The first time the United States Open was played at the new U.S.T.A. National Tennis Center in Queens, N.Y., in 1978, the final was played under the lights. First-seeded Bjorn Borg had just lost to Jimmy Connors, and Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin, was furious.
“How can you have a championship like this,” Bergelin said. “These lights, so bright and far away, everybody running in and out, the airplanes. This is not a tournament, but a circus, a circus! To play at night, this is the worst.”
Night tennis at the Open was in its infancy in 1978, having arrived just three years before while the tournament was being played at the patrician West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. Those lights were part of the game’s great transformation in the 1970s, which would loudly bring tennis from the dainty periphery to the sizzling center. Night tennis at the Open gave people who worked by day the chance to see the sport up close.
“It was a great atmosphere to have people watching the tennis at night,” said Stan Smith, the 1971 U.S. Open champion who played, and lost, the first Open night match. “It was exciting, a totally different atmosphere.”
But the path was bumpy. The lights at Forest Hills were hardly first-rate. And following the lead of the world No. 1 Borg, many players dreaded playing at night because of the difficulty seeing the ball, the loud New York crowds and the ambient noise of the city.
The night games did indeed seem to bring in a more boisterous crowd. In 1979, Ilie Nastase committed so many acts of gamesmanship in a match with John McEnroe that he was defaulted by Frank Hammond, the chair umpire. The crowd became so angry at Hammond that it threw beer cans, cups and trash.
“That match brought out all that made New York and night tennis remarkable,” said Mary Carillo, a former player who grew up in Queens and is now a Tennis Channel analyst, in addition to working for NBC and HBO Sports. “That match let people know what made tennis special at night.”
Three years in a row, Borg had lost a New York night match to the American left-handers Connors, Tanner and McEnroe, players he had beaten at Wimbledon, the contrast between pristine European daylight and cluttered American evening.
Ted Robinson, a Queens native who first called matches for USA Network at the 1987 U.S. Open and continues to do so for Tennis Channel, said night tennis helped the Open become like New York.
“Loud, rambunctious, screaming, wanting more, picking sides, yelling,” he said. “It was awesome.
“There was nothing like it in all of tennis. And it was New York. You had not only to beat the best players, but you had to beat New York.”
The Open’s first prince of darkness was Connors, who won the tournament five times and resurrected himself in 1991 for a great run at the age of 39, reaching the semifinals. Robinson said that the volume of noise during Connors’ matches sounded like an N.F.L. game.
Significant improvements also made night tennis more palatable. In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins of New York arranged for planes taking off from La Guardia Airport to not use Runway 13, the path that was close to the tennis center and that caused court-rattling noise.
The opening of Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997 greatly enhanced the quality of the lights.
“That was brighter than daylight,” said Jay Snyder, the U.S. Open tournament director from 1994-2002. “And all of a sudden, people wanted to play at night.”
More than 30 years after Borg’s anguished evenings, another accomplished European, Roger Federer, appreciated the noisy crowd. In the quarterfinals of the 2014 Open, he drew on crowd support to fight off a deficit of two sets to love and a pair of match points. “They definitely got me through the match out here tonight,” Federer said that evening.
From clothing-line debuts by Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, to the understated player Todd Martin running through the crowd giving high fives, evenings — or more accurately, early mornings — at the Open are now quintessentially New York.
Or as the poet Ezra Pound wrote about New York, “No urban night is like the night there.”