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Forest Hills to Flushing, U.S. Open makes history

Before it relocated to its current home at the National Tennis Center in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the event was held in Forest Hills. The first U.S. Open Tennis Championships were held in 1968 and the event was won by Arthur Ashe, who defeated Tom Okker of the Netherlands, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

In 1968 Billie Jean King was upset in the women’s final by England’s Virginia Wade.

Prior to Ashe’s and Wade’s victories in 1968, the U.S. Open was called the U.S. Nationals and dated back to 1881, when the first men’s singles were held. The first women’s singles were held in 1887.

But since it became the U.S. Open, the tournament has had a remarkable run.

Rod Laver won the second singles title at the second U.S. Open in 1969, completing his second Grand Slam by winning all four major tournaments: Wimbledon, the French Open, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open in the same year.

Margaret Smith Court won the women’s singles, with a straight set drubbing of Nancy Richey that year. Court also won the mixed doubles title with Marty Riesse. She and Wade failed in their attempt to capture the doubles championship by beating Francoise Durr and Darlene Hard in the finals.

The Open’s third year in 1970 marked the debut of tie-breaks. The new rule came into effect during the men’s finals, which were won by 35-year-old Ken Rosewall in four sets over Tony Roche. Rosewall won a third set tie-break after three break points at 5-6. It was the first ever tie-break in a Grand Slam final.

Chris Evert, a legend in Open history, made her first appearance in the tournament in 1971. The 16-year-old made it all the way to the semifinals before losing to King, the eventual women’s champion. Stan Smith captured the men’s title that year.

The flamboyant and controversial Ilie Nastase upset Ashe’s bid for a second U.S. Open crown in 1972 in a five-set thriller to win $25,000. King again reclaimed the women’s crown, defeating Kerry Melville in straight sets.

The U.S. Open was again at the forefront in tennis history in 1973, becoming the first tournament to award equal prize money to both men and women. Court and John Newcombe each won $25,000 for their singles title victories.

In 1974, 22-year-old Jimmy Connors crushed Rosewall in straight sets in the finals to capture his first of five U.S. Open titles — this one played on grass. He would win again in 1976, 1978, 1982 and 1983. King won her fourth crown that same year, beating Evonne Goolagong in three sets.

Another historic event took place in 1975 with the debut of night tennis at the Open. The finals, won by upstart Manuel Orantes, who defeated Guillermo Vials and Connors to win the crown, was played for the first time on clay courts at the West Side Tennis Club.

Also making headlines at the 1975 Open were two longtime rivals. Evert won her first-ever Open title, while 18-year-old Martina Navratilova defected from Czechoslovakia to the United States.

In 1976, the United States’ bicentennial year, two Americans — Connors and Evert, who were engaged at one time — won the singles crowns. Connors upset Bjorn Borg, while Evert defeated Goolagong for the second straight year.

1977 marked the final Open at Forest Hills. Making first-time appearances were 14-year-old Tracy Austin and Douglaston native John McEnroe. Austin went all the way to the quarterfinals, while McEnroe lost in the fourth round to eventual champion Orantes.

Evert again won the championships, marked by the first-round loss of 42-year-old transsexual Renne Richards, who caved in to Wade. Richards reached the doubles finals with Bettyann Stuart.

The Open moved to its current site — and to hard courts — in 1978 under United States Tennis Association President W.E. “Slew” Hester Jr. Connors’ victory over Borg in the finals gave him the special distinction of being the first player to win the Open on three different surfaces: grass, clay and hard.

Over the years, the Open has remained more or less the same, although prize money has skyrocketed and the players have changed.

McEnroe, one of the most popular tennis players ever to compete in the Open, eventually won four singles titles, the first of which was in 1979 and the last in 1984. Ivan Lendl won three straight championships in the 1980s.

Navratilova also became the most dominant force in women’s tennis during the decade, winning three crowns. Steffi Graf won her first Open in 1988, while Germany’s Boris Becker captured his first Open title in 1989.

The 1990s brought a new era in tennis. Connors, McEnroe and Lendl and Evert and Navratilova ceased being the dominant forces in the sport, giving way to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang Graf, Martina Hingis and Monica Seles.

Sampras won his first U.S. Open crown in 1990, beating Agassi in straight sets, but would have to wait two years for his second title, giving way to Stefan Edberg, who won in 91 and 92. Sampras won in 93 over Cedric Pioline.

The popular Agassi won his first Open title in 1994, beating Germany’s Michael Stich in the finals. Sampras beat his fellow American the following year and then beat Michael Chang in the 1996 finals. Australia’s Patrick Rafter won the 1997 crown over Britain’s Greg Rusedski and repeated his victory a year later.

Agassi, however, won the in 1999 and has been playing some the best tennis of his career over the past several years. He is currently the top ranked player in the world.

In 2001, newcomer Lleyton Hewitt captured his first career Grand Slam title defeating former champ Pete Sampras, who had previously beaten the 2000 men’s champion, Marat Safin.

The now-retired Gabriela Sabitini won her only Grand Slam in 1990, taking the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park title, but gave it to Seles in 1991 and 1992. Graf followed suit in 1993, 1995 and 1996. Spain’s Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won in 1994, beating Graf in three hard-fought sets.

Hingis emerged as the dominant player in women’s tennis over the several years and displayed that dominance in winning the 1997 crown over upstart American Venus Williams. Williams became the first African-American to play in a U.S. Open final since Ashe in 1972 and the first black woman to reach the finals since Althea Gibson in 1958.

Hingis’ dominance, however, has been put to the test by Americans Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena over the past two years. Davenport beat Hingis in 1998 and Serena Williams won the title in 1999 before her older sister claimed the title a year later.

In 2001, Venus Williams defended her title against her sister, but this year she has been defeated twice in Grand Slam tournaments by her older, now higher-ranked sister Serena.

More history will be written this year, to be sure.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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