Today marks the first day of the 2018 U.S. Open Tennis Championships, a U.S.T.A. event at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. Tennis stars Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal will play on opening night. In fact, eight former U.S. Open champions will play today, Andy Murray, Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsovaand, Sloane Stephens, Juan Martin del Potro, and Stan Wawrinka, in addition Serena Williams and Nadal.
But the U.S. Open was not always as it is today. Here are 10 secrets and fun facts about this illustrious tournament:
1. The U.S. Open Was Originally Played on Grass
It might be hard to imagine today, with the U.S. Open so firmly established in people’s minds as a hard court tournament, buit t was played on grass for almost a century, from 1881 to 1974. The first tournament, held at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island, was hosted by the US National Lawn Tennis Association and was known as the “US National Singles Championship.” This was, by all accounts, more of an upper crust, society event. Until 1886, the tournament was also mens-only. The U.S. Women’s National Singles Championship started in 1887 and was held in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.
2. The U.S. Open Was Also Played on Clay
Image courtesy of Michael Perlman
The U.S. Open also was played briefly on clay from 1975 to 1977, making it the only major tournament to have been played on three surfaces. Tennis icon Jimmy Connors actually won the U.S. Open on all three surfaces, while Chris Evert won on two (clay and hard court).
The clay material was technically called HarTru, an igneous basalt stone from the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland that is crushed. The gray-green color comes from epidote, a mineral that is in the stone. HarTru is a faster material than European red clay, and it is said that the change to clay was an attempt to make the tournament more television friendly (more contrast between the surface and the ball, and a slower game).
3. The U.S. Open Was Not Always at Flushing Meadows
View of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park from the Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium
From 1881 to 1914, the US National Singles Championship was held at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island. The push to move the tournament to New York City began as early as 1911, by a group of New York tennis players. A New York Times article from February 1911 that covered a contentious vote about the club’s move stated that “The arguments were powerfully arrayed against Newport,” but there was no “bona-fide application from any responsible club to hold the tournament elsewhere.” As a result, those in favor of thew move lost the vote 60 to 95. By 1915, however, 100 members signed a petition to move the club and won the official vote.
From 1915-1921, the tournament was located at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, with a brief few years at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia while the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium was being built. In 1968, the tournament became the “U.S. Open and in 1978, the tournament moved to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in 1978 to accommodate larger crowds, although the West Side Tennis Club attempted to block the move.
4. The Original Forest Hills Stadium Still Stands
Image from Rego-Forest Preservation courtesy of Michael Perlman
The West Side Tennis ClubWest Side Tennis Club predates the U.S. Open, as well as the construction of Forest Hills itself. It was established in 1892, and first operated courts on Central Park West and was instrumental in the establishment of the sport of tennis in the United States. The 14,000-seat stadium in Forest Hills, the first concrete tennis stadium in the country, was completed in 1923. The architect was Kenneth M. Murchison, who also worked on Baltimore Penn Station and the Hoboken Terminal. The U.S. Open was played here first on clay, and then on hard courts starting in 1975.
In 2011, the stadium was denied landmark status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which called it a “crumbling ruin” and the structure was almost demolished to make way for condos. The preservation, restoration, and repurposing of the stadium into a concert music venue, an initiative pushed for many years by the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, a grassroots campaign started by local resident Michael Perlman, and other local supporters, helped preserve the historic archways, eagles, terra-cotta shields, and wood and iron grandstands, on the structure. A stately Tudor-style clubhouse, designed by Grosvenor Atterbury and John Almay Tompkins, was built in 1913.
The stadium has hosted tennis icons like Billie Jean King, Margaret Court and Bill Tilden, musicians like Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the 1960s, along with a shooting and bomb threat during a particularly scandalous 1977 season.
5. Professional Tennis Players Were Originally Barred from Competing
Rafael Nadal playing at Arthur Ashe Stadium
The US National Singles Championship was initially only open to members of clubs that were part of the US National Lawn Tennis Association. According to the U.S. Open website, “Prior to 1968, the grand irony of the sport of tennis was that those who were skilled enough to play it as a profession were not allowed to play it at any of the sport’s major events. Tennis’ best players were, in fact, pariahs in a sport in which they should have been pillars.” From 1884 to 1911, the game so favored prior champions that the winner would automatically qualify for the final next year.
In 1968, the tournament became the “U.S. Open,” combining the mens, womens, mens and womens doubles, and mixed doubles tournaments, and allowing for professional players to compete.
6. The Original Louis Armstrong and Grandstand Stadiums Were From a Stadium Built for the 1964 World’s Fair
Albeit with significant alteration, the original Louis Armstrong and Grandstand stadiums at the U.S. Open were divided from the Singer Bowl, a stadium constructed by the Singer Sewing Company for the 1964/65 World’s Fair. After the World’s Fair, it was used for many purposes, hosting concerts, Olympic trials, and professional boxing events. The Doors, The Who and Jimi Hendrix performed there. The Mets also had a fireworks display there to celebrate 1969 World’s Series win. The Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand were the main venues until Arthur Ashe Stadium was constructed in 1997.
In 2017, a new Grandstand was opened and the Louis Armstrong Stadium was rebuilt from the ground up.
Take our tour of the Remnants of the World’s Fairs:
7. Flushing Meadows Used to Be Ash Dump
Corona Ash Dump. Photo from New York City Parks Photo Archive.
In literature, the Corona Ash Dump was immortalized and romanticized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as the “valley of ashes.” It was where the city’s coal burning refuse–the ash–was taken, along with garbage. On a former marshland rose dusty, high mounds (one at 100 feet was dubbed Mount Corona) through which the Long Island Railroad ran, along with Grand Central Parkway. Scavenging by both humans and rats was a common occurrence.
The Corona Ash Dump was an eyesore for the wealthy commuters coming in from the Gold Coast and like many other undesirable areas targeted by Robert Moses, the Corona Ash Dumps would undergo a massive transformation. Residents and businesses would be evicted and a high-profile event–the 1939 World’s Fair–would hasten changes. As reported by Urban Omnibus, “In creating a monumental park out of the Corona Ash Dumps, Moses likened himself to the prophet Isaiah in his quest to ‘Give unto them beauty for ashes.’”
Moses was active in trying to lure sports to Flushing Meadows, with his most famous (and failed) attempt to move the Dodgers from Ebbets Field. In a bid to negotiate a move to Atlantic Yards, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley opened the possibility of moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles. When Moses wouldn’t offer up Atlantic Yards, in a push to get the Dodgers to relocate to Flushing, O’Malley ended up taking the California offer. For the U.S. Open, the city was “throwing permits at us,” recalled Randy Gregson, former U.S.T.A. president and a friend of William Slew Hester, the U.S.T.A. President that engineered the move from the West Side Tennis Club. The New York Times obituary describes Hester as “the gruff-drawling tennis official who almost singlehandedly wrenched the United States Open from its cramped roots in Forest Hills and transplanted it to a sprawling new National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.”
8. The U.S. Open has Been the Site of Many African American Breakthroughs
Serena Williams serving at the U.S. Open
The U.S. Open at Forest Hills is where Althea Gibson broke the color barrier to become the first African American woman to compete on the world tennis tour, and won a Grand Slam in 1956. It is also where Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open in 1968, the inaugural men’s final when the tournament officially became the “U.S. Open.” This year, Serena Williams will attempt to break the record for the most U.S. Open womens titles, as she is currently tied with Chris Evert.
The main stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the name of the complex today at Flushing Meadows is the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Arthur Ashe Kids Day, an annual event before the first day of the tournament, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. According to the website, Arthur Ashe Kids Day is the “largest single-day, grassroots tennis and entertainment event in the world, with chart-topping music acts and today’s best tennis players coming together to celebrate tennis legend and humanitarian Arthur Ashe.”
9. The U.S. Open Dries Courts with “Slambonis”
Before the retractable roof was installed, courts would be dried off from rain using a fleet of Zamboni-like machines. As of 2004, there were 38 of these machines, nicknamed the “Slambonis” which were designed for the courts at the U.S. Open. When the “Slambonis” first debuted, it was estimated that using them saved about 10 minutes of play for each interrupted game. They hold 30 gallons of water, sponging and vacuuming the courts at the same time. Blowing hot air damages the surfaces, so drying machinery was ruled out in the development of the machines.
And equally important, the Slambonis had to be up to city codes. As Chris Widmaier, the U.S.T.A.’s senior director of public relations at the time said,”Because of fire department codes, we cannot keep much gas on the premises, so we had to look at electrically powered or battery-operated machines. And the machines had to be narrow enough to get through the narrow entrances and exits.”
10. The First Home of the U.S. Open Was Designed by McKim, Mead & White
The U.S. Open’s first home is now the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, and when the tournament began, it was part of the Newport Casino. It was commissioned by newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett Jr., and designed by Charles McKim and Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White. Stanford White also designed the Venetian-palazzo inspired headquarters of the New York Herald for Bennett Jr., on the site that is now Herald Square.
Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.