Top 10 moments at the US Open:
1. A spectator is shot during a McEnroe match: There was a chaotic, aggressive, malevolent feel to New York City in the summer of 1977, which included a spike in the crime rate during the power blackouts, plus a mayoral election that was not always pretty, and a serial killer who became known as ‘The Son of Sam’ committed several murders: it was also the summer when a spectator was shot during a John McEnroe match at the US Open. A few minutes into McEnroe’s third-round match against a fellow American Eddie Dibbs, something was up in the crowd, and the umpire called the players towards him to inform them: “Someone’s been shot in the stands.” Dibbs’ immediate response was: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The umpire persuaded Dibbs to stay on court, by bringing the players back to the net to suggest that he had been confused, that someone was in shock, and that no one had been shot. Yet, once McEnroe had completed his victory, the umpire passed on the news that a man sitting in the stadium had had his enjoyment of the tennis interrupted by a bullet through the thigh. It was later established that the bullet had been fired from a .38 calibre gun, and the police concluded that it had almost certainly been a stray bullet from the streets of Queens that had somehow bounced and ricocheted into the stadium.
2. Roger Federer’s hot-dog: For much of the summer in 2010, people were doubting Federer’s brilliance, wondering whether he was a fake, a phony in a 5000-dollar suit. A video had gone viral online, which supposedly found him goofing around at an advertising shoot and, just because he could, firing a serve that knocked a bottle clean off a man’s head. Many in tennis considered the William Tell clip to be about as real as Andre Agassi’s old hair-pieces. But then Federer produced a piece of skill at Flushing Meadows which was under no doubt – the Swiss created an instant YouTube classic and what was surely The Greatest Shot of All Time, better even than the stroke he had played the season before in his semi-final against Novak Djokovic in New York.
When Argentina’s Brian Dabul sent up a lob, Federer looked to be a whole heap of trouble. But Federer sprinted back and, facing away from the court, and almost smack up against the backstop of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, he swung his racket back through his legs. There was no time to turn around to check where the ball had landed: all he had to do was wait for the noise.
3. On what would turn out to be a wild night at the tennis, one spectator at the 1979 US Open was prescient, holding up a banner before John McEnroe’s encounter with Ilie Nastase that warned those of a nervous disposition: “This tennis match has been rated ‘R’. No one under 17 admitted without a parent or a guardian.” This was a chaotic match that included Nastase being disqualified and then reinstated, and the umpire being ordered from the chair, an 18-minute free-for-all when the crowd hurled insults and beer cans, and the New York cops stepping on court to prevent the possibility of a riot. It was McEnroe’s dawdling between points that so infuriated Nastase, and the Romanian protested about the slow play by pretending to sleep on the baseline by using his racket as a pillow. The umpire warned Nastase, then docked him a penalty point, and, as the player later seemingly refused to continue, the official felt as though he had no option but to announce: “Default Mr Nastase – game, set and match, Mr McEnroe.”
The cans and the obscenities began dropping out of the night sky, the NYPD took up position on the court to try to calm the mob, and the tournament officials arrived to both reinstate Nastase and to demand that the umpire relinquish his position. McEnroe, who had earlier imagined that Nastase being defaulted had given him a victory, made sure of his progress with a four-set victory over the Eastern European.
4. A transsexual competes in New York: In a previous life, Renee Richards had been a male amateur player and eminent Manhattan eye surgeon called Richard Raskind, and it took a ruling in her favour from the New York Supreme Court for her to be allowed to compete in the women’s tournament at the 1977 US Open. Richards, who had a son before his marriage ended in divorce, had a sex-change operation in 1975, but she had been prohibited by the United States Tennis Association from appearing in the ladies’ singles in 1976 with some of the female players, those who had been born women, complaining that she would have had an unfair physical advantage over them.
The following year, Richards sued and the court ruled that she had the legal right to feature at the grand slam, and she was drawn to play Britain’s Virginia Wade, the Wimbledon champion, in the first round. Richards, who had made five appearances in the men’s competition between 1953 and 1960, lost in straight sets to Wade. Richards, who reached the world’s top 20 as a female professional player, took issue with anyone who suggested that she had switched sexes in order to further a career in the sport, since she argued that she had the operation for her own mental and emotional well-being. “I’m kind of bitter about people saying that I did this to make money. It just isn’t so. I was pretty well off as a physician and I’m a pretty poor as a tennis pro,” Richards once said. After her playing career, she continued to be involved in the women’s game, coaching Martina Navratilova.
5. Even John McEnroe, someone who knows as much about swearing and bad behaviour as anyone who has ever gripped a racket at Flushing Meadows, suggested that “all hell broke loose” on the night that Serena Williams intimidated a lineswoman on the Arthur Ashe Stadium. The Californian, who had just been called for a foot-fault to give Kim Clijsters a match point in their semi-final at the 2009 US Open, had everyone reaching for the asterisks and the bleeping-machines as she told the official, amid plenty of f-words, that she had half a mind to stuff a tennis ball down her throat. Williams was punished with a point penalty, giving Clijsters the match.
At the time, Williams’ apologies were less than convincing, and a few months later, when discussing her punishment of a suspended ban, and a fine of around £100,000, half of which was suspended, she complained that the tennis authorities had overreacted over her outburst in New York. “I got fined more than American football players who beat up people, punch people, break their necks and kill people. It’s a joke and I’m not afraid to say it’s a joke either,” she has said. Some have told Williams that the incident has turned them on to following women’s tennis for the first time. “A lot of people say that it was the coolest thing they have ever seen. I think that it is a little bit ridiculous. They say that after I did that, they now watch tennis, and I’m like, ‘cool’. It was what it was.”
6. “A fight broke out in the nosebleeds” – that was how the New York Daily News reported fans brawling during a Novak Djokovic match at the 2010 US Open. Play was interrupted because of the scuffling, with eyewitnesses reporting that the fight in the Arthur Ashe Stadium started when a female fan and her father became upset at a male spectator’s swearing. “It was a hot night in New York,” said a spokesman for the tournament. “These things happen.”
7. For many British observers, Pete Sampras’ victory over Andre Agassi in the final of the 2002 US Open, which brought him his fourteenth grand slam title, shall always be remembered for the misplaced mid-tournament analysis from Greg Rusedski. He observed that the American was a museum piece, “a great player from the past” who was now a step and a half slower than he had been at his peak, and that, “I would be surprised if he won his next match”. Rusedski’s comments came in the moments after his third-round defeat to Sampras, and the 31-year-old would later retort: “Against him, I didn’t really need to be a step and a half quicker.”
And they looked ever more foolish as Sampras, who was attempting to win his first slam title since the 2000 Wimbledon Championships, moved through the rounds, going on to defeat the Las Vegan in the final. “To beat a rival like Andre is a storybook ending and it might be nice to stop,” Sampras said at the time. “My head is spinning.” It was to be his final appearance on the tour, leaving him with a record number of slam titles, though, within the decade, he would be surpassed by Roger Federer.
8. She was the girl with the pigtails and the killer tennis game. At the age of four, Tracy Austin was on the cover of World Tennis magazine. “When Tracy was eight,” her mother Jeanne has said, “she would beat the best local ladies at the local tennis club and then go over to the baby-sitting area to play in the sand-box.” Before she went through puberty, she was appearing regularly on the pages of Sports Illustrated, and when she was 16, and still in pigtails, she defeated Chris Evert, the champion for the previous four summers, to win the 1979 US Open title and her first grand slam title.
After an interview on Good Morning America, she returned to her high school in California to start her junior year. “I was just a normal kid who loved tennis,” said Austin. The received wisdom on Austin is that her early retirement was because of tennis burn-out, but the reality was that she stopped playing in her mid-twenties because of a chronic back condition. It was soon after Austin won a second US Open title, in 1981, that she started suffering pain in her back. The last of her attempted comebacks ended with a car accident when a driver jumped a red light and slammed into her vehicle at 65mph. She was fortunate to survive, but she would never make an impact in the professional game again.
9. Greg Rusedski’s run at the 1997 US Open, when he reached the final, did not receive the attention from Britain’s general public that it might have done, as the tournament coincided with the funeral of Princess Diana. Rusedski, who watched the coverage of the funeral from his hotel room in Manhattan, and who played his matches with a black ribbon pinned to his shirt, made his first appearance in a slam final, losing to Australia’s Pat Rafter. It was widely supposed that Rusedski could go on appear in many more grand slam final, and possibly even win a major, but that never happened.
Still, if there was one consolation for Rusedski it came at the end of the season, at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards show. That came at the height of Rusedski’s rivalry with Tim Henman, when they were competing for public recognition as well as for titles, ranking points and endorsement contracts. The Englishman came second, with the Canadian-born Rusedski winning the trophy. Rusedski never reached the prize-giving weekend at Flushing Meadows again; he made the fourth round once, and on his last four visits to New York City, he lost his opening match, including the last time to Tim Henman in 2006.
10. Roger Federer curses like a New York taxi driver. Federer had looked in command against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 final but he became increasingly agitated. At one stage Federer complained to the umpire, Jake Garner, that Del Potro was taking too long to decide whether he was going to challenge a call or not. When Garner seemed to suggest that Federer should stop complaining, the microphones picked up the Swiss telling the official: “Don’t tell me to be quiet, okay? When I want to talk, I’ll talk. I don’t give a s*** what he said.”