Ranking the 10 Most Memorable Moments in US Open History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistAugust 30, 2014

Ranking the 10 Most Memorable Moments in US Open History

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    The first-round upset achieved by CiCi Bellis, a 15-year-old American, provided a magic moment in this year's U.S. Open. But will it stand the test of time and hold a place in our memory, like other events from past U.S. Opens?

    Emotional events, surprising results, landmark developments and controversial incidents have brought us some unforgettable moments since the U.S. National Championships became an Open event in 1968.

    Obviously, assessing memorable events is a subjective undertaking, and we included eight noteworthy events that barely missed the cut before attempting to rank the 10 most memorable moments in U.S. Open history.

Memorable Moments That Missed the Cut

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    Ron Frehm/Associated Press

    Final Borg vs. McEnroe, 1981 finals: Memorable for what it represented, John McEnroe's four-set victory in the 1981 finals was the final official tournament match between McEnroe, who was 22, and Bjorn Borg, who was 25. Borg left the court without sticking around for the post-match presentations.

    Williams sisters meet, 2001: Venus Williams beat sister Serena in the first Grand Slam singles finals in more than a century that featured two siblings. That 2001 match was also the first time two black players faced each other in a Grand Slam finals.

    The first U.S. Open, 1968: Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to win the U.S. Championship, which was open to professionals for the first time in 1968. Ashe, an amateur at the time, received $20 per diem pay, while runner-up Tom Okker, who lost to Ashe in five sets, took home the $14,000 first prize.

    Rod Laver gets second slam, 1969: Rod Laver donned spike shoes in the first set to beat Tony Roche in four sets on wet grass courts in the 1969 finals to become the first and only player to complete two Grand Slams.

    Hewitt's words, 2001: Lleyton Hewitt denied accusations that he was being racist in his comments to the chair umpire about an African-American line judge in 2001. In his five-set victory over James Blake, who has an African-American father, Hewitt told the umpire, while complaining about the line judge, "Tell me what the similarity is," according to a Philadelphia Inquirer report.

    Graf's slam, 1988: Steffi Graf became the fifth player (and third woman) to complete a Grand Slam when she beat Gabriela Sabatini in the 1988 finals to finish off her sweep of the four major titles that year. No one has completed a Grand Slam since.

    The shot in 1977: A third-round match between Eddie Dibbs and John McEnroe was interrupted when a spectator was shot in the leg in 1977. The players considered leaving the court, but the match was completed with McEnroe winning.

    Murray's breakthrough, 2012: After failing in his four previous Grand Slam finals, Andy Murray captured his first major title by beating Novak Djokovic in a five-set thriller in the 2012 U.S. Open finals.

10. Tracy Austin Wins 1979 Title at 16

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    Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

    Tracy Austin was on the cover of World Tennis at age 4 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 13. She got to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open when she was just 14.

    Austin ended Chris Evert's 125-match winning streak on clay in May of 1979 when she beat Evert 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 at the Italian Open.

    However, Austin's big breakthrough came in the 1979 U.S. Open, when she beat Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in succession in straight sets to capture her first Grand Slam title at age 16. She is still the youngest winner of the U.S. Open and was the youngest winner of a Grand Slam tournament in the Open Era at the time.

    (Monica Seles was a few weeks younger when she won the 1990 French Open, and Martina Hingis was a few months younger when she won the 1997 Australian Open.)

    Evert had won the U.S. Open four times in a row and was riding a 31-match winning streak in that event heading into her 1979 match with Austin, who beat Evert at her own game from the backcourt.

    Austin's pink tennis dress and pigtails identified her in the 1979 finals, which featured long rallies and minimal aggressive play by two baseliners using wooden rackets. 

    Austin's 1979 victory was memorable not only because of her youth but because her career was so short. She became the No. 1 player in the world in 1980, and she won her second U.S. Open in 1981 at age 18. That was her final Grand Slam title.

    A back injury became a major problem soon thereafter, and she was finished as a top player by the time she was 21.

9. Del Potro Ends Federer's Run, 2009

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    No. 1-ranked Roger Federer had won five straight U.S. Opens and had won both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2009 when he took on Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open finals.

    The 20-year-old, No. 6-ranked Del Potro was playing in his first Grand Slam finals against a player who was in the finals for the 17th time in his last 18 Grand Slam events and had won 15 major titles.

    More significant was the fact that Del Porto was 0-6 in matches against Federer and had not won a set in their three previous matchups on hard courts, including a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 Federer victory at the 2009 Australian Open.

    The first surprise came when Federer, who had won the first set rather routinely, let a 5-4, 30-0 lead slip away in the second set, which was won by Del Potro. Nonetheless, Federer was on the brink of beating Del Porto for a seventh time. leading 5-4 in the fourth set and having a 15-30 lead on Del Potro's serve in the 10th game. But Federer could not close it out.

    Not only did Federer's U.S. Open streak end in the surprising, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 loss, but the usually poised Swiss lost his cool a few times. He argued with the chair umpire on a few occasions, and during one changeover, he used a profanity when addressing the umpire. He said, according to The Associated Press report (h/t USA Today), "Don't tell me to be quiet, OK? When I want to talk, I talk."

    On another occasion, Federer was angered that Del Potro was able to successfully challenge a pivotal second-set line call even though Del Potro had talked to the chair umpire and waited several seconds before lodging his challenge. Federer again complained to the umpire, saying, according to The Guardian"I don't give a [expletive] what he said. Don't [expletive] tell me the rules."

    That match may have marked the end of Federer's dominance in men's tennis. Although he won the 2010 Australian Open, Federer did not have to beat Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic to do it. Federer then went nine consecutive Grand Slam events without a title, getting to the finals only once in that span.

8. Undercurrents of 1995 Women's Final

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    Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

    So much chatter surrounded the 1995 U.S. Open finals between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles that the match almost got lost in the discussion.

    The most memorable aspect of the match was that it was the first meeting between Seles and Graf since a Graf fan stabbed Seles during a match in Germany in March 1993. Seles was only 19 years old and ranked No. 1 at the time. She had already won eight Grand Slam titles, including seven of the last eight she had entered. However, the stabbing injury forced her out of competition for more than two years, and she would win only one more major after the incident.

    Seles' first tournament after the stabbing was the 1995 hard court event in Toronto. The U.S. Open a week later was her first Grand Slam event since winning the 1993 Australian Open. Despite the inactivity, she won the Toronto event and got to the finals of the U.S. Open without the loss of a set.

    But was she playing well enough to beat Graf, who had dominated the women's game in 1995, winning both the French Open and Wimbledon that year?

    There was just as much attention on Graf. She had been bothered by back and foot injuries for much of the tournament, and she had to have her foot X-rayed the day before the finals, according to The Washington Post. 

    But the bigger story surrounding Graf involved her father and manager, Peter Graf. He had recently been imprisoned in Germany for allegedly failing to pay taxes on $1.5 million of Steffi Graf's earnings, according to a Sports Illustrated account. The German press was all over her during the tournament, trying to get her reaction.

    Add all those periphery elements to a rivalry that had become the focus in women's tennis before the stabbing, and you had a memorable event before it even started.

    Graf pulled out a tense, 7-6, 0-6, 6-4 victory over Seles for the 14th of her 22 Grand Slam singles titles. The two players hugged when the match was completed.

7. Kim Clijsters Wins 2009 Title

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    Kim Clijsters and her daughter after 2009 finals
    Kim Clijsters and her daughter after 2009 finalsElise Amendola/Associated Press

    The camera shots of Kim Clijsters with her young daughter after Clijsters became the unlikely winner of the 2009 U.S. Open are etched in many people's minds.

    Clijsters had not played the U.S. Open since 2005, when she won the event before experiencing a series of injuries that took her off the court and forced her to announce her retirement in May 2007.

    She got married and had a baby before returning to competitive tennis in August 2009. She played in two tournaments in August 2009 before entering the U.S. Open as a wild-card entrant. She proceeded to beat Venus Williams, who was ranked No. 3, and Serena Williams, who was No. 2, to get to the finals.

    When Clijsters knocked off Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3 in the finals, she became the first unseeded player to win the U.S. Open and the first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong did it at Wimbledon in 1980.

    “I can’t believe this has happened, it’s still so surreal," Clijsters said, according to the New York Times report. "It’s a great feeling to have, but it’s confusing in a lot of ways that it happened so quickly...It was not really our plan. I just wanted to get back into the rhythm of playing tennis.”

    The comeback and surprising accomplishment were noteworthy, but it was not until Clijsters' 18-month-old daughter, Jada, joined her on court after the match that the moment became locked in time.

6. Andre Agassi's Tearful Farewell, 2006

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    ANN HEISENFELT/Associated Press

    The mental image of Andre Agassi's show of emotion and tearful farewell speech following the final match of his career is difficult to erase.

    It had been well-publicized that the 2006 U.S. Open would be the final tournament in the career of Agassi, a polarizing figure who had won eight Grand Slam titles.

    "Obviously, the story from the 2006 U.S. Open, regardless of what happens, is going to be Andre's last tournament," Andy Roddick was quoted as saying in The Washington Post, which carried the headline "All Eyes on Agassi Farewell Show at Open."

    Agassi won his first two matches of that Open, including a five-set upset of No. 8 seed Marcos Baghdatis in the second round. But he needed injections of painkillers in his back after both wins, according to an ABC News report. He received another injection before his third-round match against qualifier Benjamin Becker, but Agassi was limited physically. He winced and struggled to move throughout that Sunday afternoon match.

    When Becker aced Agassi to finish off a 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 victory, everyone in the crowd of 23,000 stood and cheered. It was not for the winner but for the 36-year-old loser, whose career had ended.

    The standing ovation lasted four minutes. Among those standing were Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf, their children and Becker.

    Agassi slumped to his chair crying while the ovation poured over him. As the applause continued, he walked to center court and blew kisses to the crowd amid his tears. He then asked for the microphone from the CBS commentator Mary Joe Fernandez. With a quivering voice he addressed the crowd:

    Agassi told the crowd, according to The New York Times:

    The scoreboard said I lost today. But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I’ve found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you, and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life.

    Liz Clarke of The Washington Post wrote, "While there have been careers that ended with more glory, few have ended with greater love."

5. Serena Victimized by Bad Calls, 2004

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    If you are wondering what prompted officials to institute video replay for disputed calls, you can probably point to the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati.

    That match is remembered for one colossal officiating error and several smaller mistakes, all of which went against Williams. The one mistake was so blatant, in fact, that it led to three noteworthy actions.

    First, a U.S. Tennis Association official called Williams to apologize for the error. Second, the chair umpire who made the egregious ruling was not allowed to officiate again at the U.S. Open that year. Third, and perhaps most important, the mistake led to the use of instant replay to correct mistakes.

    Capriati won the match 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, but it was a ruling made by chair umpire Mariana Alves in the first game of the final set that provided the memorable moment.

    Serving at deuce in the first game of the third set, Williams hit a backhand winner down the line. Williams was about to serve again, hoping to hold serve by winning the next point, when Alves announced the score as "advantage Capriati."

    The players, the crowd and the television announcers were confused.

    Replays showed that the ball hit inside the sideline and that the line judge had put her palms down, signaling the ball was good. The shot was so clearly in that one television announcer speculated that Alves had merely made a scoring mistake.

    There was no scoring error, but Alves had made a major error by overruling the line judge's call on a shot that landed along the far sideline. Williams argued the call briefly with Alves to no avail, and Williams eventually lost that pivotal game.

    That was the most serious error but not the end of Williams' troubles with the officials that day.

    During the final game of the match, replays showed that two of Williams' shots that were called out were in fact good. Also, a Capriati second serve that was called good was actually out and should have been ruled a double fault.

    Williams did not blame the loss on officials in her post-match press conference. However, tournament referee Brian Early released a statement, which read, according to The New York Times, "Regrettably, the replay on television showed that an incorrect overrule was made by the chair umpire.  A mistake was made, and I have discussed the call with the chair umpire. Ms. Alves, a 31-year-old native of Portugal, is not scheduled to officiate another match during the 2004 U.S. Open."

    The New York Times story also reported that U.S. Tennis Association official Arlen Kantarian called Williams to apologize to her and thank her for the way she handled the situation with the media.

    The story also noted that U.S. Open officials admitted they would look into the use of video replay to correct errors. Two years later, the U.S. Open began using replay for contested calls.

4. Renee Richards' Historic Match

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    Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

    Renee Richards' 6-1, 6-4, first-round loss to No. 3 seeded Virginia Wade in 1977 amounted to a rather routine win for the reigning Wimbledon champion. But the historical and legal significance of the match made it a benchmark event that should be remembered forever.

    Richards was born Richard Raskind, and Raskind played in the men's U.S. National Championships five times between 1953 and 1960 in the pre-Open era, winning first-round matches twice.

    In 1975 Raskind had a sex-change operation and became known as Renee Richards. She played in a few local tennis tournaments as a women but was denied entrance into the women's draw of the 1976 U.S. Open because she refused to take a chromosome test to determine her sex, per 2004 New York Times story. It was the first time tennis officials had instituted a chromosome test as a requirement for entry into the U.S. Open.

    Richards did not give up her fight to play and took the U.S. Tennis Association to court. A New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor two weeks before the 1977 U.S. Open, allowing Richards to play. Richards' participation was a breakthrough for transgender rights and a major news story.

    However, some wondered whether the 6'2", 43-year-old Richards would have a physical advantage against other female players. Some players, including Chris Evert, admitted being apprehensive about Richards' presence.

    “It was a little uncomfortable to go into the locker room," Evert told The New York Times in a 2012 story. "Renee would be in there...do you look, do you not look? But she was just such a gracious person, with no resentment about the press coverage. It was a life lesson and definitely made me a better person.”

    The loss to Wade quieted notions that Richards would dominate the women's tour. However, Richards and partner Betty-Ann Stuart got to the finals of the women's doubles bracket that year.

3. Serena's 2009 Tirade

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Perhaps no match had a more unusual and controversial ending than Kim Clijsters' 6-4, 7-5 victory over Serena Williams in the 2009 semifinals.

    The match was already attracting attention because the No. 2-seeded Williams was probably the pretournament favorite, while Clijsters had recently come out of retirement to make a surprising run to the semifinals as a wild-card entry.

    Those elements had little to do with what ultimately made the match memorable, though.

    The sequence of notable events started when Williams served at 15-30, trailing 5-6 in the second set after losing the first. A line judge called a foot fault on Williams' second serve. The resulting double fault not only gave Clijsters a match point at 15-40 but caused Williams to deliver a profane tirade directed at that line judge.

    According to an ESPN.com account, Williams got in the face of the lines judge and waved her racket and later the ball menacingly at the line judge, saying, "I swear to God I'm [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that? I swear to God."

    After the line judge told chair umpire Louise Engzell what Williams had said, a discussion among officials and Williams ensued.

    It was determined that Williams would receive a code violation. Williams had received a code violation warning earlier, so this second violation automatically meant that a penalty point would be awarded to Clijsters. As a result, the match was suddenly over.

    "The normal feelings of winning a match weren't there," Clijsters said afterward, according to Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News.

    Some reports suggested Williams had been defaulted in the match, which technically is inaccurate. She was just hit with a penalty point, which happened to occur at match point against her.

    As a result of the offense, Williams was fined $82,500.

2. McEnroe vs. Nastase Causes Uproar in 1979

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    When U.S. Open officials in 1979 scheduled a second-round match between John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase to start at 9 p.m. ET, in front of the Open's notoriously rowdy evening crowds, they had to suspect something memorable might take place.

    If that was the aim, it was a success, because the two controversial players created a scene that was difficult to believe or forget.

    The match was marked by antics from both players, and after one controversial ruling in the third set went against the 33-year-old Nastase, he pretended to go to sleep on the baseline, using his racket for a pillow, according to The Telegraph.

    The crowd started hooting and booing.

    Chair umpire Frank Hammond, trying to get Nastase to resume playing, gave Nastase a warning and eventually awarded a penalty point to McEnroe and then a penalty game. When Nastase still refused to play, tournament referee Mike Blanchard instructed Hammond to put a timer on Nastase. After Nastase failed to resume play for another minute, Hammond announced that Nastase was defaulted and awarded the match to McEnroe.

    The crowd went wild, hurling paper cups, beer cans and various obscenities onto the court. Members of the New York Police Department were brought in to surround the playing area, according to The Telegraph account.

    At that point, tournament director Bill Talbert entered the fray. He rescinded the default, allowing Nastase to continue playing, and put Blanchard in the umpire seat, replacing Hammond.

    The 20-year-old McEnroe ultimately won the match in four sets, but what is most remembered is the "18 minutes of chaos" as a Los Angeles Times blog described it.

    "In 48 years of tennis I've never seen anything like it," Talbert told The New York Times, according to Paul Fein's book Tennis Confidential: Today's Greatest Players, Matches and Controversies. "In the box seats two men were fighting, and their wives were fighting."

1. Jimmy Connors' 1991 Run

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Jimmy Connors' sentimental journey to the semifinals in the 1991 U.S. Open seemed like one long, awe-inspiring moment. No player before or since has captured the raucous New York U.S. Open crowd like Connors did that year.

    A brash, polarizing figure when he beat Ken Rosewall 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 at the 1974 U.S. Open six days after his 22nd birthday, Connors had become an aging crowd favorite 17 years later as a wild-card entrant in 1991.

    Connors had played just three tournaments in 1990, losing in the first round of all three before having wrist surgery in the fall of that year.

    Connors was ranked No. 174 when he played his first-round match against Patrick McEnroe in the 1991 Open. The match did not start until after 9 p.m., and Connors made an amazing comeback, pulling the loud, albeit dwindling, night crowd with him. Down 0-3 and 0-40 on his own serve after losing the first two sets, Connors fist-pumped his way to a 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory that ended at about 1:35 a.m. and had the remaining crowd in an uproar.

    Michiel Schapers and Karel Novacek were Connors' second- and third-round victims, setting up a fourth-round match against Aaron Krickstein on Connors' 39th birthday. By then, Connors' surprising run was the subject of a Nightline feature by ABC's Ted Koppel, according to an SI.com article.

    But Connors was not finished. Not only did he launch another comeback, rallying from 5-2 down in the final set, but he spiced up his crowd-pleasing, 3-6, 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 victory with his typical assortment of controversial behavior.

    When the chair umpire overruled a call in Krickstein's favor in the second set, Connors yelled at the umpire, according to the SI.com story, "Get out of the chair. Get your [butt] out of the chair! You're a bum! I'm out here playing my butt off at 39 years old and you're doing that?"

    When the chair umpire refused to overrule a call in Connors' favor in the final set, he said to the umpire, according to the SI.com article, "You are an abortion! Do you know that?...Get the (expletive) out of there!"

    The crowd went wild with every point won by Connors, who rode the emotion in the stadium and encouraged the crowd with his gesticulations.

    He  thrilled the uproarious evening crowd again in the quarterfinals by beating Paul Haarhuis 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 before Connors fell in straight sets to Jim Courier in the semifinals.

    It was a glorious and memorable last hurrah for Connors, who played just three more Grand Slam events, never getting past the second round.