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LIer played U.S. Open's first open-era match against Billie Jean King

Vija Tamuzs-Rubans, who played against BIllie Jean King

Vija Tamuzs-Rubans, who played against BIllie Jean King in the U.S. Open's first open-era match in 1968, is seen on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Vija Tamuzs-Rubans was invited to be a guest at Monday's first day of the U.S. Open’s 50th anniversary tennis tournament. Which hardly was the same as having been asked, in 1968, to play the event’s first open-era match — against the world’s No. 1 player at the time, Billie Jean King.

Back then, King, a major proponent of welcoming pros into tennis’ biggest tent, was the defending champion of what previously had been the amateur-only U.S. Championships. Tamuzs-Rubans — then Vija Vuskalns — was a 29-year-old amateur and full-time dentist in Port Washington. She had applied to enter the women’s 64-player singles field, but her ranking was only good enough to be designated an “alternate.” A possible emergency fill-in.

When King’s first-round opponent, Helen Amos of Australia, couldn’t be located minutes before the match, Tamuzs-Rubans, lounging in the locker room, got a tap on the shoulder. “The guard didn’t want to let me into the stadium,” she said Monday. “I didn’t have a credential.”

King won, 6-1, 6-0, but Tamuzs-Rubans, now 79, called the match “my claim to fame.”

A half-century later, the Open is “certainly a lot different,” Tamuzs-Rubans said. Then, it still was played in Forest Hills at the private West Side Tennis Club. “On grass,” she said. “My favorite surface.” Now it’s on the public hard courts of Flushing Meadows’ National Tennis Center — named in 2006 in honor of one Billie Jean King.

In ’68, Arthur Ashe — himself still an amateur — won the men’s title. Now, the Open’s main 23,771-seat stadium is named for Ashe. Then, Forest Hills’ 14,000-seat stadium was “nowhere near full” for that first match, Tamuzs-Rubans recalled. Now? “The crowds, the crowds,” she said — roughly 40,000 on the grounds on Monday — reminded her why she prefers to watch on television from home. Then, “I had to pay an entry fee” to play, she said. “Now they get over $50,000” [actually $54,000] “for a first-round loss.

For that first U.S. Open, Tamuzs-Rubans had to sign a waiver declining any prize money to retain her amateur status. She continued playing for almost 40 years in age-group events. When the Open moved to Flushing Meadows in 1978,  Tamuzs-Rubans participated in a 35-and-over doubles exhibition and one of that match’s linesmen told her he also had called lines in her ’68 bout against King.

She still lives in Port Washington, where she recently was “discovered” by U.S. Tennis Association official Ashley Marshall in search of 50th-anniversary stories. He learned that Vija Vuskalns was now Vija Tamuzs-Rubans, that she is in the Port Washington high school hall of fame, that the telephone number for her dentistry practice was out of date because she is “long retired.”

She was born in Latvia but escaped Soviet occupation with her family in the late 1940s. At that ‘68 Open, there were no tennis players representing Latvia. Now, there are two — 19th seeded Anatasija Sevastova, who won her first-round match Monday, and No. 10 Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champ who begins play on Tuesday.

So now, Tamuzs-Rubans said she is “rooting for anyone from Latvia.”

New York Sports