The largest sporting event that hits the city each year is the US Open Tennis Championships. The two-week long competition, which is currently in full swing, draws well over a half a million to its venue in Flushing Meadows.
But few know its roots were far more serene before it jumped to its present 47-acre site in 1978. Then 20 years later, it built the world’s largest tennis stadium—the 24,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills Gardens was the home of the tournament, even decades before it became an Open Championships in 1968—when pros were then allowed to compete with amateurs.
With grounds one-quarter the size of Flushing Meadows, the WSTC was our Wimbledon—dozens of grass courts, framed by a grand clubhouse on one end and a 13,000-seat Horseshoe stadium on the other end—across which every player traversed by foot, mingling with the crowds to get to and from their matches.
It was a time before security was a concern, when you could come face to face with your favorite players, Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, even John McEnroe to say hi and maybe have them sign a tennis ball. It made coming to Forest Hills far more intimate than the zoo that is the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
That has all changed.
But what hasn’t changed is the Club’s setting in a beautiful Tudor-styled landmarked neighborhood that’s something out of England. The community was planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, who gave us Central and Prospect Parks. With its very green curved streets lined by single family houses and row homes, framed by old graceful trees, full of unusually shaped parks, and arched walkways, Forest Hills Gardens is one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods that’s worth a visit any time.
Olmsted’s son designed the WSTC, which opened in 1915. And for more than a half a century, amateurs competed at the Club for the US National Championships. The place also hosted Davis Cup, the Wightman/Fed Cup, and World Team Tennis matches. Because Forest Hills was always the last of the four major tournaments each year, it’s where Grand Slam champions are crowned. Only five players in history ever won all four majors.
In 1960, the WSTC started hosting an annual summer music festival before the tournament began, which still runs today. While you can see some of your favorite oldies, in those early years, local boys Simon and Garfunkel came to play and for two nights in August 1964, the Beatles lit up the stadium—a full year before they rocked Shea Stadium.
Next year, the West Side Tennis Club will be celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the stadium. Plans are in the works so stay tuned and make a point of coming out to see where the championships began and to discover its remarkable neighborhood, which offers a respite from the city for the price of a subway ride.