How Tennis' US Open Became "Open" In The First Place

Wed Aug 20, 2014 00:57:38AM | Categories:
Tennis Players on Newport Casino Court, 1909By: George Grantham Bain
There's an interesting story to be told about the The US Open Tennis Championships, an annual sporting tournament that has its roots dating all the way back to 1881. And that story has to do with the tournament's history of inclusion, and it's ability to innovate the sport of tennis throughout the years.

Today, this tournament is the last in succession of four major tennis tournaments that make up the Grand Slam, or Majors as they are called, for tennis. And the tournament as we know it now consists of five event championships: men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles, with additional tournaments for senior, junior, and wheelchair players. But back more than a century ago, it began as a men's only tournament, and was called the U.S. National Championship.

Back in 1881, they played the game of tennis on grass, as opposed to the hard court acrylic style of today, or the clay surface of the 1970's. And the event wasn't originally 'open' at all. Only club members of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA) were permitted to enter. Also as mentioned before, the tournament started out as a men's only affair, indicative of the times. This game play was also just meant for amateurs; professionals had their own events. And the two did not mix for many many years to come.

Six years later, in 1887 the first official U.S. Women's National Singles Championship was held, and the game became more gender inclusive because of it. At the same time, there came to be two other events: the U.S. Women's National Doubles Championship and the U.S. Mixed Doubles Championship. Keep in mind though, just like with the separation of amateur and professional, all these events were held separately for decades to come.

From 1911 to 1923, the tournament changed locations a few times. The committees and players in charge had a hard time agreeing on just where a tournament like this should call home. First it was on the grass courts at the Newport Casino, in Newport, Rhode Island. Then to the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, New York. For a stint even, Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia got the nod. But eventually, after a big vote and a lot of fighting and much ado, everyone officially settled on the New York location. And that was the tournament's official home on through to 1977, until it was finally moved once more to another court in New York, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the tournament calls home to this day. Once the tournament finally picked the first New York court location though, from 1924 on, the tournament officially became a major championship in the tennis world.

So from 1924 on to 1967, you have the five events that make up the current US Open all being played in separate tournaments, with only amateurs allowed. But in 1968, everything changes. Following suit with British tennis tournaments, all five events were merged into one tournament and collectively called the US Open Tennis Championship. Also, 1968 is the beginning of the "open era" for tennis, and professionals are for the first time allowed to play in the tournament alongside amateurs, making the event truly open for the first time in its history. For the next few years, there was considerable backlash with this inclusion. But the format ultimately prevailed, which was a great thing for the sport's longevity and the players involved. Events like this meant good money, and professionals could take advantage of the extra income opportunity, making the sport of tennis a realistic career choice. Not to mention the tournament became infinitely more enjoyable to watch, as anyone that could qualify could play, regardless of your expert level, or gender.

That's when the US Open started innovating the game. In 1970, the US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament in history to use a tiebrack to decide a set that reached a 6–6 score in games, and remains the only major to use a tiebreak in the deciding set; the other three grand slams play out the deciding set until a two-game margin is achieved. From 1970 to 1974 the US Open used a best-of-nine point, sudden death tiebreaker before ultimately moving to the ITF best-of-twelve point system.

In 1973, the US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to offer men and women equal prize money. Back then it was $25,000. Not bad. Other tournaments soon followed suit. Then a few years later in 1975, they innovated once again by being the first to use floodlights for game play. This allowed nighttime matches, for the first time ever. Pretty cool stuff.

1978 saw the change as mentioned above from one New York court to another. The tournament left Forest Hills for a bigger arena at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In doing so, the game transitioned from playing on a clay surface, to the hard court surface of today's iteration.

The US Open Tennis Championship is the second oldest of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Only Wimbledon preceded it (1877). But an interesting piece of trivia as well, the US Open is the only tournament of the four that has been played every year since its inception.

The event has come a long way since its creation back in 1881. What started as a white men's only club for amateurs gradually blossomed into an event for all, truly open and accepting of all, regardless of race, creed, nationality, gender, expert level, age, or even disability constraints. Today, the event is as popular as ever, and draws only the top talent from all over the world. It is truly a major part of the tennis world, and for good reason.
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