A CARNIVAL FOR STARS, LESSER LIGHTS AND FANS
SUSAN B. ADAMS
The New York Times
August 26, 1985
THE United States Open is a tennis carnival with 13 different competitions taking place over a 13-day period on the 16-acre grounds of the United States Tennis Association's National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow Park.
Everyone knows the headliners in the main events and the stakes: John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Chris Evert Lloyd, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker begin their quest tomorrow for the men's and women's singles title and the largest portions of a record $3,073,500 in prize money. Their matches usually take place inside 20,662-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium or in the adjacent 6,700-seat grandstand and are witnessed by more than 430,000 fans and a national television audience in the millions.
Far away from the lights, cameras and action of the stadium and the grandstand, on the 25 outside courts, the rest of the Open's 500 competitors pursue their dreams. They, too, play singles, but their chances for a measure of success often rest in the Open's three other championship events: the men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles.
Then there are the seven ancillary competitions ranging from junior boys' singles (for those 18 and under) to senior women's doubles (those over 35 who have won a United States national championship), which offer experience to the young and a bittersweet replay of past glories to the not-yet-old. And the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge, the 96-team finals of a nationwide competition in six family combinations (mother-daughter, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, husband-wife and brother-sister), adds an appropriately populist note to the proceedings.
Playing alongside the pros is ''a thrill for an old fogey, and the chance to see all the excitement through the eyes of my daughter,'' says a father-daughter finalist, John Furlong of Edina, Minn.
Above all, the United States Open is the people's tournament.
''I've always envisioned the U.S. Open as a country fair where people will come to see the action on the outside courts and walk around and have something to eat,'' says W.E. (Slew) Hester. chairman emeritus of the Open. ''One of the big things at the Open is that it gives the average person a place to be a member of the club.''
Unfortunately, the Open's phenomenal growth has undermined Hester's goal. Corporations and sponsors have gobbled up large portions of tickets so that the average fan has found it difficult to obtain individual tickets for a day's play. Most of the tickets are sold through advance sales and multiday plans. A full series of day and night sessions costs $300 for a seat in the upper level.
''The public doesn't understand that we do have to have corporate support,'' said Randy Gregson, the U.S.T.A. president. ''We can't hold tickets back the day of the matches. We're being slugged by our own success. It's a pleasant problem, but one we have to address.''
First-year attendance in 1978 was 275,300; last year the two-week tally was a record 431,067. Both figures include complimentary tickets. This year, 11 of the 13 day sessions are already sold out.
''The fans really get into it,'' says Billie Jean King. ''They're not as in awe of you as they are at Wimbledon. They're New Yorkers, so they'll let you know how they feel. They also know I live here, so they're really friendly.''
''It's a fantastic atmosphere when the stadium is packed, it's totally American,'' says John Newcombe, the last foreigner to win the men's singles title in 1973. ''It's no wonder they've won; it's their country and their conditions: noisy, humid, hard courts.''
''The crowds at Flushing Meadow are so noisy, so friendly, so liberal in their appreciation of good tennis that they make the U.S. Open a very jolly, sociable, Joe Public-type of tournament,'' says Rex Bellamy, the tennis correspondent for The Times of London. ''Europeans are stimulated by it, but they don't really like it. Flushing Meadow is a totally American way of tennis and a totally New York way of life. The place has built up an exciting tradition in a very short time.''
Ah, tradition. When Slew Hester, then the president of the United States Tennis Association, moved the Open from the elegant West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, with its grass courts and clubby confines to the Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow Park, tennis purists gasped. In a game in which tradition had always created a sense of elitism, Hester was throwing the biggest tournament open to the people.
In response to his worried colleagues, Hester placed a sprig of potted ivy at the southeast gate of the Tennis Center before the start of that first 1978 Open. Above the ivy, a jaunty handwritten sign read: ''Watch Tradition Grow!''
The United States Open is the only Grand Slam tournament played in a public facility with a full schedule of night sessions to accommodate the working population. The Open, which has been played on grass for most of its 104-year history, is now played on hard courts, a surface suited to the American style of play and upon which a large percentage of American recreational players have learned the game.
The Open is the only Grand Slam tournament in which the silence usually demanded by players is shattered by the roar of jets, which land at and take off from nearby La Guardia Airport.
''Sure, it's hard for players to adjust to the planes and the lights and the 11 A.M. start, but that's all part of the deal,'' says Mrs. King. ''Our first job is to the fans.''
Not all players treat the rugged conditions with Mrs. King's equanimity. Whether it is the heat or the noise or old-fashioned New York City assertiveness, the Open at Flushing Meadow has also built a rich tradition of unpredictable, sometimes bizarre, performances. In 1979, McEnroe and Ilie Nastase staged a tempestuous early-round duel under the lights in which the chair umpire, Frank Hammond, disqualified Nastase and then was himself disqualified by the tournament referee, Mike Blanchard, who reinstated Nastase and finished umpiring the match himself.
Nastase's temper tantrums (at one point, the Rumanian kicked over the courtside water cooler), McEnroe's razor-sharp retorts, and liberal consumption of liquor in the stands stoked the crowd to a frightening fever pitch before McEnroe finally emerged a four-set winner.
Then there was the humid day in 1980 that Nastase changed his shorts in the runway between the grandstand and the stadium during an early-round match. In 1981, guards bodily removed several disruptive fans from the top of the 116-row stadium as Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova, in the third set of a tense semifinal, watched incredulously.
At a tournament in which tradition has taken a backseat to popularizing the sport, it should come as no surprise that Flushing Meadow has also celebrated the coming of age of teen-age champions. In 1978, 16-year-old Pam Shriver became the youngest finalist in the 91-year history of the women's competition; then in 1979, Tracy Austin, also 16, became the youngest champion in the tournament's history. In 1980, 15-year-old Andrea Jaeger was the youngest semifinalist and 20-year-old John McEnroe carried off the men's singles crown, the youngest player to do that in 31 years.
Last year's child of summer was Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, who won her United States Open debut on Court 22 against Paula Smith to become, at 14, the youngest player ever to win a match in the tournament.
There are those among the Open wandering legions who feel they discovered players like Miss Sabatini and Boris Becker, who made his successful Open debut two years ago at age 15 on Court 5 in the boy's singles, before losing in the quarterfinals.
There is a camaraderie among the fans out on the field courts. After all, it's easy to be generous in spirit when you're still feeling smug about fleeing the stadium hotbox while the top-seeded players are shelling overmatched and overawed opponents. The best matches are often found on Court 3 (1,562 seats), where spectators hang over the railings on the stadium's tiered outer ramps and cause great distractions for those players unlucky enough to play there, or on Court 16 (1,885 seats), where many of the most attractive matches are scheduled. Also, the field courts and the practice courts (there are five in full-time use during the Open: Nos. 9-11, 23 and 24) provide a more intimate experience for spectators.
When the doubles events begin on the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the fans have the opportunity to see the players in a more relaxed, jovial mood than they often are in the singles. Moreover, this year the senior divisions are especially inviting to those with any kind of tennis memory at all. In the men's 35 singles, Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase and John Newcombe, the United States Open champions of 1971, '72 and '73, respectively, will be seeking to update their rivalries.
And in ''the old ladies,'' as Billie Jean King calls the senior women's invitational doubles, Mrs. King and Rosie Casals, who won nine United States national doubles titles between them, will take on the challengers of their youth: Maria Bueno and Betty Stove, Virginia Wade and Kerry Reid, Nancy Richey and Karen Susman. All the senior events get under way early in the Open's second week along with the junior boys' and girls' singles and doubles.
To find where, say, Miss Navratilova and Miss Shriver are playing doubles on a given day, a $1 chart of the day's matches is available on the grounds, but to find when they are playing, you must go to the matches-in-progress kiosk in the main courtyard.
After a year of research and development, what used to be a hand-updated board for matches in progress has been turned into a state-of-art system of 16 television monitors that flash color-coded names and scores of all finished matches or those in progress during a day's competition. ''If something happens and it doesn't work, we'll call it 'a modern sculpture made of steel,' '' says Mike Burns, the Open's executive director, who says the matches-in-progress video arcade is only the most visible sign of $2 million worth of capital improvements the U.S.T.A. has made at the Tennis Center since last year's tournament.
The matches-in-progress technology is courtesy of Sony, one of 25 sponsors who paid a minimum of $50,000 for commercial exposure, plus box seats, tickets and parties at the 1985 Open. All told, the Open's sponsors will pour more than $3 million into the U.S.T.A. coffers this year. When you add more than $5 million in gate receipts and $5 million in broadcast rights, plus a percentage of the food concessions at the Open, you realize what big business the Open has become.
After expenses, maintenance and capital improvements, the Open nets more than $9 million, which helps to fund the U.S.T.A.'s national and sectional programs in junior development, research and tournament programs. The Open provides the U.S.T.A., a nonprofit organization, with 72 percent of its operating income.
The role of sponsors and big business in the Open has become a sore subject to fans. There are only limited tickets available for opening day and Wednesday, Sept. 4, and tickets for the extended Labor Day weekend and finals weekend have been gone since they went on sale in early May. Phil Molite, the tournament's ticket manager, says that there are plenty of tickets left for the 10 night sessions, with the exception of the last one on Thursday, Sept. 5. The night programs begin at 7:30 and feature two matches each in the stadium and the grandstand. Prices range from $8 to $10 for the first four nights to $15-$17 for the last two nights.
The U.S.T.A. has been exploring the possibility of building a new 5,000-seat show court and selling a reduced-price ticket for that court and the grounds only ''to help siphon off the strain,'' as Gregson puts it. However, this proposal has yet to be approved by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, from whom the U.S.T.A. rents, maintains and operates the National Tennis Center in return for exclusive use of the complex for a maximum of 60 days a year.
If the new show court is built in time for next year's Open, as is hoped, Hester insists that a close watch would be kept to make sure overcrowding does not become a problem on the grounds.
''One of the reasons we left Forest Hills was because everybody was shoulder to shoulder and butt to butt. I'd hate to go back to that,'' says Hester. ''But we've got to do something so that everyone who wants to go to the U.S. Open can go.''