There was an article by John Feinstein last week in the Washington Post which lambasted the organizers of the U.S. tennis Open for their slavish kowtowing to the TV networks at the expense of the fans and the players. In an effort to have matches last until 11 PM , the organizers have resorted to some crazy scheduling which results in players having to play deep into the night. The worst case was when Rafael Nadal and Mardy Fish wound up playing until 2:12 in the morning. It was unfair to both players, particularly the winner, Nadal, who didn’t get enough rest before the next match.It was also unfair to the fans who had a choice of either leaving halfway through a great match or staying in the stands and then stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning. It reminded me of earlier times when it was much more fun attending the Open….
I went to the U.S Open every year between 1973 and 1992, often in the company of my father and my friend Bill. In the early years, the tournament was held at Forest Hills in the middle of a residential neighborhood.The only parking available was in the street.The locals used to park their cars in the street and we had to pay to park in their driveways.The stadium itself was old and the pathways between the outer courts were narrow,but it was a charming place and we got see some great matches. One year, Vijay Amritraj burst on the scene and defeated Rod Laver causing lots of Indians(myself included ) to take off from work to attend the next match. It was against Ken Rosewall, one of my all-time favorites and I had divided loyalties. ” At least, let it be a good match”, I thought to myself. Alas, Ken Rosewall jerked him all over the court like a puppet on a string and walloped him something like 6-2,6-2,6-4. Unbelievable how a slight,36 year old, 5′-7″ guy could toy with a powerful, strapping 17 year old. I also saw Jimmy Connors carrying Pancho Gonzales’ bags and the 16 year old Chris Evert defeating a U.S veteran, Nancy Richey (I think it was) .Over the years I was to see Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase, Ion Tiriac, Arthur Ashe,Vitas Gerulaiitis,Tom Okker, Virginia Wade , Evonne Goolagong, Stan Smith, Roscoe Tanner, Stefan Edberg, Anders Jarryd … I could go on and on.
We usually went to Forest Hills during the early rounds, in the first week of the tournament. The real pleasure was in strolling the outside courts and watching close-up the young hopefuls who would later become big names.Down the road, years later, we would tell each other ” Remember we saw her when she was just starting out… “.
When the tournament moved to Flushing Meadows the facilities were so much better, though for the first couple of years I used to miss the old ivy covered stadium at Forest Hills. However, there was no parking problem and everything was newer and brighter though we were not as close to the action. At first, there was only one session per day. Matches started at noon and you stayed until they ended , usually around 6 or 6:30. Unlike the other majors where outside food was not allowed, here at the Open you could bring your own snacks and drinks and have a little picnic in the stands. ( I wonder if they still allow that). We always did. I brought the sandwiches and drinks,Bill brought peaches — luscious, juicy beauties at the peak of perfection.I’ve never eaten such peaches anywhere else. Wonderful days and they were too good to last.
Sometime in the mid eighties, the organizers divided the day’s program into afternoon and night sessions with separate admission for each session. The night session began at 7:30 and attendees were let in only after the afternoon fans had been cleared out. Because the night session only had 4 matches ( 2 in the main stadium and 2 in the grandstand court) , the best matches were played at night. Also, I think the length of the tournament was increased by a day or two, though I am not sure of this. The net result was that the quality of play in the afternoon sessions fell precipitously. One year we did see an epic five set match featuring Adriano Panatta ( and I think Jimmy Connors) but most years we were nowhere near as lucky. One year, the featured match in the session that we attended had Gigi Fernandez winning her Quarterfinal 6-1,6-1.And that was the featured match ! What was also infuriating was that the seats in the lower tiers , the ones closest to the court , were solidly reserved by corporations for their clients / employees and were more than half empty. Members of the public like us could only sit in the unreserved seats halfway up even though we were paying the same amount ( all seats were priced the same).And we didn’t get a tax write-off like the corporations did.The best day to go to the Open was on the second Saturday when you got to see the Ladies final followed by the two mens’ semi-finals. However, those tickets were sold out before the general public ever got a whiff of them. True, the semi-finals were on TV and one could always watch them at home but the whole situation was infuriating. The crods also changed as tennis became more and more popular.In the early years, the stands were filled with real fans, knowledgeable lovers of good tennis, Later, there began to more ‘wannabes’ and ‘groupies’, many of them dressed in tennis togs who were there to be seen rather than to see. When my boss retired in 1992. I didn’t feel like going any more and that was the end of my U.S Open attendance. Reading the article in the post, I don’t think I’m missing much. After all, I can always watch the semis and the final on TV.