The course of sports history changed 50 years ago when the Open Era of tennis arrived. What had been the U.S. National Championships since 1881 transformed into the U.S. Open, a tournament that allowed the amateurs of the sport to face off against the professionals. In that first Open, 63 women and 96 men competed, including one of the biggest names of all time, Arthur Ashe.
That first Open didn’t look much like the Open of today. It was held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, and played on grass (it would switch to hard clay in 1975 before settling on the current hard court DecoTurf in 1978). There was also no Mixed Doubles category; the four championships on the line were men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, and women’s doubles.
The finals line-ups read like a roll call of legends. Women’s doubles featured the team of Brazilian Maria Bueno (lifetime winner of 19 Grand Slam titles and the first South American woman to win Wimbledon) and Australian Margaret Court (winner of more majors than any other tennis player and the first women’s Grand Slam winner), defeating Americans Rosemary Casals (90-tournament winner and activist for female athletes) and Billie Jean King (all-time legend and recipient of Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other accolades). In men’s doubles, the American duo of Bob Lutz and Stan Smith (Davis Cup teammates who had tremendous individual successes but won 37 titles together), won against Ashe and Andrés Gimeno, a Spanish player who would go on to win the 1972 French Open. In singles action, King lost to Virginia Wade, still the only British woman to win a Grand Slam title. And on the men’s side, Ashe beat the heavy-hitting Tom Okker, a Dutch player who would spend the remainder of 1968 and the next six years in the top ten rankings.
Arthur Ashe wins the first U.S. Open.
While this was obviously a case of legends of display, the biggest story was probably Ashe, in part because his story was so improbable. Born the son of a handyman and his wife in Richmond, Virginia, Ashe lost his mother when he was seven. Ashe lived with his father and brother in caretaker’s quarters in Brookfield Park, a blacks-only park where he learned to play the game. Fortunate enough to find a string of mentors who recognized his talent and helped him navigate school systems that wouldn’t allow him to compete on the basis of race, Ashe eventually won the National Junior Indoor title and a scholarship to UCLA in 1963. He enrolled in ROTC, was recruited for the Davis Cup team, and in 1965, won the NCAA singles and doubles titles (with Ian Crookenden).
By 1968, Ashe would also win the Unites States Amateur Championships before heading to the U.S. Open. By all rights, Ashe shouldn’t have been in the Open, due to his military obligation stemming from his ROTC status; remarkably, his brother Johnnie was allowed to serve in his place so that Ashe could compete in the tournament. When he eventually beat Okker, Ashe became the first black man to win the new Open and the National Championships that had preceded it. It also made him the only person to win the USAC and the Open in the same year. However, due to a rule of the time that demanded that Ashe stay an amateur in order to compete on the Davis Cup, he had to decline the U.S. Open prize money. The $14,000 winnings were given to Okker.
Ashe went on to have an incredible career, winning 66 singles titles and 18 doubles. He is the only black man to win the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open. He used his celebrity for education and activism, founding children’s leagues and events and protesting South African apartheid. Unfortunately, heart problems that were likely inherited from his mother led to a pair of bypass operations through which he contracted HIV. Going public with his disease in 1992, he became an advocate for HIV and AIDS education, even addressing the United Nations. He died from AIDS-related pneumonia on February 6, 1993.
Today, the main court of the four stadiums at the USTA National Tennis Center, the Open’s home since 1978, bears Arthur Ashe’s name. Since 1987, the Open has been the final of the four Grand Slam tournaments in the calendar year, following the Australian, the French, and Wimbledon. The 2018 U.S. Open kicks off today, August 27, and runs until September 9.