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U.S. Open: 50 memorable moments

Arthur Ashe holds his trophy after defeating Tim

Arthur Ashe holds his trophy after defeating Tim Okker to claim his first U.S. Open on Sept. 9, 1968. Credit: AP / Marty Lederhandler

This year the United States Tennis Association is celebrating 50 years of the Open Era of tennis which began in 1968. That year the Grand Slam tournaments, themselves to the professionals. In truth, there had been years of “shamateurism” where players of very high calibre had been paid large stipends and/or expenses to play in tennis’ premier events.

With a nod to the research of the USTA’s media department, here are 50 memorable moments over the 50 years of Open Era tennis at the U.S. Open as we go into the 2018 tournament:

1. Arthur breaks through. The 1968 U.S. Open made history for not only being open to pros for the first time, its first men’s champion was Arthur Ashe, who was then an amateur and lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He became the first black man to win a Grand Slam, defeating Dutchman Tom Okker in the final, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Ashe would become a transcendent figure in the game. Virginia Wade won the women’s title, defeating Billie Jean King in the final, 6-4, 6-2.

2. Jimmy at 39. Jimmy Connors had won the U.S. Open five times, but he was at his most exciting in 1991 with a thrilling run to the semifinals at the age of 39. Connors, wno entered the tournament as a wildcard, had massive matches against Michael Chang, Patrick McEnroe and Aaron Krickstein to get to the semis where he lost to Jim Courier, but he charged up Flushing Meadows like no other player.

3. Chris at 16. Chris Evert stepped into the spotlight at the U.S. Open in 1971 at age 16. Billie Jean King ended Evert’s surprising run in the semifinals, but it was a huge stepping stone for the teenager who would go on to win six Opens and 18 Grand Slams.

4. Sister-sister. Defending champion Venus Williams faced her sister Serena in the 2001 women’s final, the first time it had been scheduled for a Saturday night. Older sister Venus won handily in 69 minutes, but from that point on Serena dominated the rivalry and nearly all of women’s tennis.

5. Another Slam. Rod Laver had won the calendar year Grand Slam in 1962. In 1969, the second year of the Open Era of tennis, he completed it again, beating countryman Tony Roche on the grass at Forest Hills.

6. Serena’s first. Serena Williams won the first of her 23 major titles at the U.S. Open in 1999 at age 17. After defeating Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles along the way, she downed Martina Hingis in the final.

7. Roger that. When Roger Federer came into the 2008 U.S. Open, he had lost a bit of his edge. He had won 11 of 16 Grand Slams from 2004 through 2007, but hadn’t won one in 2008. Then he found his legendary stride at the U.S. Open, beating Andy Murray to win it for the fifth straight time.

8. Ode to Billie Jean. In 1973 Billie Jean King was instrumental in founding the Women’s Tennis Association. She was the primary advocate for equal prize money between men and women, and through much of her efforts, the 1973 U.S. Open offered equal prize money to both sexes for the first time.

9. McEnroe’s finest. John McEnroe was at the top of his game in the summer of 1980. He lost a tense final to Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, then defeated Borg in five sets at the U.S. Open after Borg had rallied to win two sets and force the fifth. McEnroe has often called it his finest match.

10. Steffi’s Golden Slam. For Steffi Graf, the 1988 U.S. Open was the culmination of the most dominant season in women’s tennis history. Her victory over Gabriela Sabatini in the final gave her the Grand Slam, and it became known as the Golden Slam because she had also won Olympic gold.

11. Under the lights. In 1975 tennis under the lights made its Grand Slam debut at the U.S. Open at Forest Hills and forever changed the dynamic of the sport. Jimmy Connors was involved in two memorable matches at night, beating Harold Solomon and losing to Manuel Orantes in the final.

12. Vinci’s upset. Serena Williams was on a tremendous roll in 2015, winning the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. She was an overwhelming favorite at the U.S. Open, but was denied the Grand Slam when she lost in the semis to Italian Roberta Vinci — an enormous upset.

13. The tiebreak. The first time the tiebreak was emploed for a Grand Slam tournament was at the 1970 U.S. Open. It was a hit with fans and players, and has become an integral part of the game.

14. Sampras-Agassi. Pete Sampras had beaten Andre Agassi three times in U.S. Open finals, including his career ender in 2002. But the meeting of the two iconic American players in a night quarterfinal in 2001 was epic. Sampras won in four thrilling tiebreak sets. Neither player had broken the other’s serve.

15. del Potro rules. Juan Martin del Potro would establish himself in the upper echelon of the game in 2009, and no more so than in the U.S. Open final. There he ended ended Roger Federer’s string of five consecutive titles (and 27 consecutive match wins) with an impressive, hard-earned five-set victory.

16. Up on the roof. Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka were the champions of the 2016 Open, but the star of the tournament that year? The roof. After years of dreaming and planning, the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium made its debut and rainouts became a thing of the past.

17. Holding surface. When the Open moved to Flushing Meadows in 1978, it was played on hard court for the first time. Jimmy Connors had won the Open both on grass and clay at Forest Hills. By beating Bjorn Borg in the final at the new National Tennis Center, he became the only player to win on all three surfaces.

18. Lendl’s run. Ivan Lendl ruled Flushing Meadows in the 1980s, winning three straight titles from 1985 to 1987. In 1989 he reached his eighth straight Open final, the only player to do that since Bill Tilden in the 1920s. He lost in a fourth-set tiebreaker to Boris Becker.

19. Billie Jean’s 4th. The 1974 Open at Forest Hills would be the last one on grass. It would also be the last of four Open titles for Billie Jean King. She defeated Australian Evonne Goolagong is three compelling sets. Goolagong would say later it was the best match she ever played.

20. Agassi’s farewell. In 2006, Andre Agassi came to the U.S. Open as a 36-year-old on his last legs. He had made a striking impression since he first played in 1986 and he had won two titles. He lost to Benjamin Becker in the third round in 2006, the last match of his career, then gave a memorable and emotional speech to his adoring fans.

21. Margaret Court’s slam. Margaret Smith Court entered the 1970 U.S. Open having won the first three Grand Slams of the year. Only Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly had ever won all four in a year (1953). Playing on an ailing ankle, Court defeated Rosie Casals in the final to become the first woman to win all four in the Open Era.

22. Heart of a champion. Pete Sampras had a howitzer of a serve, a dangerous volley and enough groundstrokes to be an all-time great. At the 1996 Open, he also proved he had a massive heart. In the quarterfinals, he overcame Alex Corretja while totally exhausted, at one point regurgitating at the end of the court between serves.

23. Austin’s first. Tracy Austin followed Chris Evert as the American dream teen, debuting at the Open in 1977 at age 14. In 1979 she won the first of her two Open titles, beating Martina Navratilova in the semifinals and Evert in the final, which ended Evert’s 31-match Open winning streak.

24. Seeing blue. In 2005, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center went blue. For the first time at the Open, the courts were changed from green to blue for better visibility for players, fans and the television viewers. It must have worked. Now 13 years later, blue is still the hue.

25. Chris & Martina. One the great rivalries in all of sport began at the 1975 Open when Chris Evert defeated Martina Navratilova in the semifinals at Forest Hills, their very first meeting. They would meet a total of 80 times in their careers with Navratilova, who defected from Czechoslovakia right after the tournament, prevailing 43-37.

26. Mother’s day. Kim Clijsters retired in 2007 to become a mom. In 2009, the urge to compete returned. She needed a wild card to get in the Open that year, and had only played two tournaments in the run-up. But she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final with daughter Jada stealing the show at the awards ceremony.

27. Young gun. In 1990 Pete Sampras was a 19-year-old full of promise. In the quarterfinals he ended Ivan Lendl’s string of final appearances at eight. He took down John McEnroe in the semifinals and would face crowd favorite Andre Agassi in the final, winning in three sets, and becoming the youngest man to win an Open title.

28. Andre surprises. As much promise as Andre Agassi had shown in what was now the midpoint of his career, he was also confounding and unpredictable. He came into the 1994 Open unseeded, having had off-season wrist surgery. And wouldn’t you know it, he defeated Michael Stitch in the final, the first of two Open victories.

29. Martina’s triple play. Martina Navratilova was as versatile a player as you could ever find, and nothing showed that as much as her U.S. Open accomplishments in 1987. She won the singles (beating Steffi Graf), doubles (with Pam Shriver) and mixed doubles (with Emilio Sanchez) titles that year, the only player to have done that.

30. Fete of clay. In 1975, the grass courts at Forest Hills were replaced with clay. That was just fine with Chris Evert, who hadn’t lost a match on clay since the summer of 1973. She lost the first set to Evonne Goolagong, but roared back to win the first of her six Open titles.

31. Federer’s first. The Roger Federer dynasty began in 2004. He had won his first Slam event at Wimbledon in 2003, and now had won Australia and Wimbledon in 2004. Federer survived a weather-impacted five-set quarterfinal against Andre Agassi on Arthur Ashe Stadium. He rolled over Lleyton Hewitt in the final for the first of his five Open titles.

32. Spanish rise. When the Open went to clay courts at Forest Hills in 1975, it provided an opening for the Spaniard Manuel Orantes. Orantes was down two sets to one to Guillermo Vilas in the semifinals and 0-4 in the fourth set. He rallied to beat Vilas, then took the title from Jimmy Connors in the final.

33. Honoring Billie Jean. In 2006, the United States Tennis Association named its massive tennis complex the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in a grand ceremony that honored the woman who had a profound influence on tennis, on women’s rights and equality, and American culture.

34. Time well spent. Stefan Edberg was the defending Open champion coming into the 1992 tournament. He spent a record of 22 hours and 22 minutes over the fortnight to win his second straight. It took him five hours and 26 minutes to defeat Michael Chang in the semis, the longest ever Open match, then he beat Pete Sampras in the final.

35. Overtime for Henin. Justine Henin was in it for the long haul at the 2003 Open. She defeated Jennifer Capriati in the semifinals, a match that ended at 12:27 Saturday morning and the latest ending for an Open semi. After spending time in the hospital for an IV drip, she beat countrywoman Kim Clijsters for the title later on Saturday.

36. Young guns. Venus Williams was a 17-year-old prodigy when she played her first U.S. Open in 1997. She wasn’t expected to make the final, but she did and ran up against 16-year-old Martina Hingis, who had won the Australian Open. Hingis won the title in the youngest ever final matchup the Open Era.

37. Net gain. Boris Becker was 21 and had already won five Grand Slam titles when he entered the 1989 Open. Derrick Rostagno had a match point against him and was at the net for a winning volley when Becker’s forehand hit the net cord, handcuffing him. Becker went on to win the match and the title.

38. Youngest slam. Rafael Nadal owned eight Grand Slam singles titles (five French, two Wimbledons, one Australian) by the time he arrived at the U.S. Open in 2010. At age 24 he needed the Open to be the youngest to complete the career Grand Slam, and he did so by beating Novak Djokovic in a thrilling final.

39. Sloane surprises. In January of 2017 Sloane Stephens had her left foot in a cast after surgery, and the status of her career was in doubt. She returned to tennis at Wimbledon and played four tournaments before the U.S Open. Out of the blue, she won it, overwhelming Madison Keys in the final.

40. Seles returns. The 1995 Open was the first Grand Slam that Monica Seles played after being stabbed in the back by a deranged attacker in Hamburg, Germany in 1993. She made a surprising and emotional run to the final where she was beaten by Steffi Graf.

41. Instant replay. We take it for granted now, but at the 2006 Open the Hawk-Eye Instant Replay System made its debut. Players were allowed a certain number of challenges per set. The guidelines prevented them from arguing just for the sake of gamesmanship and only when there was a legitimate beef.

42. Serena’s sweet 6th. The 2014 season had been uncharacteristically mediocre for Serena Williams. She hadn’t got past the fourth round of the first three Slams. Then she lost only 26 games in her first six matches at the Open and defeated Carolina Wozniacki in the final for her sixth title, tying her with Chris Evert.

43. Double(s) play. While the Bryan Brothers saved the doubles genre in America, perhaps the most exciting doubles run was that of Fred Stolle, 42, and John Newcombe, 37, at the the 1981 Open. The essentially retired players made it to the semifinals where they lost to John McEnroe and Peter Fleming in five totally fun sets.

44. Yo, brother! And speaking of the Bryans, the most successful doubles team of all time, they came into the 2014 under a bit of pressure. They were trying for their 100th career title. And they won it, beating Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez handily in the final.

45. Chris bids adieu. By 1989, Chris Evert’s Hall of Fame career was starting to wear on her. She decided that the Open would be her last tournament and she lost in the quarterfinals to Zina Garrison. She was given a long, adoring standing ovation as she left Armstrong Stadium for the last time.

46. Open facelift. The U.S. Open, already outgrowing the West Side Tennis Club by the time the Open Era began in 1968, moved to a brand new facility, the National Tennis Center, in 1978. The clay courts of Forest Hills were replaced by the hard courts of Flushing Meadows. In 1997, the facility had been completely redone and Arthur Ashe Stadium opened.

47. Melanie’s moment. Melanie Oudin was little known and lightly regarded coming into the 2009 Open, though she did have a surprising run at Wimbledon. She won her first four matches at the Open, including a victory over Maria Sharapova. Oudin never did capitalize on her Open run, and eventually faded away.

48. Novak works hard. Novak Djokovic won his first Open title in 2011, and did it the hard way. He was down two match points at 3-5 in the fifth against Roger Federer in the semifinals. He saved those points, won four straight games to win the match, then beat Rafael Nadal in the final.

49. It’s 14 for Pete. By 2002 Pete Sampras’ storied career was winding down. At, 31, he had not won an Open title since 1996 and had lost in the final the past two years. But he battled through to beat Andre Agassi in the final, the 14th Grand Slam title of his career. He retired shortly after.

50. New digs. With the opening of the brand new Louis Armstrong Stadium for the 2018 Open, the Billie Jean National Tennis Center has completed a five-year, $600 million total renovation. A roof over Arthur Ashe, a roofed Armstrong, a new Grandstand and a complete rebuilding off all the field courts were done on schedule and on budget.

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