1978: the US Open moves to Flushing Meadows
1978 was the first year the US Open was played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows after having been organized at the West Side Tennis Club venue in Forest Hill since 1915. It was also the first time the tournament was played on hard courts: it was originally played on grass until Forest Hills switched to Har-Tru clay courts in 1975. Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the US Open on all three surfaces.
Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison:
By late August, summer weighs heavily on the city of New York; each day seems like one long tepid breath drawn until dusk, then exhaled slowly through the night. The US Open is about to begin.
The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, Queens, has been completed just in time to host the tournament that will henceforth call it home. A boardwalk leads from the subway to the new facility, which is adjacent to Shea Stadium, the sprawling home of the New York Mets and Jets. This boardwalk crosses over a subway yard, where hundreds of cars sit idle, covered with graffiti. The walk is lined with flags: American flags. Over seventy of them, counting those on top of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. There isn’t a foreign standard in sight, because the USTA is bullish on the American role in international tennis.
The Americans leaped on the treadmill of professionalism faster than their international counterparts. As part of its massive attempt to popularize the sport, the USTA abandoned the West Side Tennis Club in nearby Forest Hills, a site redolent of tradition and all the genteel qualities associated with tennis. Although the stadium at Forest Hills held 13,500, the USTA deemed it to small. The hordes that descended on the 10.5 acres of the West Side Tennis Club created impossibly crowded conditions. Besides, parking facilities were inadequate, and this meant a great deal to some people. When the club rejected expansion proposals in 1977, USTA president Slew Hester decided to move the tournament to a newer, bigger home.
Louis Armstrong Stadium, the centerpiece of the National Tennis Center, is a bowl of epic proportions; its sheer sides give over 20,000 spectators a dizzying view of the main court. But the finest court at the site is in the grandstand, which nestles against one side of the stadium in much the same way that the Number One Court nestles against the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Sunken about ten feet below ground level, the court is surrounded on three sides by seats for about 6,000 spectators, who lean in over the players like aficionados around a bullring.
Three years ago, the need to accommodate the USTA and still retain some semblance of aesthetics for its members led the West Side Tennis Club to replace its fragile, unpredictable grass courts with a clay Har-Tru surface. The courts at this new facility are rubberized cement – not very pleasing to the eye, but quick enough to give most native players the advantage foreigners have in their own national championships.
The tournament is geared to the consumer society. The concession stands offer champagne, chocolate mousse cake, quiche lorraine, crenshaw melon, and tiny shrimp serenely suspended in a tart cocktail sauce. Other booths sell all manner of tennis paraphernalia, from track suits to coasters emblazoned with the USTA insignia.
Altogether the site is featureless as a newborn infant. It has that bleak antiseptic quality characteristic of the enormous stadiums and synthetic surfaces of American professional sports. The National Tennis Center gives the largest stage it has ever had anywhere in the world.
A scoreboard on steel stilts towers on the upper rim of the stadium. Standing up there at night, with the electric pink haze of Manhattan in the background, you seem to be looking out over the very edge of the earth.
The stadium at Flushing Meadow, it has the largest capacity of any outdoor tennis arena used for a major championship:
Slew Hester, president of the USTA, engineered the move to Flushing Meadow and had the facility built in less than one year:
Through the first day of the tournament, the players’ major concern was the speed of the courts, with countless Europeans complaining it was too fast and countless American and Australian competitors defending the choice. This was a silly debate, because there was nothing unfair in the selection of this surface; besides, it diverted interest from more serious problems.
One of these was directly related to the hard courts. The cement would become hot as a skillet during the day and the punishment inflicted on the players could range from severe blisters to jarred cartilage and a variety of knee injuries.
Another drawback of the new site was the proximity of John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. The National Tennis Center sat right below some of the busiest air traffic lanes in the world, and it seemed that every two minutes a jet would thunder over the site, belching a trail of gray vapor.
Less conspicuously, the preponderance of red, white and blue put the native players under pressure to perform well, and seemed to invite the antagonism usually associated with the worst Davis Cup matches. This overt chauvinism violated the international spirit represented by the panoply of flags that fly above most stadiums during an important tournament.
But in many ways players liked the new site. It gave them breathing room. Lounges, dining facilities, and locker rooms were all housed in the main building – a huge aluminum shell. Some, stunned by the sheer size of the facility, felt that at long last tennis was moving into the big league of American sports.
The new US Open promised to be a fierce survivor’s tournament, a rugged tournament, an American tournament.
Assessing the new facility, Arthur Ashe said:
“It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Billy Scanlon, delicate touch and renewed determination:
Lesley Hunt, an Australian veteran:
John McEnroe, man of many faces, most of them expressions of his deep desire to win:
Lele Forood, upset winner over Virginia Wade:
Martina Navratilova, waiting for play to resume after a shower:
Chris Evert, champion and feminine paragon:
Pam Shriver, incredulous of her place in the women’s final:
Connors in the heat of battle during the men’s final against Borg:
Bjorn Borg, relieving his blistered thumb of the grip:
The finalists Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors leaving the court: