The US Open Finds A New Home

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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. Eighteen months later, the cigar-chomping southerner had a new tennis venue built and ready to host the 1978 US Open.

A decade after the buttoned-up world of amateur tennis opened to professional competition, 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, stood witness to the game’s championship history, which included the Grand Slam and multiple Davis Cup finals.

It was there that Althea Gibson became the first African-American tennis player to win a major (1957,1958) and where Arthur Ashe became the first black man to claim the title (1968). It was also in Forest Hills that Billy Jean King ushered in the age of metal racquets after defeating England’s Ann Jones in two sets at the final (1967). But as the sport grew in popularity and took on a more commercialized focus, the last of the 4 major calendar tournaments was due for modern grounds. More space was needed for merchandise tents, parking, and the throngs of visiting tennis fans who were growing in numbers.

The changeover to a new facility couldn’t have come any sooner for a tired, crime-ridden city that was searching for any kind of buoyancy. New York was still reeling from the lootings that followed the July blackout and the massive manhunt for the ‘Son of Sam’ killer who kept Gotham on edge for a year. Even the US Open couldn’t escape the summer chaos of 1977 when a stray bullet from a nearby apartment building hit a spectator in the leg during one of the early matches. A deal was struck for a new playground and the West Side Tennis Club would witness its last Open final. Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas, hoisted off the court in celebration after defeating Jimmy Connors, closed the tournament door at the Club, while Chris Evert marked the end of the women’s run in Forest Hills after beating Australia’s Wendy Turnbull.

Slew 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 rich legacy of concerts headlined by the likes of The Doors, The Who, and Jimmy Hendrix. The Mets also celebrated their epic 1969 World Series win at the landmark location. Hester, a 66-year old Mississippian who had just assumed the helm at the USTA, approached New York City officials with a grandiose plan of converting the stadium and the adjoining land to a new tennis center.

Asking a financially-strapped city to fund a new park was a proposal that was almost dead on arrival. Tennis traditionalists also balked at the idea of relocating the prestigious event to a public facility and the Board of the West Side Tennis Club fought to block the move. But Hester wasn’t a stranger to political battles. The tennis executive sanctioned matches between the U.S. and South African teams at the Davis Cup, a decision that was met with protests from civil rights activists who were trying to boycott South Africa’s apartheid regime. New York’s power brokers weren’t an easy sell either and Hester was risking his reputation. Asked what the facility’s new name would be, the southerner 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 provincial outsider had achieved the unachievable. Hester traded the storied West Side Tennis Club for a new partner, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. He 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, Queens to watch the US Open, up from the 218,000 who came to Forest Hills a year earlier. 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 Stade Roland Garros in Paris were constructed in the 1920’s. The vastly expanded tennis center was aptly dubbed “The House That Slew Built”. It also featured hard courts, a significant shift from clay which formed the surface at the West Side Tennis Club (prior to 1975, it was grass).

The inaugural season at the USTA National Tennis Center saw Jimmy Connors take the men’s singles trophy after defeating Sweden’s Bjorn Borg, becoming the only player to win the Big Apple tennis championship on all three grounds: grass, clay and hard court.  In the women's competition Chris Evert maintained her unbeaten streak, dispatching fellow American Pat Shriver to claim her fourth straight title.   After 60 editions of the U.S. National Championships and 10 Davis Cup finals, American tennis had a new home.   Some lamented that a tennis mecca had been lost, but Hester's vision had undeniably contributed to the game's growth and New York City's stature as a world class sporting host.  More than four decades on, the 'USTA Billy Jean King National Tennis Center' (rededicated in 2006) remains the biggest and most modern tennis complex in the world.     

Other Articles Enjoyed:  Serving Strawberries & Cream, and Debentures, Steffi Graf & A Tennis Year To Remember, Three Years After Jackie, Althea

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