This is just a theory from an old Queens boy: Deep in the mosh pit of the current United States Open, there is the gentle living Ghost of Tennis Past — another time, another place, only a few miles away in the borough of Queens.
At the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, paying customers inhale psychological oxygen — like air pumped into shopping malls — evoking the green, green grass of the West Side Tennis Club, where this great and very-New-York event was nurtured.
Fans breathe deeply and transport themselves to that green and pleasant land of good manners and pitty-pat applause for a lovely swooping backhand return.
The start of play on Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Open tennis — that is, when the United States National Championships became the U.S. Open and allowed professionals to compete. That first Open transpired in Forest Hills in 1968; the Open moved to the pungent marshlands of Flushing Meadows in 1978.
However, a bit of “the Nationals” at Forest Hills still lingers in the crowded walkways and S.R.O. side courts and vast consumer kiosks of today’s bustling and highly profitable bazaar.
Forest Hills lives! In fact, the West Side Tennis Club still exists in the same reasonably leafy corner of Forest Hills — the Long Island Railroad main line tootling politely alongside bustling Queens Boulevard, and high-rises on the north side and still-swanky Forest Hills Gardens just to the south.
As a youngster in postwar Queens, I received free press passes from my journalist father for the first nine days of the tournament — taking the subway for slow, pleasant afternoons when everything was life-size, when competitors actually strolled the grounds, carrying their own rackets, to their appointed grass court — no entourages making room for millionaire players.
I recently tossed this admittedly romantic theory at Earl Henry Buchholz, known as Butch, once a tennis prodigy who played in consecutive Nationals from 1956 through 1960, reaching the semifinals in 1960, then joining the primitive professional ranks. Buchholz later became a tennis entrepreneur and is now retired in Florida; he does not indulge in easy nostalgia.
With all due respect, Buchholz does not feel a link to the old place: “I don’t think so,” he said emphatically. After all, he and seven colleagues rejected the “amateur” brand of tennis and later formed a tour called the Handsome Eight.
“It was grass, then clay,” Buchholz said of the West Side Tennis Club. “Sometimes the stadium would be half-full,” even in the later rounds. “It’s just different. There’s been a major change in philosophy. They’re in the entertainment business. I don’t think anybody thought about that in the old days.
“Everybody was a volunteer. Part of the legacy. Now they all get paid. It’s all good,” he continued, noting the $53 million in prize money for 2018 and pronouncing it “Mind-boggling. I played before that time.”
He surely did. For decades, the best players in the world found their way to “Forest Hills” — the shorthand for the American quadrant of the Grand Slam. The players had to be so-called amateurs, paid under the table, and as an enfant terrible, Buchholz used to rage against line officials, dozing in the afternoon sunlight after their pre-match lunch.
From a distance of time and space, Buchholz recalled his introduction to Forest Hills in 1956. He was 15, part of the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team that was entered into the main draw (there was no junior tournament at the Nationals in those days). The players were housed at the Forest Hills Inn on Continental Avenue, a Tudor-style building connected to the railroad station and club via walkways above street level.
“My friends tossed water balloons on the people on the sidewalk,” Buchholz said, quickly adding, “But not me.”
During the Nationals, the competitors used the same locker room at the West Side club that was used by its members, who stowed business suits in a wire locker next to a raffish touring star.
“If you turned around, you would whack somebody in the butt,” recalls Cliff Drysdale, a staple of the 1960s tour, about the tiny locker room.
“It was nice … but quaint,” Buchholz added, recalling the hospitality at the club. “The bartender would give me O.J. or ginger ale.”
Buchholz recalled the grass courts squeezed onto the grounds, with the primitive concrete stadium at the far end. The worst court was directly next to the dining patio.
“It was noisy,” Buchholz recalled. “Everyone hated to play on that court. You could hear the waiters dropping dishes. You could hear the conversations.”
The genteel clatter of tableware seemed noisy because the decibel level of life itself was a tad lower than today. Under the awning of a modest press section of the main stadium, reporters would peck away on their typewriters — typewriters! This is officially a nostalgia piece now — and fans and players alike might hiss their disapproval of such an intrusion on their bucolic afternoon in the fresh air.
The ambience of the old West Side club was recently described in a stream of consciousness by Art Seitz, a longtime tennis photographer, still working at his trade:
“Sitting on a piece of plywood in the early ’70s with other photographers in the middle of the WSTC Stadium. Vilas being mobbed after championship point. Enjoying a locker-room shower, dry clothes, sunsets, and discovering and consuming Aussie Foster’s Beer at the second-floor locker-room bar — at the end of every often hot and humid day — which was stocked because of my Aussie mates. Being temporarily banned from the nearby Steak ’n Brew because of my Aussie mates. Being like a fly on the wall in a small low-ceiling room, while Pancho Segura fired up Jimbo. The great photogenic views of the grass courts, terrace, beautiful people and WSTC building from the top rows of the stadium. Fun encounters with the Kennedy Clan — including Jackie there.”
The old days were 1949, when Pancho Gonzalez defeated Art Larsen, Frank Parker and Ted Schroeder in the quarters, semis and finals. (Larsen was known as Tappy because he had a fixation for tapping stairs, nets, net posts, benches, anything and everything — a nervous habit from surviving the Normandy invasion in 1944. He had a reputation as a playboy — a fringe benefit of those so-called “amateur” days.)
The star power at Forest Hills grew with the women in the postwar era: Althea Gibson, Maureen Connolly, Darlene Hard, Maria Bueno and later Virginia Wade, and young Billie Jean Moffitt (now King), on a side court, berating herself for a bad shot by whacking herself on the leg with her racket and shouting, “Come on, Billie Jean!” and waking up dozing patrons.
Male stars included the venerable Gardnar Mulloy, Jack Kramer, Tony Trabert, the Aussies — so many of them — and, starting in 1959, Arthur Ashe.
Other stars played at West Side: The Beatles arrived by helicopter for two shows, Aug. 28-29, 1964. In 1961, my wife and I, just kids and married less than a year, attended a concert by Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba on a lush, clear night in midsummer. Every time I go past the club I think of that starry, starry night.
The DNA of that sweet little corner of the world has somehow been transposed to the hurly-burly of Flushing Meadows with its gigantic stadiums (with retractable roofs) and side courts jammed with patrons in the global-warming summers of today. The Open profits from its serene past.