New York is the setting for the final Grand Slam tournament of the year. The US Open takes place in late August, and although it is the second oldest event in the tennis calendar after Wimbledon, its history and character are very different from those of the All England Club.
Played on grass courts in Newport, Rhode Island, the US National Singles Championship for Men was first held in 1881, and was open only to members of clubs registered with the United States National Lawn Tennis Association. Six years later, an equivalent competition for women was established at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. Following a brief sojourn at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia, both events relocated to Forest Hills, Queens in 1924, where they would remain for over 50 years.
From 1975 to 1977 the US Open was played on clay courts, but with the move from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in 1978, a decision was also made to switch to hard courts. The event has remained there ever since, and in 2006 the venue was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in honour of the pioneering American player who was so instrumental in setting up the WTA Tour. Today, the main focal point of the venue is the Arthur Ashe stadium, which seats over 22,000 spectators and is the largest tennis arena in the world. The other main show courts are the Louis Armstrong Stadium, the Grandstand Stadium and Court 17, also known as “The Pit.”
Throughout its history, the US Open has introduced a number of innovations. In 1970, it was the first Grand Slam to introduce a tie-break system, and remains the only one to play a tie-break in the deciding set of matches. In 1973, organisers opted to award equal prize money to the men’s and women’s champions, and two years later, the instalment of floodlights allowed matches to be played at night for the very first time.
What does it take to win?
Although the US Open is played on hard courts like the majority of tennis tournaments in the modern era, the DecoTurf surface is subtly different from that used elsewhere. The surface produces slightly less friction than other hard courts, with the result that balls slow down less upon impact; they also bounce slightly lower. This means that aggressive, hard-hitting players tend to do well at the US Open, and there are many serve-volleying Wimbledon champions who have won multiple times at Flushing Meadows, such as John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Martina Navratilova.
That said, the US Open’s playing surface is fair to competitors with a variety of playing styles, and there are many who failed to win Wimbledon but triumphed in New York, such as Monica Seles, Justine Henin, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander. Often, factors other than the court surface come into play at the US Open. The atmosphere is more raucous, and the noise of the crowd can be exacerbated by the sound of planes taking off at nearby LaGuardia Airport. Bjorn Borg, and 11-time Grand Slam winner who mastered both clay and grass courts, never won in Flushing Meadows, and was said to hate playing under the floodlights. Boris Becker, the 1989 champion, remarked, “Once you have finished playing your two weeks in New York, you are happy not just that you have won, but that you have survived.”
Three American men won the US Championships seven times during the amateur era: William Larned, Richard Sears and Bill Tilden. Since 1968, when the event became the US Open, no player has managed to equal that haul, but two more home-grown players, Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras, have come close. Connors, the only man to triumph on three different surfaces, was a five-time winner between 1974 and 1983. Sampras, who dominated the tournament in the early to mid-nineties, won his 14th and final Grand Slam in New York in 2002, beating Andre Agassi in an all-American final.
As is the case almost everywhere else, Roger Federer has an outstanding record at the US Open. The Swiss was unbeatable in New York from 2004 - 2008, winning five titles in a row to equal Sampras’ Open Era record. He came within a set of lifting the trophy a sixth time in 2009, but lost a dramatic contest to Juan Martin Del Potro.
Other prolific men’s winners are John McEnroe, a four-time champion, and Ivan Lendl, who reached an astonishing eight consecutive finals in the 1980s, emerging victorious on three occasions.
Americans also dominate the roll of honour of women’s US Open champions. From 1915 - 1926, Norwegian-born Molla Bjurstedt Mallory won the championships eight times. Her reign overlapped with that of Helen Wills Moody, who earned seven titles from 1923 - 1932.
In the Open Era, Chris Evert leads the list of all-time winners, having won the US Open four times from 1975 - 1978 and then again in 1980 and 1982. With five titles apiece, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf were also dominant in New York during their careers, but Serena Williams is snapping at their heels with four trophies, and is the only active player with a realistic chance of matching Evert.
There are countless matches to choose from when selecting the US Open’s greatest moments. Many of them feature American players, such as Jimmy Connors’ epic comeback victory over Aaron Krickstein in 1991, John McEnroe’s 1980 final victory over Bjorn Borg (in which he gained revenge for the loss of the Wimbledon title two months earlier) and Martina Navratilova’s three-set win over arch-rival Chris Evert on “Super Saturday” in 1984. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters have also produced incredible displays in New York. But here are four matches that will long live in the memory of those fortunate enough to witness them.
Edberg def. Chang, 1992 semi-final:
Although this match may not have been of the highest quality from the beginning, it had no shortage of drama, intense rallies and remarkable fighting spirit. In his previous two matches, Edberg had recovered from a set down to beat both Richard Krajicek and Ivan Lendl, but when his semi-final with Michael Chang went the distance, it looked as though the Swede was physically spent. Chang had points for a double break in the deciding set, but Edberg, despite not being at his best, summoned all his courage to win the points that mattered. His 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 victory, lasting 5 hours 26 minutes, remains the longest match in US Open history.
Video: Edberg v Chang, 1992
Djokovic def. Federer, 2011 semi-final:
Novak Djokovic has already enjoyed a season for the ages when he met Roger Federer for a place in the 2011 US Open final. The Serb was unbeaten in his first 41 matches of the year, a streak that was eventually broken by Federer at the French Open. In New York, it appeared that the Swiss, keen to dismiss talk of a changing of the guard at the top of the game, was headed for victory. He charged to a two sets to love lead, and although Djokovic rallied to force a decider, Federer had victory in his sights at 5-3, 40-15. It was then that Djokovic went for broke, unleashing what will surely be ranked as the most audacious shot of his career: a brutal cross-court forehand that landed just inside the line. Federer never recovered, and Djokovic would go on to win his third Grand Slam title of 2011 two days later.
Video: Djokovic v Federer, 2011
Venus def Hingis, 2000 semi-final:
Women’s tennis was enjoying a Golden Age at the turn of the century. Martina Hingis was the world number one, but the Williams sisters were rising fast, and many were beginning to murmur that the Swiss Miss’ clever, tactical style of play wasn’t enough to withstand their barrage of heavy hitting. That seemed to be the case when Venus Williams overpowered Hingis en route to the Wimbledon title in 2000, but at the US Open that year, the rivals played a match for the ages. Hingis was the steadier of the two in the first set. Mixing pace, angles and spins and working points toward the middle of the court, she kept her more powerful opponent off-balance and won it convincingly. But in the second, Venus was a sight to behold: serving imperiously, she asserted herself with astonishing court coverage and accurate hitting from the baseline. In the decider, both women were at their very best, and the rallies became more and more intense. Hingis was two points from victory at 5-3, but in yet another gruelling exchange, she failed to put away a relatively easy smash, and Williams broke back. Venus then held on to clinch the match, a win she described as “unbelievable.”
Video: Venus v Hingis, 2000
Henin def. Capriati, 2003 semi-final:
This last four clash in 2003 would become legendary not just for the quality of the tennis played, but also as a perfect example of Henin’s incredible will to win. Capriati, having fallen behind 4-1 in the first set, found her range on her groundstrokes and began to dominate from the back of the court to win five games in a row. When she led 5-3 in the second, it looked as though the American was charging towards a hard-fought but well-deserved victory. But the three-time Grand Slam winner lost focus, and Henin dug in. Despite struggling on serve, the Belgian won five games on the trot to push the match to a deciding set. Once again, Capriati came back, attacking the net when she had the opportunity and wearing down her smaller opponent in a series of fierce, draining rallies. She carved out a comfortable 5-2 lead, only for the momentum to swing yet again. Ten times, Henin was within two points of losing the match, and to make matters worse, she began to suffer severe cramps in her left leg. Yet she continued to fight, and evened the score to force a dramatic final set tie-break. When Capriati’s final volley hit the net, Henin had completed one of the most extraordinary comebacks in US Open history.
Video: Henin v Capriati, 2003
- Pete Sampras won his first title at the US Open in 1990, aged 19.
- In 2006, the US Open became the first Grand Slam event to use the Hawk-Eye challenge system.
- The 1991 showpiece match between Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova had the biggest age difference (17 years) between finalists in Grand Slam history.
- Since the US Open was first held in 1881, there have only been six years in which an American hasn’t contested either the men’s or women’s final.
- At the US Open, the men’s and women’s champions win the exact same trophy.
- From 2013, the US Open will play the men’s final on a Monday.