After the advent of Open era tennis in 1968, the U.S. Open spent a decade trying to establish its unique Grand Slam identity. Peter Bodo, tennis historian and author of The Courts of Babylon documented the following changes:
The U.S. Open could not tout tradition like Wimbledon, and its grass courts were soon ripped away and replaced by green clay. But that surface lasted only three years. It was too comfortable for European or South American stars like Bjorn Borg, Manuel Orantes and Guillermo Vilas. It did not cater to Americans.
Other changes were made to make the U.S. Open a spectacular event, something that could attract the interest of general sports fans. Matches were tightened with tiebreakers, and floodlights allowed for night matches and big TV deals. In 1978, The venue was moved to the new, enormous USTA Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows.
The new changes were a spectacular success for the brand and visibility of U.S. tennis. It was primed as a rock-star sporting event, built around brash, compatriot superstars Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe who would combine to win the next seven U.S. Open titles.
The modern game of tennis at the U.S. Open was built on superstars, and the demand is no less important in 2014.
Superstars and Flashy Tennis
American tastes for sports superstars are insatiable. They like their athletes to have larger-than-life personalities and appealing styles to play tennis. It’s just as important, perhaps more, in how a tennis player performs as it is for him or her to win.
Numerous sporting options for American audiences are hard-hitting, filled with highlight packages and viral replays. The general sports fan is entertained by the violent collisions in football, slam dunks in basketball and showmanship of fringe-sports like professional wrestling. The action must be constant and the preferred players big-name gladiators.
In contrast, European sports audiences are more patient with their sports, enjoying the choreography of soccer and appreciating tennis skills on red clay. They also love their superstars, but with a more eclectic blend of the superstar’s skills and personality. Grace and excellence are as recognized and revered as its heritage of renaissance artists and thinkers. Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg embodied traditional skills, but with their own innovative adjustments and cool demeanor.
1980s Tennis Chill
Why would the U.S. Open in the mid-1980s turn into a cold front? By 1985, Czech-born superstar Ivan Lendl had dethroned McEnroe and dominated the rest of the decade with the No. 1 ranking. He did not do it with bombastic personality or serve-and-volley sizzle, but his forehand helped create more powerful baseline tennis.
The American reception for Lendl’s tennis ranged from indifference to harsh criticism. Sports Illustrated put Lendl on the cover for winning the 1986 U.S. Open, but with the cover’s damning theme: “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” He was disparaged for what he was not.
In the 1988 U.S. Open, Lendl and his No. 1 ranking took on No. 2 Mats Wilander who would win his third Grand Slam title of the year (the last time this would occur until Roger Federer in 2004). But there was little interest in the five-set classic, perhaps the greatest match in U.S. Open final history, dismissed and quickly forgotten.
Wilander was an intelligent player who used the entire court for his finesse baseline play. In that particular final, he attacked Lendl’s backhand with all varieties of slice shots and surprising serve-and-volley change-ups, outlasting him in the fifth and final set.
Yet, CBS commentator Tony Trabert pointed out in the first set that the crowd was not excited by their baseline approach.
The U.S. Open crowd wanted powerful serve-and-volley from young Boom Boom Boris Becker, Edberg, aging McEnroe or charismatic Andre Agassi whose media-induced message proclaimed that image is everything.
Twenty-First Century Superstars
In the 1990s, American tennis audiences preferred Agassi over the more decorated legend Pete Sampras.
By the next millennium, they would embrace the beautiful game of Roger Federer and the bullish bravado of Rafael Nadal.
This recent golden age of tennis was built as much on the Federer-Nadal personalities and rivalry as their talent. The age of superstars was a boon for tennis everywhere, including the U.S. Open, despite the dwindling success of U.S. men’s talent and success.
The U.S. Open has also appreciated superstars in women’s tennis. There was greater interest when Chris Evert, Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams and Serena Williams played their best tennis. There was room for Martina Navratilova’s aggressive net play and Gabriela Sabatini’s charisma.
As the 2014 U.S. Open dawns, it is more necessary than ever that superstars make a run for the title, especially with Nadal sidelined by injury.
Suppose that Federer is eliminated early because one day he plays older than his age.
To a lesser extent, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray need to capture headlines, or most American sports fans will not hesitate to look more at their preseason football schedules. Many of them have not tuned in to watch Simona Halep or Agnieszka Radwanska. How many know that Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov might be the future of men’s tennis?
The U.S. Open is banking on Federer, Serena and Maria Sharapova. It could determine the success or failure of TV ratings and tennis crowds. It needs name brands, tennis style and big stories.
No offense to a possible finals match-up of Petra Kvitova vs. Angelique Kerber. All apologies to Milos Raonic vs. David Ferrer. New York wants to holler for something a lot bigger.