By Arnie Leshin
The year 1969 was no doubt an eventful one.
Man on the Moon, Woodstock, New YorkMets won the World Series, Montreal Expos make Major League Baseball debut, first woman horse racing jockey, Charles Manson trial, Chapaquidick drowning, first Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) in the United States, huge rousing anti-Vietnam war demonstration in the nation’s capitol, first college football draft lottery in the USA since World War II, the birth of the Jimmy Van Alen tennis tiebreaker, and so on and so forth.
It was 360 tumultuous days, but I hadn’t reached them yet. I was still in 1968 working in the sports department of the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, and under sports editor Jack Powers, whose biggest addiction was at the nearby Plaza Bar, and where his number one drink was the potent Manhattan. And on this Friday night, he stumbled in to the office and informed me that I was to cover tennis in Queens on Monday, and probably throughout the event.
Did he know the name of the tournament? Of course not. Did he know how to get to Queens? Of course not. He advised me to make some calls, get some directions, and be sure to be back in the office by 6 o’clock, which didn’t concern me because it was at that time that he was already tipsy and anxiously awaiting his ride to Yonkers Raceway in New York.
But I got my answers. I was going to the U.S. Open Tennis Championship in upper class Forest Hills. I left the Garden State on Monday morning at around 10, and found my way to New York City’s fifth borough within an hour. But parking was limited, classy homes were on every street, and by the time I was able to squeeze in between two cars, I thankfully pounded slightly on my new 1968 Dodge Charger, and followed the signs to the West Side Tennis Club.
I needed to pick up my media pass at the ‘will call’, but instead checked out the limited lockers and met tennis writer Bud Collins of the Boston Globe. I asked if I could share a locker with him, and he quickly answered, ‘Be my guest.’
That was neat and my next stop was at the ‘will call’ window, where after I showed my ID, I was given a round buttoned press pass that said ‘Press B.’ It didn’t get me into the ancient closed-in press box on site, but I did have a reserved seat in the stadium. Besides, the press box was comprised of typewriters, Western Union, event officials, and the sound had to be toned down when the court directly in front was being played on. I later stood there and heard the officials calling for quiet, and that also disturbed the players.
But for me, it was time to begin my adventure. I didn’t know all that much about the game, so I was on course to learn, meet players, other writers, and even got to speak with celebrities that were there. I remember getting into a conversation with noted commentator Howard Cosell outside the press box and bringing up the baseball Metsplaying on the other side of the ramp at SheaStadium, but Cosell said this wasn’t their time, it’s the time for great tennis.
Little did he know that 1969 would bring the amazing Mets their first World Series, but he was right about the moment. It was tennis time.
The stadium court was the site for key matches later in the day, so I strolled along to the side courts, the first stop being the men’s doubles match featuring 42-year-old legendary Poncho Gonzales and his nervous partner,17-year-old Jimmy Connors against the robust Romanian duo of 23-year-old IlieNastase, and his mentor, 34-year-old Ion Tiriac. Doubles is sometimes a fun match, and this one was just that.
Tiriac and Gonzales put on a show, faking disputed calls, hoping the net, tossing their rackets, giving stares to the chair umpire and referees on calls that didn’t go their way. The crowd got a kick out of this. Meanwhile,Nastase, known as “Nasty,” came to play, mumbling his foreign language many times, yelling at himself on bad shots, and an annoyed Connors later said while being interviewed that he had come to play tennis, not entertain, and never played doubles with Gonzales again. And the robust more experienced Romanians won in straight sets.
Next, I found a side court that was not great for spectators. There were only seats provided for the players, and it was tough to catch the action on the court as legendary Billie Jean King, the savior of women’s tennis, was facing Julie Heldman, and when Heldman became so upset with how she herself was playing, she decided to serve underhand. I remember asking Billie Jean about that, and she said it was perfectly legal as Heldman excited the court with the defeat.
There was also a closeness at Forest Hills that was never to be seen again. In the early years of the Open, it was run by Madison Square Garden and led by public relations honcho Bill Shannon. It was media-friendly. A comp here, a comp there, a comp whenever the mood called for it. It was a comp for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner it was a comp provided at the clubhouse.
There you got to sit among the players, Billie Jean, Rosie Casals, Gonzales, Nastase, Tiriac, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Stan Smith, Vitas Gerulditis, tournament officials, other celebrities, and chat while eating (and drinking).
In 1969, I was given a ‘Press A’ badge. I made my way around, learned more about the game, and wrote my stories while in the company of Collins and his protege, Mike Lupica, Mark Asher, Tony Kornhesier, MartyLader, Peter Alfonso, Barry Lodge, John Feinstein, and Will Grimesley, as well as the known tennis writers from England, France and Australia, although it was a big squeeze sliding into the tight press box.
One time in 1969, I was with Billie Jean andCasals as we walked along one of the NYC streets chatting and laughing on the way to a press conference that switched sites. A year later, I walked up to King at Forest Hills and she informed me that no more individual interviews would apply among the women, and if so, her husband (Larry King) would have to arrange it.
Billie Jean had just signed a professional contract and made the “Houston Nine” a reality. Virginia Slims was sponsoring a women’s tour that would begin in Houston. It brought more prize money, more exposure, more recognition, and the rest of the cast included Casals, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Nancy Richey, and Heldman.
When the Open relocated to nearby Flushing Meadows, I ran a few stories on Connors. He was now the most popular of the players, the fan favorite, and had already won at Forest Hills on clay and grass, and now was after the hard courts championship. He also had to change his image, had to mellow out to bring in the fans. He found comedy, pumps to the crowd, funny looks in to the TV cameras.
And if he did make the Open’s final weekend, I would be sure to wish him Happy Birthday on Sept. 2nd. He once introduced me to his wife Patti McGuire, the former Playboy model.
He just didn’t get along with John McEnroe. They were great draws, great competitors, but Connors didn’t fall for McEnroe‘s antics, his belaboring the court officials, and several times he would walk to the net while McEnroewas disputing a call and inform him that it was time to play, not argue, and the crowd ate it up. Connors got serious at times, especially when a call went against him, but never like McEnroe.
McEnroe would wipe out every fine and suspension record that Nastase held. His problem was no language barrier to protect him, while Nastase applied his foreign language. But Connors had the biggest fine back in those days, the $20,000 one that he was hit with when he left an unfinished match in 1986.
But now I was becoming a tennis writer, and In 1971 I first met Chris Evert at the West Orange Open in New Jersey. She was 16, polite, and was playing away from her home in Fort Lauderdale for the first time. Two years later, she lost to Billie Jean in the U.S. Open final.
Now she was a bit younger and had won her first two matches, and we got to talk some. She praised her dad, Jim, the tennis director and head coach of the courts in Fort Lauderdale. He was the tennis teacher of Chris, her three younger sisters, and her two brothers, with Drew the oldest. She mentioned that she couldn’t do much against Drew and younger John because they served so hard and hit so hard, which is usually the case when gender meets gender. But no one in her family ever achieved such greatness in the sport.
In 1973 I was sports editor of the afternoon daily Miami News, and in ’74 I traded this in by signing on with the new World Team Tennis as media director of the Florida Flamingos based in Miami. The league founded by Billie Jean King and her husband Larry ran until 1979, with King being with the Philadelphia Freedom, whose “Philadelphia Freedom” song written by entertainer Elton John was the first and only one ever composed about a professional team.
No more Forest Hills, I left it behind and treasured it as my start in the world of tennis, which year-by-year gained more popularity across the globe. I got to cover Wimbledon, the French and Australia Open, but while traveling was nice, there was nothing like covering the U.S. Open. It was a more familiar scene, it grew bigger and better and brought huge crowds (and higher food and souvenir prices) to the event.
Once the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. My first time there was an eye-opener. It was in the shadows of the Tasty Bread Bakery, the crowded Long Island Railroad repair yard, popular Shea Stadium, and the remains of the Fair. The atmosphere was fast, brash and loud like a visiting gaggle of conventioneers. Advertising stared at you from every portal.
These were the sights and sounds of the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow Park. It was alongside Corona Park and CBS renamed it Flushing Meadows. But it didn’t change the site of this Grand Slam tournament that arrived in 1978. Simply put, it outgrew Forest Hills.
It was no doubt the hottest ticket in town, which is a mighty big deal since New York City is a mighty big town. Across the ramp, fans would arrive via the elevated trains to root for the Mets, and it made for a mess of traffic if you were driving in that area. Plus it made for higher and higher prices at the U.S. Open — food, souvenirs, clothing, tennis gear, and of course ticket prices.
It was the kind of scene described as a “zoo”. a “circus,” and as the years went by, millions watched for free on television, there were more stadium courts and more outside side courts, and everything became more costly. Still, it lacks the charm of the early years when it was more like a novelty while it still sits out there alongside Grand Central Parkway
Fortunately, Jack Powers was nice enough to bring the sport to me (or me to the sport), and I have lived and learned it. not as a player though, only as an interested sports writer.
Tennis anyone and game, set, match was what you had to know.