The crowd leaned in and held a collective breath.
On one side was Lleyton Hewitt, the aging, scrappy Aussie, still a champion 14 years removed from his US Open title run. On the other side was the future: fellow countryman Bernard Tomic.
Up two sets and 5-3, the younger Tomic looked to usher in a new era of Aussie tennis during the first week of this year’s US Open by putting away the 34-year-old playing his final Grand Slam in New York.
What happened next was both vintage Hewitt and fitting for the surroundings: the Open’s Grandstand court, perhaps sports most legendary appendage, bolted as it is to the side of Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The Grandstand is the heralded smaller brother of both Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe stadiums, nearly any seat seemingly as close to the action as it gets. No seat assignments here either – which is why New York’s tennis savvy legions have waited (sometimes patiently, sometimes not) for the gates to open for the day and dash to camp out there. Tennis there over the years has been stunning by day and often legendary by night, playing spectator to innumerable oddities, epics and controversy.
Like Hewitt, the court is moving on to its next stage, a new Grandstand going up on the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s southwest corner in 2016, part of the overall modernization of the grounds. While the cornerstone of those plans is the construction of a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium (for 2016) and a new Louis Armstrong Stadium (for 2018), a new Grandstand means a new chapter in Open history.
For the USTA, the new stadium also means a more comfortable experience for fans and modern facilities for players, officials say.
“You’re talking about stadiums that were built in the late 70s within the confines of structures that were built for the 1964 World’s Fair,” Danny Zausner, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s chief operating officer, said in an interview earlier this year. “The court surfaces have always been as good as it gets, but for players, they’re dealing with waiting rooms, first-aid, medical areas and infrastructure within those stadiums that are terribly dated.
“The fan experience ... has been phenomenal – people love Louis and Grandstand matches with a more intimate feel. These new stadiums will be state of the art. The fan experience will be the same, if not better. For the players, it will be a tremendous improvement.”
The Grandstand’s place in tennis lore is worth remembering, compared to courts No. 1 and 2 at Wimbledon and even the 17th hole at the TPC at Sawgrass. Intimacy and quirkiness define all of these. In the Grandstand, it’s the decibels that bounce off Armstrong that create a deafening roar. And when word gets around that something special is happening there – which seems to often happen around midnight – interlopers abandon seats in Armstrong to stand shoulder to shoulder and peer over a railing to look down on the madness.
“It’s the intimacy and it’s the perch,” said Cindy Shmerler, a longtime tennis broadcaster.
Or as New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica put it: “You feel like you’re watching a tennis match in your living room. It’s not any more complicated than that. It’s the single best place to watch a tennis match at any major. I sit there and the years disappear and all of a sudden Vitas (Gerulaitis) is out there and the place is going crazy.”
Of course, what makes the place legendary are matches that will never be forgotten. Steve Flink, a tennis historian and Tennis Channel commentator, named two Grandstand epics that came to him immediately: Steffi Graf’s defeat of Pam Shriver in 1985 that took three tiebreak sets, and the 1981 five-set Gerulaitis victory over an up-and-comer named Ivan Lendl. “You knew how great [Lendl] was going to be,” Flink said.
Tom Gullikson, a former American pro who now works for the USTA, played memorably on the Grandstand – the only match in US Open history, at least for Gullikson, that has never ended. He explains: 1986, third-round singles against American Matt Anger. At 35, Gullikson was playing in his final Open. A sentimental favorite, he’d battled in the first two rounds to take those matches in five sets.
Down two sets against Anger, Gullikson was on the verge of yet another comeback and the crowd basked in it. Down 4-5 in the fifth, 30-40, match point for Anger. Gullikson swung a serve out wide. Anger tried to pass down the line but “Gully” followed with a “perfect” volley on the line cross court, he recalled in an interview.
Deuce. Another chance. But then a voice from above: “Overruled,” the chair umpire said. “Game, set, match, Anger.” Gullikson had tears streaming down his face and he yelled at the umpire, shaking the chair. “This is the last match of my career!” he said. The crowd jeered.
Gullikson said he and everyone else in the stadium knew the ball was in. “It’s still 4-5, deuce,” Gullikson said. “It’s the longest match in the history of the US Open.”
Hewitt’s end had more finality. As it is for Grandstand – which saw a spirited five-set comeback from American Donald Young among other emotional moments this year – the Australian’s end shocked the capacity crowd that hoped to urge Hewitt to one more day. He pushed back from 5-3, won the next two sets and had two match points in the fifth. Instead, the younger Tomic showed gumption, hitting booming ground strokes to level the fifth and eventually take the match.
The crowd was stunned, silent. Then they stood, applauding. Hewitt glanced at the crowd, waved his hand and exited, signaling the end of one era and the beginning of another.