US Open Tennis History

The History of the US Open

The US Open is the second oldest of the tennis majors, and sport doesn’t come any more “major” than the North American Grand Slam. US Open 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the tournament in its present format but the National Tennis Championships date back to 1881.

Wimbledon predates the US Open by four years, but the American major has actually been held more times due to its English counterpart being suspended by Britain’s involvement in two World Wars.

Some of the greatest games and the greatest names of tennis have entered the history books of the US Open tournament. One of the biggest sporting events in the world, the annual contest has a rich history, culture and tradition.

But, just how did the greatest show in tennis transform from a Victorian pastime to today’s global spectacle watched by millions?

Tennis: The Genteel Victorian Lawn Game

Tennis was “invented” in England in the 1870s. The new recreation of Sphairistike derived from an early Middle Ages game and also went by the name of “lawn tennis”. Sphairistike (the Ancient Greek term for “ball skill” was soon dropped) was available to buy in a box set which contained rackets, balls and everything the Victorian player would need to fashion a court.

The popularity of the new pastime grew quickly. It was first brought to America by a Miss Mary Outerbridge who had seen it played in the British colony of Bermuda. Mary and her sister played the first ever game of tennis in the United States and soon set up a club for their new pursuit.

The game continued to capture the imagination of the North American middle classes and similar tennis clubs sprung up around the country. A convention in New York in 1881 founded the US National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA).

The first official championships of the association were held at the newly built Newport Casino. Completed in 1880, despite its name, the complex was never a gambling establishment. The club was a social retreat which housed a theatre, bowling alley, a restaurant, gentleman’s lodge and tennis courts.

The inaugural tournament attracted 25 participants and was won by Dick Sears. Sears would go on to be victorious in the first seven championships.

1915 and an Iconic New home for US Tennis

By the 1910s, the tennis championships had outgrown Newport and the USNLTA relocated to the West Side tennis club in Forest Hills a few miles across town.

The tournament was still restricted to members of the association and remained a male-only competition. A women’s championship had been taking place at the Philadelphia Cricket Club since 1887.

By 1923, the success of the US National Championships necessitated the construction of a new stadium at Forest Hills. This 14,000-seat horseshoe-shaped concrete stadium still stands today. In its heyday of the 1950s and 60s, the venue also hosted huge concerts featuring the likes of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and Diana Ross.

The Open Era of US Tennis

In 1968, the assorted tennis tournaments which made up the national championships were consolidated, and professional players were allowed to compete for the first time. Forest Hills was the venue for the new competition and its first winner was African-American player Arthur Ashe.

Ashe was still serving in the US Army when he won the inaugural Open championship. Because of his amateur status he could not accept the $14,000 prize money. The cash was instead handed to runner-up Tom Okker. Ashe was the first black man to win the major and his name still adorns the main stadium of today’s National Tennis Center.

The US Open: A Tournament of Firsts

The US Open has always been renowned as the tournament of innovation. In the 1970s, the Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to introduce a tie-break to settle a set tied at 6-6.

In 1973, the US major blazed a trail by awarding equal prize money to both male and female competitors. Such a move was unheard of at the time and set a precedent for many other sporting events.

In 1975, the event introduced floodlights to enable evening matches for the first time. Games played under the New York sky at night remain notably atmospheric events and attract huge numbers.

The US Open Moves to The National Tennis Centre

The tournament moved from Forest Hills in 1978. The National Tennis Center was built in Flushing Meadows, three miles to the north. The site is former marshland which was reclaimed and previously hosted World Fairs. Four-time champion Billie Jean King lends her name to the centre.

The late 70s and 1980s were a golden era in US Open history. Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe all shared the men’s title during the period, as the greatest names in tennis established Flushing Meadows as the world’s biggest tennis stage. Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf did the same for the women’s game.

Great male champions since include Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic with Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters heading up the female hall of fame. Take a look at Bet UK's predictions for the Men's Favourites for the US Open and Women's Favourites for the US Open.

The competition has enjoyed huge investment in the stadia and facilities at the national centre in recent years to really reaffirm the US Open as one of the greatest sporting shows on earth.

For an updated guide to the US Open, take a look at our Beginners Guide to the US Open.