerships have any impact on the long term future of the discipline?

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Cincinnati Open, Western and Southern Open, Andy Murray, Feliciano Lopez
Photo Credit: ATP Tour Twitter

In one of his press conferences at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, Andy Murray said he would not be playing the US Open. His announcement came a day or so after his initial declaration that he would be playing only the two doubles events in the final Major of the season. A few things came out of Murray’s remarks. The first and the obvious was that the former world no. 1 was ready to give it his all (yet again) to play singles. The second, the understated aspect, was that doubles while seeming easy vis-à-vis singles required just as much focus, if not more. Then, there was a third.

 

In tennis’ continuity though, the relevance of the doubles game is not a recent epiphany. However, the last few tournaments of the 2019 season that featured some eclectic partnerships – Stefanos Tsitispas and Nick Kyrgios, Andy Murray and Feliciano Lopez, the Pliskova twins, Andy and Jamie Murray, and so on – has made doubles slightly more prominent than singles.

Singles has become monotonous with the same set of players making it to the final rounds. On the other hand, doubles has brought in more verve to the existing status quo of the Tour, with each player’s individuality adding to the dynamics of the team. After his first outing as Kyrgios’ doubles partner at the Citi Open in Washington in July, Tsitsipas pointed this out.

“It’s the joy of being with a person who thinks differently and reacts differently. I would characterise him (Kyrgios) as someone who likes to amuse. I’m very serious and concentrated when I play, but he just has the style of speaking all the time. It’s good sometimes to have a change,” the Greek had said.

These changes – as seen with Murray’s recent decision – may not extend for a longer period. The culmination of these short-term team-ups does – and should – not mean the end of the road of doubles piquing attention, per se. At the same time, these transitory partnerships also reroute the discussion back to the financial side of the doubles game.

In a recent interview with Forbes, Jamie Murray – a doubles specialist – shared how conducive it had become for players to take up doubles as the sole means of a tennis career these days, as compared to in the past.

“Because the money is always increasing in tennis, it is a much more viable option to go down the doubles route a lot earlier than previous generations. Before, people would play singles and then when their ranking dropped, they played an extra few years of doubles. Now it is a genuine option to start off much younger and have a career in doubles,” the 33-year-old said.

Despite Murray’s upbeat attitude, these increases have not exactly trickled towards doubles, especially at the Slams including the upcoming edition of the US Open. For 2019, the USTA showed-off yet another hike in the prize-money coffer. The men’s and women’s singles champions will be awarded $3.8 million. In comparison, the men’s and women’s doubles teams winning the respective title will get $740,000. This sum gets further diluted for the mixed-doubles’ titlists who will get $160,000 as a team.

This is the third and final takeaway that emerged from Murray’s US Open call. For several of these singles players, intermittent doubles play is an option. For those who play only doubles, that is the only option they have. The doubles game requires similar effort – travel, expenses and fitness – the costs continue to outweigh the benefits. These momentary team formations are a gauge revealing the disparity of tennis’ two sides, visible yet obliviated beyond tokenism.

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Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic’s Big Four reunion in Cincy

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ATP Cincinnati, Andy Murray, Western and Southern Open
Photo Credit: Western and Southern Open Twitter

A few years before, there existed a quartet called Big Four in men’s tennis. At certain points in their time-line of dominance, injuries plagued each member of this four-member group. However, the severity of their affliction in one player, Andy Murray, saw his name erased from this elite pocket. Thus, the Big Four was reduced to the Big Three with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer making up the troika.

 

At the 2019 Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, three of the erstwhile Big Four troupe reunited as they re-entered the circuit’s circus. And each player had a different path leading up to the event, too, underlining how divergent their careers had become despite overlapping scheduling.

The 2016 season was the common catalyst leading to this divergence. From Federer’s injury to him pausing his season to focus on rehab after Wimbledon, to Djokovic pushing his boundary as a marauder and completing the non-calendar Slam, and to Murray ending the season as the world no. 1. The year in consideration also threw up other names – Nadal’s season ended in an agony of injury, while Stan Wawrinka won his third Major at the US Open. In its bounty of giving and taking, 2016 changed how we looked at these players – especially the first four – and the irrevocability of assumption that these guys could get past any hurdles stopping their way.

Juxtaposing with Cincinnati, in the three years since 2016, Federer and Djokovic have vaulted past their share of physical problems. Yet, in the Ohioan city, they have different motivations guiding them. This is the first time that Djokovic has entered the Cincinnati draw as the defending champion. Meanwhile, after having been drawn in the same half as the Serbian, Federer has the proverbial score to settle against him. “I can’t wait for my next rematch with Novak or my next time I can step on a match court and show what I can do,” the 20-time Slam champion said in one of his pre-tournament media interactions in Cincinnati.

There are a few opponents to get past before their slated semi-final meeting occurs. Nonetheless, their sustained competitiveness adds its fervour to the already-hefty top-half of the men’s draw. In the midst of their respectively successful opening rounds, Murray’s first-round defeat to Richard Gasquet in straight sets became a contextual misnomer for comebacks.

Yet, Murray’s was the most stirring return. This was not because of the emotional crossroads that had sprung up at the 2019 Australian Open regarding his retirement. But on account of how farther Murray had leapt to put his physical frailties behind and re-join the singles Tour. And, the Briton’s determination to do so is reminiscent of 2016, all over again. It’s the completion of the circle of how Murray had pushed hard to become the world’s best player and now, he is trying just as much to regain his footing back.

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Nick Kyrgios’ Washington win is about good vs bad: Of situations and opinions

The Australian’s Citi Open win brought forth a wave of positiveness about him. But its enduring or lack thereof is a test for his viewers, hereon.

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Nick Kyrgios
Photo Credit: Citi Open

Nick Kyrgios picked up two titles in 2019 – in Acapulco and Washington – in the time it took opinion to swing between “He is not good for tennis” to “Tennis needs him”. And, in the days after his win at the 2019 Citi Open in the latter city, the subject continues to be a favoured topic of editorial conversation vis-à-vis his importance to the sport.

 

The player in question though does not care for any of these. Yes, after his win in the Washington final against Daniil Medvedev, Kyrgios admitted, “I’ve just been working really hard, on and off the court, to try and be better as a person and as a tennis player. And as I said, I wasn’t exaggerating. This has been one of the best weeks of my life, not just on the court but in general. I feel like I’ve made major strides.” But this came with an addendum of sorts. “And I’m just going to take it one day at a time and hopefully, I can continue on this new path.”

As Kyrgios heads into the Rogers Cup in Montreal, these words need to be stamped onto onlookers’ minds, with their significance getting highlighted each time he steps on to the court, hereafter. Especially, when describing his antics that often tend to be over-the-top.

This past week in Washington, Kyrgios came up with some idiosyncratic behaviour. He shimmied, he put himself in the shoes of the prince while conjuring up an image of Stefanos Tsitsipas as Cinderella, and he asked fans for their opinions about which way to serve on match points, following that with heartfelt hugs after winning the match. All of these were endearing gestures with their enjoyableness magnified by his run of triumph thereby leading to thoughts of why Kyrgios was so important to tennis.

Had these same actions come before a result – in any round – that had not gone in his favour? It is not hard to say, after observing past trends that the reactions would have been about how Kyrgios had disrespected the sport and how he did not do much with the potential he has been gifted. The opinions would have changed that quickly.

It is because of these that the Washington result comes as a timely reality-check monitor. That instead of analysing Kyrgios’ every move, both tactical and non-tactical, the world at large needs to just view him as part of the whole of tennisdom. He is like the others who have taken up tennis professionally. But if his route on the Tour is to be measured by others’ straight-line standards, then, he is not the guy to follow that precedent.

And, why should he? Kyrgios is the way he wants to be, not the way people think he should be. Moreover, if it is that easy to accept him as he is when he wins not being able to accept Kyrgios for who he is when he loses is not his lookout. It’s the viewers who need to pore over their preferences.

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