With this year’s US Open due to start towards the end of this month, it’s an opportune time to take a look back at the event since its first being staged at Flushing Meadows.
It was 35 years ago this year that the first Open was staged there, based in the Flushing District in the borough of Queen’s, one of New York City’s five boroughs along with Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. Prior to its move to Flushing Meadow, the Open was played at the famous West Side Club at Forest Hills where before the advent of Open tennis in 1968, the US National Championships had been played since 1915. It was only ten years into the Open era that the US Open was first played at Flushing Meadows.
About a 35-45 train ride from Manhattan, the USTA’s Billie-Jean King Tennis Centre (to give it its official title) is situated close by to another major New York sports venue, Citi Field, the home venue of the New York Mets baseball team. It was also adjacent to the site of the New York World’s Fair of 1964.
The nearby subway station, the main public transportation access point, serves fans for both venues. Unlike Wimbledon, the USTA Centre has no leafy suburban hinterland but is built on a converted site near busy road thoroughfares. While inside the site, however, the USTA centre comes into its own.
The Centre backs onto Corona Park, a large leafy public park which contrasts sharply with the urban feel at the front access route. The centrepiece of Flushing Meadow is the grand Arthur Ashe Court with a capacity of 23,000 – quite majestic to behold from the well of the court with its corporate boxes and array of household name-sponsors. Its hard court surface is replaced each year shortly before the Open, in an attention to detail which the organisers have been renowned for. The court has a feel of a real gladiatorial cauldron which must enhance the already strong competitive atmosphere on court. The second main court, the Louis Armstrong Court and the Grandstand Court are currently under reconstruction and will take on new shape and positioning when completed.
This combination of Billie-Jean King, Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong, all famous representatives of minorities in US society at the national home of a sport which has historically had an ‘elitist’ tag and a less than welcoming approach to minorities, shows how far the game has come in the US. This sense of a new ‘inclusiveness’ was very evident at Flushing Meadow, from the active outreach coaching programmes for young children (which the author witnessed in progress) to the adjacent public parks courts (of a very high standard) which can be used by all and sundry. The message being sent out is very much one of inclusiveness, equality and talent development across all socio-economic groups.
The complex is quite magnificent. The main show courts are outstanding venues, but even the lesser courts are sectioned off with attractive fencing and landscaping, providing a measure of privacy for both fans and players. Inside the centre are the facilities available for players of all calibres. I counted 12 indoor courts on top of the 19 main outdoor courts and the three main stadium courts. There are also four clay bubble courts. There is also a large media centre with all the most up to date technology for the press from all over the world and facilities for key tennis bodies represented at the Open. The media interview room is spacious and comfortable and the site of many famous post-match comments over the years.
Special recreational and dining areas for players are available during the Open, as well as a racquet restringing service with 15 separate restringers to meet all players’ needs. Their dressing room facilities are spacious and functional with large lockers, some of which are dedicated to former champions for their use – I saw two that have been marked especially for Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Inside the dressing rooms, the Open authorities maintain a policy of no use of social media in order to maintain privacy for the players – a ‘Twitter and Facebook-free zone’. Security is also a major feature at the Open. All players are escorted from the dressing rooms to their courts and with the high number of celebrities and other VIPs attending, security is a high priority. Special badges permit access to particular parts of the complex.
Since 1978, the Open has seen the very best in the game become champions of the event. In the very first Open at the venue in 1978, the men’s winner was Jimmy Connors and the women’s winner was Chris Evert, both highly popular with New York crowds. Connors went on to be a multiple winner of the Open and Evert with six singles titles, holds the women’s record. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer with five singles titles each, hold the men’s record. Despite the popularity of the above US players, Flushing Meadow has also warmly welcomed too the best of international talent, as witnessed in recent times particularly in the shape of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. All New York loves a winner and like the inscription at New York’s Ellis Island (the entry point for most immigrants in the 19th century), ‘Give me your poor, your starved, your huddled masses’, this cosmopolitanism is still evident there to this day. If not having the same tradition as Wimbledon, it is a model of grandeur and organisational efficiency. My knowledge was significantly enhanced during an official tour this July led by staff member, Marty Weinstein whose encyclopaedic knowledge and oratorical skills were nothing short of breathtaking!
Who are the main contenders this year? Will Serena Williams avenge her early exit at Wimbledon and reinforce her World No. 1 ranking or will a Sharapova or Azarenka deprive her of the prize? Will Andy Murray repeat his success of 2012? Will Federer and Nadal bounce back after disappointing performances at Wimbledon or will Djokovic, World No. 1, prevail? Grand Slam events have a habit of throwing up the odd upset, but let’s anyway, hope for an event of top class tennis in this Flushing Meadow’s 35th anniversary year.
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