David Dinkins was a fixture for decades at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the U.S. Open.
"He had relationships with the top players," said Katrina Adams, past President and CEO of the United States Tennis Association. "He always called himself the coach of Monica Seles and the coach of Roger Federer. When he was sitting in the stands, he’d always say, ‘You know I’m the coach.’"
Dinkins, the mayor of New York City from 1990-93 and an avid player well into his 80s, passed away on Monday at age 93, leaving behind a major tennis legacy at every level of the game in New York.
"The Coach" played a significant role in allowing the USTA to expand the tennis center in the mid '90s, including the building of Arthur Ashe Stadium and the widening the tennis center’s footprint. It was a move that could have well have saved the Open from leaving New York.
He also was a huge promoter of community tennis, in particular seeing it as a way to build character among the city’s youth.
Dinkins’ role in brokering a $150 million deal to expand the tennis center, largely paid for by the USTA with some backing from the city, was crucial at a time when Atlanta and Chicago were interested in becoming the U.S. Open host.
When billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York in the early 2000s, he would say that deal was "the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York, but in the country."
"David had lot to do do with keeping the U.S. Open in the city of New York," Adams said. "He understood the value the tournament had on the city’s revenue stream. How much money it would bring into the city over time. The U.S. Open has proven that it brings in more revenue in two weeks to the city of New York than all the other sports combined over their seasons. The majority of people coming to the Open are staying in the hotels, eating at restaurants, taking taxis."
Crucial, too, was Dinkins’ negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration. With air travel rapidly expanding in the 1980s, jet engine noise from planes departing from La Guardia airport and flying over Flushing Meadows was becoming a major distraction to players, television broadcasters and fans. At the start of his tenure he got the FAA to agree to vector departing aircraft farther to the east and away from the tennis center for the two-week run of the Open.
"That he was able to divert planes from flying over the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was something phenomenal," Adams said. "He will always be remembered for that by the players and fans alone."
Skip Hartman, long-time New York tennis entrepreneur, co-founder of the New York Junior Tennis & Learning organization with Arthur Ashe, and close friend of Dinkins, says Dinkins’ involvement with the Open and USTA went back to the 1970s when he was New York City Clerk. With the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills no longer adequate to host the burgeoning commercial engine that the Open was to the USTA, another site needed to be found.
"It started when the USTA moved from Forest Hills and David was an important Democratic city-wide leader," Hartman said. "Because he was a fan of tennis, I believe the USTA reached out to him, who do they have deal with in order to get the land at Flushing Meadows Park. He played a role, I wouldn’t call it the most significant, but he introduced the USTA to people who could help."
More low-key but also of significance was Dinkins’ support of youth tennis.
"He knew the importance that tennis brought to the communities," Adams said. "He knew the importance that tennis brought to youth, in particular. What it would mean to them in their development as an adult, the life skills that were taught through the sport of tennis. Huge supporter of New York Junior Tennis & Learning."
Hartman saw first-hand what Dinkins meant to youth tennis through the NYJTL.
"It’s by far the largest community youth tennis program in the United States," Hartman said. "It’s raised millions and millions of dollars and provides free tennis programming in all five boroughs. It’s no one person, but David’s presence and involvement in NYJTL helped us open all kinds of doors, and his experience with us carried over [to the USTA] to help push for more programs like this around the country. Bringing tennis to all children, not just the middle class or wealthy, in an affordable way is also part of his legacy. He believed tennis could make a big impact in a child’s life, even if it was only casual."
Dinkins imparted this philosophy to the USTA during his 12-year run as a board member. Patrick McEnroe, the television commentator, former player and former USTA board member and director of player development, experienced Dinkins’ passion for the game up close and personal.
"He really loved the game for all the right reasons," McEnroe said. "He loved the bigness of the U.S. Open. Beyond that he knew what tennis could do for kids and for people. You go to a board meeting and people are talking about the economics of the U.S. Open, what it means for the company and all that. He always wanted to remind people what tennis did for communities. His legacy in tennis is pretty incredible."
Then there was Dinkins the man.
"Beyond tennis, he was an unbelievable friend to the McEnroe family," McEnroe said. "I’ll just say that he was a man of incredible class and dignity. Whenever I saw him he always asked me about my parents and my children. Family to him was No. 1."