While the world’s media and 99 percent of the U.S. Open crowd had eyes only for the current stars of the tennis tour, a modest crowd gathered around the small perimeter of Court Four at Flushing Meadows.
What had drawn this assorted gaggle of people away from the main throng during the second week of drama? Only some of the most illustrious names from the record-books of Grand Slam tennis.
For the first time, the U.S. Open hosted a Champions Invitational that pitted three co-ed teams against one another in the World Team Tennis (W.T.T.) pro-league format.
The competition featured a line-up of Grand Slam champions and finalists under the leadership of three of the greats of the game: Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl and, the real star of the show, the eponymous Billie Jean King. Not only was the venue named after this tennis icon, but she is co-founder of the Team Tennis tour.
The W.T.T. format is designed to be fan- and player-friendly, with short games, plenty of variety and, most of all, a lot of fun. So each match consists of one set each of men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles.
The rules are a little tricky to follow for the uninitiated: cumulative scoring, sets to five games, no ad after a deuce, playing let serves, and many more.
But the atmosphere is competitively light-hearted, and rules a little flexible. The best approach is to just sit and soak it up.
Now 65, but able to pass for 55, Billie Jean King is as close to a personal heroine as it gets.
In tennis achievement alone, she towers above her sport: in Grand Slams, she won 12 singles titles, 16 women’s doubles titles, and 11 mixed doubles titles, as well as 129 career titles (84 during open era).
Six of those singles Slam titles were achieved at Wimbledon between 1966 and 1975. These were formative years for this UK-based fan, where King’s brilliance was undermined by a mother’s slights about her strong views, her personal revelations, and her unyielding attitudes about sex equality in tennis.
I recognised, and admired immediately, her genius on court and her importance off court. Here was a woman bright enough for, but unable to go to, Stanford (her parents couldn’t afford it); a woman forced into outing herself to a family and an era that was largely homophobic; yet a woman who fought tooth and nail for the rights of others.
It’s in unexpected places that children on the verge of adulthood have their opinions formed, and King was one of those places.
King went on to found the Women's Tennis Association, the Women's Sports Foundation, and World Team Tennis.
The Flushing Meadows complex is named after her.
And this August, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her work advocating for the rights of women and the lesbian and gay community.
Personal tribute over. She played powerful, nimble, forward-moving tennis. She was as fit as a flea. She had little vanity but great pride.
At the Open this year, Court Four was surrounded by people of all ages wanting to show their admiration—and King wasn’t even playing!
It takes guts, as King did as a young woman, to turn your back on popularity for your beliefs. She is making up for it now.
Ivan ‘the terrible’ Lendl is now 49, and maturity has mellowed the lines of what used to be a lean, sometimes dour, face. His kinder, paternal qualities are these days largely dedicated to the sporting achievements of five talented daughters. He was, though, once the scourge of many a great player.
Lendl’s name is not always the first that springs to mind in discussing the greatest players in the men’s game: indeed, it was clear that many of those enjoying this invitational event didn’t recognise him at all.
He is still, 15 years after retirement, the seventh highest earner ever. He captured eight Grand Slam singles titles, three in the U.S. Open, as well as five Masters Cups.
His record of 19 Grand Slam singles finals has only just been beaten by Roger Federer, and he was ranked world No. 1 for a total of 270 weeks (surpassed since only by Pete Sampras).
Lendl's game relied on strength and heavy topspin from the baseline, a style that came to dominate the modern game. His success, however, had as much to do with his meticulous and intensive training and physical conditioning regime, and his scientific approach to preparing for and playing tennis.
It’s interesting to ponder on how many players now owe their style of play and their approach to the example Lendl set.
Sat on the bleachers with Guillermo Vilas, who with Tracy Austin, Conchita Martinez, and Jimmy Arias, comprised Team Lendl, he looked gentle, laid back, and benign. Who would have thought it?
Could there be a bigger contrast in style between Lendl and the third team caption, Pat Cash?
A little younger, at 44, a lot more extrovert, and considerably more keen on all-court tennis, Cash managed to control the Court Four crowd with his usual wit, charm and confidence.
He may only have one Grand Slam title on his C.V., but it happens to be the one that Lendl could never achieve: Wimbledon. Cash’s impact on the tennis record books may have remained low-key, but he was the center of attention with this particular U.S. Open’s 2009 crowd.
He continues to don the chequered bandana, and in this competition he used his wide experience as a commentator to keep the atmosphere bright and the crowd enthused.
Like Lendl, though, Cash is not all he seems. Ten years ago, he needed professional help for depression. He supports several academies for young tennis players, and gives freely to a number of charitable organisations.
And there it is in a nutshell. He is, and will continue to be, one of tennis’ most popular men.
Neither of the other team captains played in the competition. Cash did.
Here’s the reason why.
Ilie Nastase was the oldest playing member of the competition at 63. If you saw him wrapped in newspapers under the nearest subway station, you would think he was a destitute.
Looking a bit rougher than he should for his age, with longer, lanker hair than a mature man should wear, and carrying too much weight around the middle and too little in his legs, he is far from the handsome Nastase that made an adolescent heart beat a little faster in the late '70s. Yet, yet...charisma, charm and mischievous eyes will not be dimmed.
Cash took to the court with Todd Martin for a men’s doubles when Nastase did not arrive for the start of the set. He turned up just a little late, and the reason?
“I cannot say–there are kids around.”
The bad boy shone through again during a mixed doubles, when he tried to throw Tracy Austin with some cheeky chat and then a cursory attempt to moon her. Most players would not get away with it, but Nastase had won over the crowd hours ago.
He was, after all, a former U.S. singles champion, back in 1972, won four Masters Cups, and reached two Wimbledon finals (one was lost to Stan Smith who, like a bad penny, turned up to challenge him in this competition with Team King).
Nastase was one of the most gifted and erratic players ever to hold a racket.
His anticipation, hands, control, creativity, and all-court skills approached artistry.
His unpredictable temper and concentration were his demons.
His humor and joy for performing ensured his enduring popularity.
A little seedy he may look, but like a choreographer, he still infused the smallest movements with grace, and managed to look every single female in the audience in the eye.
So for this spectator, here was one more ambition realised.
Tracy Austin barely registered on this particular radar when she took the women’s tour by storm to become the No. 1 ranked player in 1980.
Austin was unable to win at Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open was a distant, unviewed tournament for a British spectator.
Yet at 16, Austin actually beat King—who was twice her age—at Wimbledon, and in the same year beat a 24-year-old Chris Evert in her prime to become the youngest winner of the U.S. title.
Austin went on to win again in New York two years later. But dogged by back problems, and then a near fatal motor accident, her career was cut short despite a couple of attempts at a comeback.
Austin is still just 46, and a mother of three sons, yet is as trim and elegant as she was in her heyday.
Still blond, still favoring pink, she moved and played on Court Four much as she had done over 20 years before.
What’s more, she has become one of the best commentators around on tennis. She shares her expertise and very astute readings of matches with all the main networks, not least the B.B.C.
She has more than won the respect that was due her many years ago.
Austin competed in one of the golden eras of the women’s tour. As well as Evert, she encountered Martina Navratilova, Evonne Goolagong, and also shared the stage at the beginning of the '80s with a young star from Czechoslovakia, Hana Mandlikova.
And here, on the other side of the net playing for Team Cash, was that same adversary.
Less than a year separates the two women, but Mandlikova is now a little less sprightly about the court than Austin.
In her prime, Mandlikova won four Grand Slam singles titles, her U.S. Open victory coming in 1985. She also won the U.S. doubles title with Navratilova in 1989.
She always had a freshness and youthfulness to her look and her play, but never seemed to develop the tough carapace that may have yielded more titles to her abundant all-court talent.
That lack of toughness, verging on lack of confidence, together with back problems, brought retirement by the age of 28.
After years of coaching other talent to success—notably Jana Novotna—it’s a pleasure to see the still-freckled face of Mandlikova gracing tennis once more.
Most, this year, did not recognise her. In time, we must hope they will.
The two Fernandez—Mary Joe and Gigi—are not related, but matched up a treat for Team King.
Neither woman ever managed to win a Grand Slam singles title. Mary Joe, however, reached the finals of two and the semis of the other two, while Gigi won no fewer than 17 women’s doubles titles (five in the U.S.).
And together, the two Fernandez won two Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1994.
That old partnership shone again at Flushing Meadows this year, which must have recalled less than perfect memories for Concita Martinez, playing for Team Lendl. The Spanish woman was deprived of that gold medal in Barcelona by the Fernandez.
Since retirement, Gigi has not only had twin children, but has gained a BA and an MBA, has set up her own charitable foundation, runs tennis clinics for children, and has coached a number of successful doubles players, including Samantha Stosur.
Mary Joe, also now a mother, is a familiar commentator on the tennis tour, a mainstay of the tennis media, a regular interviewer of the top players.
Both the Fernandez and Martinez simply fizzed with fun, enjoyment and quality tennis in this invitation event, and the crowd responded in kind.
It was like an injection of summer, and should guarantee a lot more interest from fans young and old if King, Cash and Lendl decide to put together such appealing groups again.
A chance encounter during a stroll past the practice courts at Flushing Meadows threw up one of the most famous faces in all U.S. Open history: Jimmy Connors.
Five of Connor’s eight Grand Slam titles were won at this event. He played more tournaments (401) and won more matches (1,337) than any other male professional in the open era.
He was the only player to win the U.S. title on three different surfaces: grass, clay, and hard.
And he reached the semi-finals or better in Grand Slam Singles events a total of 31 times: an all time record. To get that last one into context, Connors only entered the Australian Open twice and didn’t enter the French Open for five of his peak career years.
He's now 57, but he was still playing at Grand Slam standard at almost 40, a playing career that spanned well over two decades. Yet where most players become venerated as their careers grow longer and more successful, Connors has never enjoyed the popularity that eventually came to the likes of Pete Sampras and John MacEnroe.
He rubbed many people up the wrong way from his earliest years, snubbing Wimbledon officials, spurning the year-end Masters event many times, filing lawsuits against the ATP, and behaving less than graciously on court.
None of this ever did, or does now, bother him. And the same body language hurled itself at the handful of spectators who watched him on that Flushing Meadows practice court.
Why he was there—other then for a general knock-up—never became clear. He certainly wasn’t involved in the Team Tennis invitational. But he moved in just the way he had done years ago, terrier-like, low-slung, hurling his double-hander backhand around with abandon.
In truth, he looked far from the elder statesman he could rightfully claim to be. Wearing a strange outfit of baggy sweat pants, long-sleeved shirt and cable-knit tank top, his hair was as fulsome and dark as ever, the expression as furrowed.
The shock of this unexpected encounter was still to come. The person watching alongside me didn’t know who he was.
At the home of American tennis, and the site of so many home-boy victories and bruising battles, that is a sad comment indeed.