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Steve Flink: A Perfect Ceremony

8/25/2008 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS--- Out they came onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, champion after champion, a sterling cast of men and women showing up to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the U.S. Open. Leading the way was the elegant and dignified Jeanne Moutoussamy Ashe, wife of the first ever United States Open champion at Forest Hills. She was joined by her daughter Camera. Next up was Virginia Wade, the first female to capture the Open. The next player to walk out under the lights was none other than Rod Laver, the only two time winner of the Grand Slam. Each and every one of these individuals was given a genuinely warm reception, but there were more esteemed winners to follow.

Stan Smith, the 1971 champion, stepped forward, and then the renowned Billie Jean King was given a huge ovation. Ilie Nastase, the rambunctious Romanian who took the crown in 1972, was the next in line, and then it was time for six-time champion and perennial favorite Chris Evert to move out among the honorees and receive a rousing round of applause. After Evert, 1973 champion John Newcombe, 1977 victor Guillermo Vilas, and two time former winner Tracy Austin were greeted warmly. Perhaps the most unabashed reception was reserve for New Yorker John McEnroe, a four time Open singles champion.

And yet, the excitement was not over. Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker, Gabriela Sabatini and Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Marat Safin all stepped into the spotlight. So, too, did the Williams sisters and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova. And then the man who is hoping to win a fifth consecutive title this year was the last player to hear and feel how the fans felt on an idyllic evening at the start of the last major event of 2008. Roger Federer was greeted so effusively that it seemed as if the sport's followers were cheering for an American rather than a Swiss hero.

All in all, the 40th Anniversary celebration of the U.S. Open last night was an impeccably staged event. The introductions of the players were crisp and fitting. All of the players seemed to enjoy the moment. The fans were appreciative that none of the players spoke. Instead, they briefly paraded around the stadium, waving at the audience, conveying their emotions through their expressions and their camaraderie. It was a terrific evening for the game and for the event.

Sitting out there taking this all in, my mind was racing swiftly into the past. Of the 40 U.S. Opens played from 1968-2007, I missed only one (1970). So I was fortunate to be around for so many compelling times across the years at the Open. If ever a man was right for a time, and a player was made for an occasion, it was Arthur Ashe in 1968. He fired the imagination of the public with his spectacularly unpredictable game, and his imperturbable demeanor. I was 16 when he beat Tom Okker in five gripping sets in the 1968 Open final. He won 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, and through it all he was typically poised and quietly charismatic.

I was sitting with a friend, cheering on Ashe whole-heartedly. Okker, known as "The Flying Dutchman" because he was so fast on his feet, was a formidable player with an excellent topspin forehand. He had beaten the great Ken Rosewall to reach the championship match, and he deserved to be playing for the title. But I wanted Ashe to win so badly that I found it agonizing every time Okker came up with brilliant passing shorts or deft volleys. I remember an older man turning to me at one stage and saying, "I know you are rooting hard for Ashe, but Okker is a great player and you should give him more credit. " I was embarrassed, realizing that I must have aggravated this man no end with my fervent support for Ashe.

But, in the end, I was delighted when Ashe triumphed, and it was a crucial moment in the history of American sports. It was not just that Ashe had become the first African American to win a major singles event in tennis, but it was his unfailingly sporting manner, his larger than life appeal, his unsurpassed style that appealed so much to me. More importantly, Ashe transcended tennis and took the game into the hearts and minds of fans who would never have paid any attention to that sport. His triumph in the first U.S. Open was just what the game needed at the start of the Open Era. He was much larger than the game he played.

Rod Laver was another towering figure whose influence stretched well beyond the confines of a tennis court. Laver had won his first Grand Slam as an amateur in 1962, but his 1969 Grand Slam was far more impressive. It remains the single greatest tennis achievement of any male or female player in modern times. Laver had won the Australian Open at the start of that season, then peaked in Paris with a straight set, final round triumph over Rosewall, and then took apart John Newcombe in a four set Wimbledon final. At the U.S. Open, Laver upended Tony Roche in a four set final. Coming from a set down to win that match, Laver's shot making that day was almost unimaginable. I could not believe the good fortune I had in attending that final.

One of my fondest recollections at the Open was in 1980. Evert had won the tournament from 1975-78 before the rapidly ascending Tracy Austin took her crown away in 1979. At 16, the precocious Austin, a virtual mirror image of Evert from the baseline, was unstoppable. She went on to beat Evert the next four times they played after the Open. So when Austin and Evert collided in the 1980 semifinals at Flushing Meadows, Tracy was the overwhelming favorite. Had Evert lost to her nemesis that day, it might have altered the course of her career, and set her back immeasurably. It was a make or break moment, a must win situation.

They commenced that match at 11AM under drizzly skies, and played on into brightness as the match moved into the afternoon. Austin raced to a 4-0 lead but Evert fought back to make the first set close. Then she came back to win 4-6, 6-1, 6-1. A day later, she stopped Hana Mandlikova for her fifth of six Open titles. What remains permanently in the eye of my mind is the sight of Chris walking into an office between the old stadium and grandstand courts to call her father and coach Jimmy Evert at their home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

She said, "Dad, I won", before bursting into tears, and then handed the phone to her mother. Mrs. Evert told her husband that Chris wanted him there for the final the following day, and he did come up. For the first time, Jimmy Evert watched his daughter win a Grand Slam event in person.

Another enduring memory for me was the 2002 U.S. Open, when Pete Sampras closed the curtain on his illustrious career by defeating Andre Agassi in the final. He collected a 14th major in the process, and silenced his critics who said he could no longer come through when it counted. When it was over, Sampras went into the trainer's room for a long while before his press conference. He then walked across the hallway into the locker room. As Sampras gazed around that room, it was as if he already knew he would not be back as a player. The room was almost empty and quiet, but Sampras seemed to get a real kick out of soaking in the atmosphere one last time. As a reporter who had always admired Sampras not only for his supreme talent and towering achievements, but also for his immense stature as a sportsman and a man of fundamental decency, I was glad I was there to see him celebrate a monumental triumph.

There are so many other players and remembrances I could convey about the Open through the years. I don't think I have ever seen a more riveting women's match than Billie Jean King's 1974 final round win over Evonne Goolagong at Forest Hills. King came from a set down and 0-3 in the third to win 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. The place was packed. The tennis was electric. The fans were beside themselves with emotion and appreciation as they watched these two women produce magic time and again in a stirring battle. It seldom gets any better than it did that day.

Before closing this account, I must mention a number of "Super Saturday" sessions at the Open that elevated the sport and the players almost beyond belief. In 1980, Bjorn Borg came from two sets down to beat Johan Kriek in five sets. Then Evert came from behind to defeat Mandlikova for her crown. And it all ended that day with a singularly enriching John McEnroe-Jimmy Connors seminal. Connors had lost the first set and was down set point at 4-5 in the second. He then won 11 games in a row but still lost the match in a fifth set tie-break. What a show they put on!

Four years later, perhaps the single greatest day in tennis history was played out on the hard courts at the U.S. Open. On September 8, 1984, Stan Smith and John Newcombe battled for three terrific sets in the senior men's final. Then Ivan Lendl rallied from match point down to beat Pat Cash in the semifinals. Navratilova struck back from a set down to beat Evert in a superb women's final, and McEnroe ousted Connors in a pulsating five set semifinal showdown. In 1995, probably the most under-rated "Super Saturday" featured Sampras defeating Jim Courier in four tight sets, Steffi Graf eclipsing Monica Seles in a three set final, and Andre Agassi stopping Boris Becker in four sets.

All across the last forty years, I have thoroughly enjoyed the U.S. Open. From 1968-77, it was played at Forest Hills. It was held on grass from 1968-74, contested on clay from 1975-77, and has been on hard courts ever since. It is arguably the premier sports event in America. And, if we are lucky, the next 40 years will be every bit as good as the past four decades.

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