There’s something about being in the shadow of Manhattan, the Billie Jean King Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, the night matches under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the rowdy crowd that makes the US Open feel so electric. Despite capping a long and tiring Grand Slam season, the renewed enthusiasm from players and fans alike is inimitable.
The U.S. Open has its own unique rules (fifth set tiebreaks?), rowdy characters (J-block?), and interesting wardrobe choices (tuxedo stripes?). As a result, the US Open experience is unlike any other.
Through it all—the controversies, the comebacks, the milestones, and the miracles—here are the 25 most memorable moments in U.S. Open history.
1968 marked the beginning of the “Open” era, when the tournament combined five separate championships (men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles) and, for the first time, invited professionals to compete.
However, that didn’t stop one particular amateur, who set a milestone of his own: Arthur Ashe became the first African American man to win a Grand Slam. He defeated Tom Okker in five sets, 14–12, 5–7, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3.
Because of this win, Ashe not only became a hero for American tennis, but for the civil rights movement, of which he was an active supporter.
In 1969, Rod Laver defeated fellow Aussie Tony Roche in a match that will probably be remembered more for its weather than for Laver’s achievement: a calendar Grand Slam. The tournament was then played at Forest Hills on grass courts, and torrential downpours before and during the final match left the court a veritable mudpit.
After losing the first set 7-9, Laver switched to spiked shoes, an agreement he made with the chair umpire before the match in case the court was too slippery.
For the rest of the match, paused twice for rain delays, Roche was a non-entity, and Laver won easily, (7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2). Roche did have to play a tough five-set semifinal the day before, but Laver’s ability to move in his cleats was a clear advantage. The small equipment change might just be an interesting anecdote now, but it is a bit strange to think a sport that has such strict rules today would have been so lax about equipment 40 years ago, especially given the implications of Laver’s win, getting the Grand Slam.
Photo: AP/John Rooney
The 70s were all about two women: Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Their rivalry was epic, and by the end of the decade, Evert had become America’s sweetheart, the crowd favorite to take the Open in 1979.
However, another precocious teenager, 16 year old Tracy Austin, was blazing through high-ranked opponents left and right. Austin might have looked young and meek at a glance, in pink press and pigtails, but she made her way to the final against Evert, who was gunning for her fifth consecutive title.
Evert had already suffered at the hand of the newcomer that season, having a 125-match win streak snapped by Austin that spring.
Perhaps it was the fearlessness of her youth or the confidence of knowing she could beat the unbeatable, but once again Austin gave Evert everything she had. She defeated the veteran champ in straight sets (6-4, 6-3) to win her first of two US Open titles (the second came against Navratilova in 1981, at the age of 18).
Photo: Getty Images
In 1980, John McEnroe won a second consecutive US Open, and got there by enduring two memorable final weekend grudge matches against his biggest rivals: Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.
In the semifinals, McEnroe defeated Connors, 6-4, 5-7, 0-6, 6-3, 7-6, in a five-set thriller that went well into the night, but only had one day to recover before facing Bjorn Borg in the final.
Despite his fatigue from the semifinal, McEnroe headed into the 1980 final seeking payback. Less than three months prior, he fell to Borg in a dramatic five-set Wimbledon final that some have dubbed the greatest match ever. In the US Open final, Johnny Mac was scrappier, feistier, and in the end, hungrier. He exacted his revenge on Borg in another five-setter, defeating him 7–6(4), 6–1, 6–7(5), 5–7, 6–4.
US Open’s Super Saturday is a tradition unique to Flushing Meadows, and one that began in 1984. Should we sandwich the women’s final between the men’s semifinals? Sure, why not.
Luckily for tournament organizers, it turned out to be a brilliant idea. After more than 12 hours of Hall-of-Fame level tennis, Super Saturday’s inaugural year turned out to be one of its most exciting.
The first Super Saturday lineup began with a semifinal between Ivan Lendl and Pat Cash, which went a full five sets, including fourth and fifth set tiebreaks. Lendl was the victor, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-4).
Following that match was a women's final between rivals Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, of which Navratilova walked away the champion, winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
The last match was a perfect primetime attraction for the American audience: McEnroe vs. Connors. This was another five-set thriller, this time under the lights, with McEnroe defeating Connors 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
Thanks to this original stroke of scheduling genius and the level of tennis played on that day, Super Saturday remains one of the most thrilling days in tennis.
Photo: Sports Illustrated
John McEnroe is such a controversial figure in tennis that its not surprising he can be as memorable off the court as he is on it. In the 1980’s, McEnroe achieved the rare feat of ranking No. 1 in both singles and doubles simultaneously, the latter with doubles partner Peter Fleming.
McEnroe and Fleming were so dominant as a doubles pair leading up to the 1986 Open that Fleming withdrew from the singles draw to focus solely on doubles.
Unfortunately, McEnroe and Fleming wouldn’t even get to take the court that year. Due to a traffic jam in Manhattan, the pair were six minutes late for their first round match and were automatically defaulted. It goes without saying that McEnroe’s temper tantrum was epic.
Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi defined American tennis in the 1990s, but it is perhaps Sampras’ debut in the 1990 US Open finals that was his most memorable.
The 19 year old, who had beaten Agassi earlier that year for his first singles title, had been otherwise inconsistent in his early career. But that September, he put up an impressive string of wins to even get to the Open final, defeating sixth-ranked Thomas Muster, third-ranked Ivan Lendl, and John McEnroe in the semifinal.
Sampras had no trouble in the final, defeating Agassi easily in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, and becoming the youngest men’s champion at the Open, at 19 years and 28 days old.
At the 1991 Open, one first round matchup definitely piqued fans' interest: Patrick McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors. How would Pat fare against his brother John's fiercest rival?
Luckily, despite two seasoned vets generally considered past their prime, the match lived up to hype. McEnroe took the first two sets, and Connors then found himself down 3-0 in the third. However, he somehow managed to come back to take the third set 6-4 and totally shift the momentum, ultimately winning the five setter 4-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
The match lasted more than four hours, and it was only just the beginning of a miracle run for Connors that year.
At the 1991 Open, Connors was clearly facing the end of his career, turning 39 years old and ranked 174 in the world.
Yet, energized from the comeback against McEnroe, Connors defeated Michiel Schapers and Karel Novacek, setting up a thrilling fourth round match with top-10 player Aaron Krickstein. On his 39th birthday, Connors gave Krickstein everything he had, coming back from 5-2 down in the fifth set to win.
After dropping the first set of the quarterfinal against Paul Haarhuis, Connors again dug in and rallied to defeat him in four sets.
He ultimately lost to fellow American Jim Courier, but it will be hard to forget the tour veteran who, for those two weeks at least, was the comeback kid.
After an unproductive and injury-laden 1993, Agassi entered the next season with a lower ranking, but with a new approach to his game and a new coach: Brad Gilbert. He did not fare well in either the French Open or Wimbledon that year, but began to build some momentum during the hardcourt season.
His comeback culminated with winning the US Open that year, enduring a fourth-round five-setter with Michael Chang and defeating Michael Stich to win the tournament.
The win was memorable for the fact that he was the first unseeded player to take the title at the Open, but it was hardly surprising. He proved in 1994 that, seeded or not, he’s still Agassi.
The 1995 women’s final pitted two full-blown rivals against each other—Steffi Graf and Monica Seles— but this match had implications beyond their on-court rivalry. Recall that two years earlier, Seles decided to take a break from the game after being stabbed by a crazy Graf fan during a match in Hamburg.
In 1995, Seles returned to the sport with a strong comeback year, and this Open final would be the first time she faced Graf since the stabbing.
The first set was decided in a tiebreak that went in Graf’s favor, yet Seles took the second set 0- 6. It was anyone’s title going into the third set, but Graf ultimately prevailed 6-3. Though Seles did not defeat Graf, she later said the match gave her some closure.
Sadly for some, it is not the victories that are memorable, but their excruciating pain, as was the case for Shuzo Matsuoka during the 1995 tournament.
During an unbearably hot first round day at Flushing, Matsuoka cramped up in his match against Petr Korda to the point that he was writhing on the ground in pain, screaming for help. Unfortunately, the rules at that time did not allow for any medical treatment during the match—the trainers and the crowd had to watch on helplessly as Matsuoka, unable to move, was forced to default from the match.
There was immediate backlash over the lack of treatment options for Matsuoka, and the injury timeout rule that exists today was quickly adopted soon after this incident.
Photo: Associated Press/Kathy Willens
His 1968 victory would be Arthur Ashe’s only career US Open title, but in 1997, the USTA ensured his impact on the sport and on this tournament will endure for a long time. For the Open that year, they debuted a new 22,500 seat stadium that we now know as the tournament’s main court, naming it after Ashe.
Arthur Ashe Stadium replaces Louis Armstrong Stadium (now the tournament’s No. 2 court) as the main stage for the US Open. Most players will say that getting to play under the lights in Ashe stadium is one of the highlights of their careers.
Ashe would never get to see the stadium that bears his name, having passed away from AIDS complications in 1993, but this stadium ensures that his memory lives on at the Open.
After Chris Evert, the women’s tournament hadn’t seen a true American contender until Lindsay Davenport arrived on the scene in the late 90’s. After semifinal appearances at the Australian Open and the French, and three summer hardcourt titles, 1998 was certainly Davenport’s breakout year, even before the Open began.
Winning the Open would be her first Slam victory, and from all standpoints, it was hers to win. She defeat fifth ranked Venus Williams in the semi-finals and then-world No. 1 Martina Hingis in the final.
Her 1998 victory would be the first time an American woman has taken the title since Chris Evert’s last Open title in 1982, but it would be the only US Open singles title for Davenport.
This is another moment that is no so memorable for the tennis played, but for the amount of press it generated.
During a 2001 match between Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake, Hewitt was twice called for foot faults during his serve. Both faults were called by a black linesman, and after the second, Hewitt complained to the chair with a racially-charged comparison: “Look at him [the linesman], and you tell me what the similarity is.” Most that heard the comment assumed Hewitt was speaking of the similarity between Blake and the linesman, but Hewitt claims he meant that the same linesman made the call both times.
Though Hewitt ended up winning the five-setter, the New York press had a field day with the comment., quick to defend hometown hero Blake. For their part, Blake and Hewitt were quick to shake off the incident, though commentators continue to bring it up whenever the two meet.
In 2004, Serena Williams faced Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals.
In the opening game of the third set, the chair umpire called the ball out, awarding Capriati a break point. Replays later showed that the ball was clearly in. This was before the use of player challenges, so Serena was helpless but for arguing, and argue she did. Storming over to the chair, she insisted repeatedly the ball was in: “That was my point! What are you talking about? What's going on? Excuse me? That ball was so in. What the heck is this?”
To make matters worse, Serena’s outfit for this Open was just as memorable, consisting of a denim skirt and midriff-baring tank. The edgy wardrobe seemed to match perfectly with her attitude and certainly made
for an entertaining photo.
Unfortunately, neither the ‘tude nor the outfit helped Serena win the match, and Capriati moved on to the semifinals, defeating Serena 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
The 2005 quarterfinal pitted Agassi against a fellow American 10 years his junior, James Blake.
Blake, who had never previously gotten beyond the fourth round in a Slam, seemed to elevate his game like never before to match the living legend Agassi. After dominating the first two sets 6-3, 6-3, the momentum shifted when Agassi came back to take the third and fourth sets, also with score of 6-3, 6-3.
Not only was this a five-setter, but every point of the final set was edge-of-your-seat exciting. A match that had been such a rollercoaster through the first four sets was now dead-even, resulting in a final set tiebreak. The fifth set tiebreak was Agassi’s first in 20 years of US Open play.
At 1:09 am, after nearly three hours of play, Agassi defeated Blake, proving again to be the consummate champion. Afterward, he remarked of the match: “I wasn’t the winner, tennis was.”
Agassi’s defeat of Blake made him the oldest semifinalist since Connors at age 39. After an easy defeat of Robby Ginepri, the 35-year-old Agassi became the oldest men’s finalist in more than 30 years. Unfortunately, his opponent in the final was defending champion and 24-year-old Roger Federer.
Though Agassi took the second set off of Federer, Roger ultimately prevailed, winning in four sets, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1.
Federer admitted afterward that playing Andre at the US Open in New York was “a dream.” Maybe I am reading too much into the moment, but it almost felt like the passing of a torch.
2005 was also a momentous year on the women's side, especially for Kim Clijsters. After being sidelined for much of 2004 with a serious wrist injury, 2005 was a comeback year for her, and she wanted one thing: her first Grand Slam title. At this point, she had been a four time Grand Slam finalist, never a champion.
Something had to give, and it did at the US Open.
Clijsters beat favorites Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams to set up a final matchup with 30-year-old vet Mary Pierce, also looking to make a comeback of her own. Clijsters was ultimately fresher, hungrier, and downright better, and defeated Pierce easily 6-3, 6-1.
It was a great win, but what we remember most is Clijsters’ post-match celebration: jumping into the crowd to hug her family.
After Agassi’s dream run to the US Open finals in 2005, he returned again, but this time with the end in sight. Everyone knew that his plan was to retire after this year’s Open, no matter the outcome.
In the third round, a young German qualifier named Benjamin Becker ended Agassi’s last Open, defeating him in a close match: 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5.
Years from now I might simply remember Becker as the player who finished Agassi’s career, but I won’t forget the tearful, heartfelt speech Agassi gave to his fans after the match:
“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’ve found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed, sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I’ve found generosity. You’ve given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you.”
Amidst the bittersweet emotions of Andre Agassi’s retirement was a happy celebration for the Open that year: the naming of the National Tennis Center for Billie Jean King.
On August 28, 2006, during that year’s Open, the USTA had a formal ceremony to rename the center, attended by other tennis greats including John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and Martina Navratilova.
King’s name encompasses the center that includes Arthur Ashe Stadium, Armstrong Stadium, as well as 45 courts available to the public year round and a new indoor practice facility. As it stands, it is currently the largest sports complex in the world that is named after a woman.
King told The New York Times of the honor, “Arthur and I are now side by side, and we’re both public park kids. We were born the same year, and we fought for human rights.”
Some of the humorous moments from past Opens may have faded from our memory, but one of the funniest recent U.S. Open moments were Novak Djokovic’s impromptu impersonations of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova after a match in 2007.
Djokovic is known on tour as a joker, but after this instance that was broadcast on primetime television and quickly vent viral on YouTube, the public knew it too.
Watch the video because my memory alone won’t do it justice—except to tell you his impersonations are hilarious, and spot-on.
Before Isner made headlines for going the distance with Mahut at Wimbledon, we first remember him on the big stage as playing spoiler to Andy Roddick’s run at a second US Open title.
Let’s be honest: Isner is a mutant version of Roddick—same rocking serve, only faster; same physique, only taller; same baseball hat, only backwards; same Americana looks, only younger.
Regardless, going into this match, Roddick was the clear favorite over the young upstart. Furthermore, after his heartbreaking finals loss to Federer at Wimbledon, Roddick was hungry for revenge.
But John Isner had a different plan for this third round match, upsetting his mentor Roddick in a five- setter that lasted three hours and 51 minutes and started and ended with a tiebreak, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5).
We can only imagine how long the match would have lasted without the fifth-set tiebreak…
During a semifinal match last year, a linesperson penalized Serena Williams for a foot fault while two points away from losing to Kim Clijsters. The foot fault resulted in a double-fault, giving Clijsters match point. Williams then protested in a screaming fit, resulting in a one-point penalty that cost her the match.
Unlike her outburst in 2004, this one was laced with profanity and direct threats toward the linesperson who made the call: “I swear to God I'm [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that?”
It was a sad and memorable exit for Serena Williams, who was ultimately fined $82,500 for her screaming tirade, the record penalty issued to a player for a Grand Slam offense.
Coming into the 2009 Open, Federer was the five time defending champion, having taken the title every year since 2004.
In last year’s Open, he appeared to be well on his way to a record sixth straight consecutive title. He easily brushed aside opponents like Lleyton Hewitt, Robin Soderling, and Novak Djokovic to get to the final, where he faced the streaking Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro, fresh off an upset of Nadal. However, the advantage was strongly in Federer’s favor, having beaten del Potro in all six of their previous meetings.
Surprisingly, del Potro stunned Federer to take the five-set final 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, winning his first major title.
This year, del Potro has been sidelined all season with injury, unable to defend his title, and Federer has not been playing his most confident tennis either.
With new contenders in this year’s field, here’s hoping for some memorable moments from 2010.