This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US Open, we’re counting down the 50 most memorable moments in the history of America’s Grand Slam. Today, we take a look back at No. 3.
During the tumultuous year of 1968 when the first US Open was contested at Forest Hills, the tennis world celebrated as professionals joined amateurs for the first time under one tent. At long last, they were all together – competing for the top honors searching for supremacy.
In the first two major Open events for the men, the titles were taken unsurprisingly by a pair of enduring champions from Australia who had both been dominant figures in the pro game for a long time. Ken Rosewall, appropriately nicknamed “The Little Master,” toppled Rod Laver in the final of the French Open. At Wimbledon, Laver came through by routing Tony Roche in the final.
The experts almost unanimously assessed that Laver was the clear favorite at the US Open, while Rosewall was the next strongest candidate would win the first US Open. They were, after all, widely regarded as the two best players in the world. But too many people were underestimating the No. 5 seed, an amateur who happened to be a lieutenant in the United States Army who was blazing through that summer like no other player.
Arthur Ashe had been to the semifinals of Wimbledon, and thereafter he had been unstoppable on grass courts leading up to the big one at Forest Hills, winning the Pennsylvania Grass Courts and the U.S. Nationals at Longwood convincingly on his way to New York.
Coupled with his stellar play, Ashe was the beneficiary of some good fortune. Cliff Drysdale, the No. 16 seed, knocked out Laver in a five set, round of 16 encounter. Ashe had never beaten Laver, and would not do so until 1974. Now the window was wide open. He moved past Drysdale in four sets, and then came from behind to defeat Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner in another four set duel.
In the final, Ashe took on “The Flying Dutchman” Tom Okker. As 1971 US Open champion Stan Smith recalled, “Arthur had maybe the best serve in the game and when he was on he could beat anybody.”
Ashe was on. He beat Okker in a beautifully played five set final, winning 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
Herbert Warren Wind—the erudite sports journalist for the New Yorker, wrote, “I cannot conceive of a more popular victory. Ashe is not only a very fine young man, but a very rare young man. Intelligent, calm, honest and natural, he is the antithesis of the spoiled American tennis hero. There couldn’t have been a better winner of our historic first Open.”
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