The US Open Finds A New Home
In January, 1977, William “Slew” Hester, President of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), was flying into LaGuardia Airport when he spotted the old, disused Singer Bowl under a blanket of snow. A year later, the cigar-chomping southerner had his new tennis venue built and ready to host the 1978 US Open.
Ten years after the buttoned-up world of amateur tennis opened to professional competitors, the USTA decided it had outgrown the West Side Tennis Club, home to the National Championships since 1915 and its successor, the US Open.
Located in Forest Hills, New York, the vintage Tudor-style clubhouse and its surrounding courts was the cathedral of American tennis for generations. The 14,000-seat stadium, built in 1923 on 2.4 acres inside the club grounds (photo above), stood witness to the game’s rich history.
It was there that Althea Gibson became the first African-American player to win a grand slam in the U.S. (1957, '58). Arthur Ashe also followed in 1968 as the first black man to claim the title. And a year earlier, Billy Jean King had ushered in the age of metal racquets when she swung her instrument of victory at Forest Hills.
But as the sport increased in popularity and took on a more commercialized direction, the final tournament of the season’s 4 majors called for a fresh, modern venue. Space was needed for merchandise tents, parking, and the throngs of growing tennis fans that streamed in to view the matches.
Hester’s tennis vision lay only 4 miles up the road in Queens at a former stadium that was built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company and donated to the 1964 World Fair.
The Singer Bowl, which in 1973 was rechristened in memoriam to jazz artist and local resident Louis Armstrong, was suffering from decay and neglect. But it had left behind a wealth of athletic events and concerts headlined by the likes of The Doors, The Who, and Jimmy Hendrix. The Mets also celebrated their 1969 World Series win at the old grounds.
The 66-year old former wildcatter from Mississippi approached New York City officials with his grandiose plan of converting the stadium and the adjoining land to a new tennis center. But it wasn’t easy convincing a city notorious for red tape, bureaucracy and naysayers.
Asked what the facility’s new name would be, Hester replied: ”If it’s done on time it will be the USTA National Tennis Center. If not, they’ll call it the Slew Hester Memorial.”
But in less than 4 months, the man who many derided as a northeast outsider, had achieved the unachievable. He traded the storied West Side Tennis Club for a new partner, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
Hester got his $10 million, including cost overruns, and by August, 1978, the USTA National Tennis Center opened to raving reviews and record-setting attendance.
That year, 275,000 spectators made their way through the gates in Fresh Meadows to watch the US Open, up from the 218,000 who came to Forest Hills in 1977. The new tennis center was aptly dubbed “The House That Slew Built”.
Boasting 18,000 seats, the renovated Louis Armstrong structure was the biggest and most significant international tennis arena since the All-England Club in Wimbledon and State Roland Garros in Paris were constructed in the 1920’s.
Trying to block the move from Forest Hills, the embittered Board of the West Side Tennis Club lost a tennis mecca, but not its deep history. Tennis had a new home and everyone was a winner.
Four decades on and the rebranded ‘USTA Billy Jean King National Tennis Center’ remains the world’s biggest and most modern tennis complex. But in many ways, it still echoes the ghosts of the past.
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