Over its 45 year history, the US Open has managed to create some memorable history. Thirty-five of those years have been at the Flushing Meadows venue.
Each of the four ‘majors’ has its own unique strengths and attractions. The US Open has never been backward in coming forward in asserting those strengths. Such is the high status of all four Grand Slam events that none of the four is willing to cede ground on the issue of which has the greatest appeal of all. Most would accept that Wimbledon, for a variety of reasons, is ‘primus inter pares’. Yet, talk to many and they will say that the US Open has a special appeal, less hidebound by tradition, more fan-driven – a spectacle with an injection of that inimitable New York ‘chutzpah’ together with New World dynamism.
In its 45 years of existence, the US Open has witnessed many fine matches and has been the showcase for the finest players in the game. With its flexible scheduling system and the use of floodlights, many exciting tussles have gone on well into the hot and humid New York night, in the process adding to their epic quality. Being the last Grand Slam on the annual calendar, in some senses it represents the ‘grande finale’ of the tennis year and for many, the last throw of the dice.
The very first winners in the Open era (1968) were Arthur Ashe and Virginia Wade. Ashe had recently come off a hugely successful Davis Cup career for the US and became the first black male player to win one of the Grand Slams, beating Dutchman, Tom Okker in the final. A young Wade startled the tennis world by beating Billie-Jean King in straight sets in that year’s final, but had to wait another nine years before her next Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in its Centenary year of 1977.
Between 1968 and 1974 year, the US Open was played at Forest Hills on grass. Between 1975 and 1977, the event was played on clay until the event’s move to Flushing Meadows in 1978 where it has been played on a hard surface ever since. Jimmy Connors holds the distinction of being the only player to have won the event on all three surfaces.
Connors, along with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, holds the record for the most Open singles titles with five. Reflecting the dominance of US tennis in the past, the title was won by Americans on 19 of 44 occasions – the next being Australians with 6 wins.
On the women’s side, Chris Evert holds the record of six singles titles, followed by Steffi Graf with five. Again reflecting past US dominance, Americans have won on 22 occasions, the next being Germany with five (all wins by Graf). These statistics for both men and women only serve to highlight the disconnect between the present and the past in terms of the status of the US game, about which there has been much speculation and analysis.
In men’s doubles, the record of four titles is shared by the Bryan brothers, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz and John McEnroe. The Bryans and McEnroe will be familiar to most people, but Smith and Lutz were the US Davis Cup team’s ace doubles pairing who played on the same outstanding team as Arthur Ashe in that great era for US tennis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In women’s doubles, Martina Navratilova and Pam Schriver hold the most US Open title wins, leaders by a long chalk.
Each of the four ‘majors’ also hold junior events, often a harbinger of great talents to come. The US Open is no exception. Young players who won the US juniors (in existence since 1973) to go on to greater things include: Pat Cash, Stefan Edberg, Marcelo Rios, David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick, Richard Gasquet, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Bernard Tomic. Among the women, they include: Zena Garrison, Katerina Maleeva, Natalia Zvereva, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Marion Bartoli and Victoria Azarenka and Britain’s own Heather Watson. Equally long is the list of those who excelled at junior level, yet were unable to make an impact on the main pro tours. On a positive note for the future of US tennis, however, is the fact that in the last several years, the US girls’ event has seen a number of US winners which may translate in the US’s favour in the inevitable post-Serena era.
Along with the Australian Open and unlike the French Open and Wimbledon, the US Open has featured a change of location which to an extent, allowed it to experiment on a clean slate and to expand in a way not possible for those at a permanent, fixed location. Space for expansion (should that be required) seems to be little problem for the US Open at its present location at Flushing Meadow. Current work on the Louis Armstrong court and on Grandstand court indicates the authorities’ commitment to continuous improvement.
Being the last on the calendar of the four majors, the US Open has also been the location for the securing of a number of one-year Grand Slams. Rod Laver won his one Open era Grand Slam in 1969 at Forest Hills – he won his first Grand Slam as an amateur in 1962. Among the women, Margaret Court won the Grand Slam in 1970 and Steffi Graf achieved the feat in 1988, both completing the memorable achievement at the US Open – giving an added extra kudos and excitement to the final major of the year.
In the Open era, there has been no male player or pairing that has managed to secure a one-year Grand Slam in men’s doubles, yet among the women, it has been achieved on two occasions. In 1984, Martina Navratilova and Pam Schriver both won the Grand Slam in doubles, while in 1998, Martina Hingis achieved the feat with two different partners. When it has been won as in the case of Navratilova/Schriver in 1984, it gave an extra reason for raucous excitement at Flushing Meadow. In the mixed, it has never been achieved in the Open era, but in the last year of the pre-Open era (1967), the feat was achieved by Australian, Owen Davidson.
Each aspiring champion must feel the hand of destiny and past tradition weighing heavily on their shoulders at Flushing Meadows. This must be the case particularly with Serena Williams, seeking this year to extend her stellar record at the top as the current flag-bearer for American hopes. Equally, can Nadal and Federer extend their impressive Grand Slam totals, or is it a case of making way for the two ‘new kids on the block’, Djokovic and Murray? Whoever comes out on top will be warmly embraced by the fans of the ‘Big Apple’ who revere anyone of champion material.