By JON CRONIN
For five decades now, the U.S. Open has been an international event of tennis pro pageantry, but before it was wooed to the World’s Borough, it was an underappreciated amateur tournament in Rhode Island.
Beatrice Hunt, the co-chairwoman of the Archives Committee at the century-old West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, said that, in 1881, the U.S. Open in its earliest form was known as the Men’s Nationals, and was held at a casino in Newport, Rhode Island.
In an interview with the Queens Tribune in the West Side Tennis Club’s library, Hunt told the story of how the club acquired the Men’s Nationals.
The West Side Tennis Club was founded in 1892 in Manhattan on 88th Street and Central Park West. After the club had moved a few times, it obtained its first grass courts at its Cortlandt Park location and hosted its first Davis Cup in 1911. Two to three thousand people attended the inaugural event as well as a variety of other championships in the next few years. In 1914, the Davis Cup drew a crowd of 12,000 people and proved that the club could handle a large tournament. That game was the United States vs. Australasia, which was a combination of New Zealand and Australia.
“We lost, but it was a big success,” Hunt said.
In 1915 at the Forest Hills location, the club lobbied successfully to bring the Men’s Nationals to the West Side Tennis Club by arguing that many of the players and fans lived in the New York City area.
Karl Behr, a tennis player and survivor of the Titanic, campaigned for the tournament along with another member, Julia Myrick. The Men’s Nationals was played in Forest Hills for a few years, but then moved in 1920 to Germantown, Pennsylvania. The Forest Hills club then drew the Ladies’ Nationals.
In 1922, the French built their own tennis stadium and the club noticed how successful it was.
Hunt said that the club propositioned the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA), which was the predecessor to the USTA, and asked if the association would host matches in Forest Hills for a decade if the club built a stadium there.
Hunt said that in order to fund the stadium, the club sold $100 subscriptions with a $10 tax that would give the buyer one seat for 10 years.
“They sold 1,500 and the stadium was supposed to cost $150,000,” Hunt said.
The club seated 13,000 to 15,000 people.
In 1924, the Men’s Nationals came back to Forest Hills. In 1968, the Nationals became the U.S. Open when the amateur players realized that they drew crowds and wanted to be paid as professionals.
She said that in the mid 1970s, the USTA was not discussing leaving Forest Hills, although appreciation for tennis was growing around the country and the U.S. Open was attracting more fans. Hunt noted that the USTA wanted the club to close the arch at the stadium to fit an extra 7,000 people and asked the club to pay for it.
“There were hot tempers on both sides,” said Hunt, who has been a member of the club since 1971.
In 1977, the U.S. Open moved to the Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing.
During the 53 years that the tournament was played in Forest Hills, the club saw many highlights.
“All the greats have played here,” Hunt said.
She pointed out that since the U.S. Open was the last tournament to be played every year, it was always in Forest Hills. The first person to win all four of the international tournaments–which included Australia, the Roland Garros in France, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, also known as the Grand Slam title–was Don Budge in 1930 at the West Side Tennis Club.
Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in 1950 and eventually won the Grand Slam title in 1956. Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly was the first woman to win the Grand Slam and she won it four times. Rob Laver also earned that title twice in Forest Hills. The club also saw the introduction of the first “tie-breaker” match at its stadium.