Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2018

History Made, History Recalled, At The US Open

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at the Dell Technologies Championship, the second PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event this weekend, so there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. As always, thanks for reading.

We are only four days into the fortnight of play at the US Open, the final Grand Slam event of the year, so perhaps it is not surprising that most of the news emanating from Flushing Meadows has been about things other than the tennis being played on the twenty-two courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It’s as if the members of the tennis media assembled at the sprawling 46-acre complex have collectively decided that there will be time enough for that later on.

Instead fans have heard and read a lot about the new 14,000 seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, built on the site of the old facility of the same name, and finished just in time for this year’s Open. With a capacity almost forty percent greater than its predecessor, the new Armstrong is nearly as large as the main stadiums of the three other Grand Slam tournaments, though it is still dwarfed by the hulking mass of the USTA’s nearby 23,200-seat show court. It’s the final piece of a five-year, $600 million renovation of the National Tennis Center and gives the USTA two courts with retractable roofs so that play can continue even if the weather doesn’t cooperate. The initial reactions from fans have praised the stadium for its intimate feel despite its size, while lamenting the noise level that comes from that many spectators as well as the presence of open air food courts just steps from the playing surface.

The late summer heat wave blanketing the east coast has also gotten plenty of attention. With the temperature in the mid-90s and humidity levels making it feel ten or more degrees hotter, there were multiple heat-induced retirements during the first two days of play, even as male players were allowed a ten minute break between the third and fourth sets of their matches, matching a long-standing extreme heat policy for female players that permits a break after two sets.

The oppressive conditions also led the USTA to move toward gender equality in another area, albeit only after looking like an organization mired in the prudish norms of another era. Coming out after a heat break during her first round match on Tuesday, France’s Alizé Cornet realized she had put her shirt on backwards, so she removed it and put it back on correctly while standing behind the baseline. The change took a matter of seconds and Cornet was wearing a sports bra underneath her shirt, but she was still assessed a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct by the match umpire. The USTA cited a “longstanding policy” barring female players from removing their tops while on court. But the penalty incited a backlash on social media, not surprising given that male players frequently change shirts during matches on hot days, and top seed Rafael Nadal regularly goes shirtless on court after winning a match. By Wednesday morning the longstanding policy was no longer standing.

Despite the focus on sidebars, tennis is still being played, with the major story so far the shock defeat of women’s number one seed Simona Halep in the first round. The French Open titlist fell 6-2, 6-4 to Kaia Kanepi in the very first match played at the new Armstrong, becoming the first top seeded woman to lose in the first round in US Open history. Also exiting early was Britain’s Andy Murray, though since he is still working his way back from injury the second round loss was less surprising. Not surprising at all once the draw was known is that the Williams sisters will face each other in a third round match on Friday. It will be the 30th time Serena and Venus have stood on opposite sides of the net.

With 38-year-old Venus in particular near the end of her competitive career, there is a chance it might prove to be their last match against each other. If so, then perhaps years from now the history of tennis will recall the moment, as it may also make note of Halep’s defeat. The story of a sport is the accumulation of such moments, of victories and defeats, of first times and lasts. The fans thronging the grounds are surely aware of that, and mindful of the fact that this is a special Open. While it is the 138th staging of a national championship, it’s the 50th in the open era. Five decades ago, in 1968, the tournament for the first time welcomed professionals and offered prize money.

That tournament was staged a few miles south of the National Tennis Center, which wasn’t even imagined at the time. The West Side Tennis Club, founded in 1892, hosted the national championship from 1915, when it moved from Newport, Rhode Island, until 1978. The 88th championship, and first Open, offered a total purse of $100,000, just $7,000 more than Murray and all the other second round losers received this year.

The leading American male player was 25-year-old Arthur Ashe, who was still an amateur. Just prior to the Open, he had prevailed at the first US Amateur Championships, which the USTA had started on the assumption that professionals would now dominate the Open. Consistent with that belief, Ashe was seeded fifth at the Open, behind four Australian professionals – Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche and John Newcombe. But Ashe swept into the quarterfinals without dropping a set, while of those seeded ahead of him only Rosewall and Newcombe made it that far.

Ashe fell behind Cliff Drysdale in the round of eight, dropping the first set 10-8. But he then rallied to win in four sets, advancing to a semifinal match with Clark Graebner. There he again lost the first set, and again wound up winning in four. In the final Ashe faced Tom Okker of the Netherlands, a “small, slight 24-year-old athlete with remarkable speed, both afoot and with his racquet,” as Dave Anderson described him in the New York Times. The first set took more than an hour, with Ashe finally winning 14-12. Okker rallied twice when down a set, leveling the match at both one and two apiece. Finally, serving for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, Ashe held at love to claim the first US Open title, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

While Ashe won the championship, Okker received the $14,000 first place check. The amateur winner received a $20 expense per diem and, because he was a member of the US Davis Cup team, a free hotel room. Of course, after turning pro the following year Ashe won plenty of prize money, capturing sixty-six titles in all, including the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. He died far too young in 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia, having contracted the virus through a tainted blood transfusion during heart surgery years earlier.

Four years after his death the largest tennis stadium in the world opened at the National Tennis Center, named for the winner of that first Open. Over the next ten days, as the focus at this year’s Open turns to the play on the courts, perhaps more tennis history will be made at Arthur Ashe Stadium. But the moment will have to be very special for it to be as lasting as the story written by a young black amateur from Richmond, Virginia, fifty summers ago.

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Responses

  1. A fine tribute to Arthur Ashe, Mike. Truly a classic gentleman in every sense of the word.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. Ashe was a great player and an even better man.

      M-

      • We could use some more like him.
        Ω


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