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Tennis' top stars share their most treasured remembrances of America's Grand Slam

September 29, 2010 11:12 AM
By Steve Flink
The US Open is a place where memories are made moment by moment, year after year, decade after decade. Every year, these two weeks provide new memories that last a lifetime. With so much excitement, emotion, and exhilaration packed into each Flushing fortnight and with so much on the line for the world’s top players, the US Open is always an unforgettable experience—no different for those who are playing in it than for those who revel in watching it. USTA Magazine’s Steve Flink caught up with some of the game’s top names who shared their favorite US Open memories.
Tracy Austin: My final round win over Martina Navratilova in 1981 is my favorite memory. I was staying that year on Long Island with some friends. I had recovered from a back injury and some people had written me off. It was so relaxing staying out on the Island and warming up for my matches out there with my coach, Marty Riessen. It was a really windy day when I played Martina and that was tough for me with my game, which was based so much on accuracy. It was tough to lob in those conditions. I remember having to wait for so long before Martina and I played because Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe went five sets in the semifinals, and that gave me some extra nerves. When I won the US Open at 16 in 1979, I was not as knowledgeable or aware of what I was doing as I was when I was 18. Beating Martina in a third set tiebreaker was a great feeling and I felt that match summarized who I was. It was my mental toughness that won it for me.
Virginia Wade: Winning in 1968 was really exciting and I ended the tournament playing four of my best matches in a row, beating Billie Jean King in a straight set final. That match all went by in such a blur because we had been waiting around so long to get on court. Our match did not start until around 6 p.m., so it was starting to get dark when we played. I had this feeling then that I better win this while I have the chance to do it, because I might not ever get back to the final again. My instincts were right because I never did reach another singles final. I also remember thinking that if I was playing well I could beat the other top players, but I was so naïve then and erratic at that stage of my career.
Sam Querrey: My favorite memory by far at the US Open was when I played Rafael Nadal in Arthur Ashe Stadium two years ago in the fourth round in front of a capacity crowd. I will never forget getting chills in my body during that match because I felt I could win. Five of my friends took the red eye from California and stayed in my room with me so they could watch the match, and my parents were there as well. It was such an exciting feeling to be on the big Stadium and play the No. 1 player in the world and be competitive. That match told me that I am good enough to be out there and be in the mix with anyone in the top ten. It made me feel like maybe someday the shoe would be on the other foot and a kid might come along who will be really excited about trying to challenge me in a big match at the US Open.
Jimmy Connors: Best memory? Just walking into the place, every single time, just being there and competing and having those crowds go nuts over and over again, year after year. Those were the best times for me and it was why I loved playing so much in New York. That was what it was all about for me at the US Open. When I got to the semifinals in 1991 when I was 39, it was the best eleven days of my career. What I got then was everything I could ever have wanted out of the game, after everything I had put into it. That was the time of my life as a player.
Cliff Drysdale: Reflecting on my victory over Rod Laver in the round of 16 in 1968, I feel like I won the tournament for Arthur Ashe. Arthur’s game did not match up well against Rocket’s, but mine did. Most players chipped the backhand return in that serve and volley era. I had a two-handed backhand that was my strength and I returned well that day. I was using a Spalding Smasher racquet, their first attempt at an aluminum frame. I must have gone through five of them against Laver because the strings kept breaking. I also was not putting away my overheads. A guy in the stands yelled at me, ‘Put them away!’ which I did better at the end. Rod was uneasy playing me for some reason. Maybe because it was a ‘nothing to lose’ match for me because Rod was the big favorite to win the tournament. I could just go for it. I managed to come back from two sets to one down to beat the Rocket, which was a gratifying achievement for me.
Melanie Oudin: The moment that stands out for me was my match on the Saturday afternoon last year against Maria Sharapova in Arthur Ashe Stadium. There was so much energy and excitement out there that day on that court when Maria and I played. It really was an unbelievable feeling to be a part of that. I had a bunch of friends who came to the match, people I knew from the academy I train at in Atlanta. It was a great feeling to share that win with them. I felt that everyone was really proud of me. As I look back, that was the match that really changed everything for me as a player, more than any other at the 2009 US Open.
Martina Navratilova: It is so hard for me to choose one memory from the Open. I defected to the U.S. in 1975 after I lost in the semifinals to Chris Evert. In 1981 I lost the final to Tracy Austin but I had become a U.S. citizen that year and I felt accepted. But I suppose that winning the US Open in 1983 for the first time was the biggest moment for me. I had won Wimbledon five years earlier for my first Grand Slam tournament victory, and had gone on to win the Australian and French Opens. But I had never won the Open so this gave me the chance to complete the career Grand Slam. I played some of the best tennis of my career in New York that year. I ended up winning the final easily over Chris and felt a lot of exhilaration and also some relief because the pressure wears you down. So it was nice to get over the hump, to get the monkey off my back. I figured I would win it eventually but it was nice to get it done in my prime, in a year when I lost only one match.
Stan Smith: When I won the US Open in 1971, it was a strange ending. Before we could play the semifinals, they cancelled play on Saturday, Sunday and Monday because of rain. I remember being back at the hotel with my doubles partner Erik Van Dillen going crazy, playing tennis in the room across our room service trays. Then we finally played the semis of the singles on Tuesday and I beat Jan Kodes in the final on Wednesday. The next day, I got a phone call from someone saying he was calling from President Nixon’s office. I told them to call back later that afternoon, thinking it was a prank. But at 5:30 the phone rang again and the same guy was on the line. He put President Nixon on the phone, who congratulated me for winning. I apologized for blowing him off earlier in the day.
Chris Evert: My 1980 semifinal with Tracy Austin was such a pivotal moment in my career. I had lost to Tracy five times in a row. She was starting to own me. I called my dad the night before Tracy and I played and told him how badly I wanted to win this match for him. I also spoke with Don Candy, who was Pam Shriver’s coach. He said I had to get out of my safety zone and dictate every point, something I wasn’t used to doing since I was a counterpuncher who waited patiently for my openings. After falling behind 4-0, I lost a close first set 6-4. I played aggressively, brought Tracy into the net with drop shots, came in myself and didn’t give her any rhythm. I came back to win the last two sets 6-1, 6-1. If I hadn’t had that talk with Don Candy, I know I would have lost that match. After I won, I called my father from the referee’s office to tell him I won, and broke down in tears. He flew up to see me beat Hana Mandlikova the next day in the final. It was the first time he has been there in person to see me win a Grand Slam tournament.
Jim Courier: My favorite US Open memory is facing Jimmy Connors in the 1991 semifinals. That was the year Connors hijacked the Open and made it his own playground. I was playing some of my best tennis coming off a French Open win and a Wimbledon quarterfinal and had not dropped a set en route to the semis. I was just 21 and had fresh legs while Jimmy [at age 39] had been scraping his way through epic and grueling five-set encounters. I should have been supremely confident in my ability to take Jimmy out, but the overriding emotion I was trying hard to suppress was fear. I was afraid that Jimmy would get the crowd going and I would be playing against 20,000 screaming Connors fans plus one of our game’s all-time great competitors riding a wave of emotion. From the beginning of the match, my focus never wavered, I never trailed and the crowd never fully unleashed their might behind Jimmy. I had conquered the mighty Connors at his home, the US Open—in straight sets, no less—and managed to conquer my own fears about losing my head in the moment.
John Newcombe: My US Open victory in 1973 was something I will always be very proud of. Six weeks before the tournament, I was considering retirement, but my wife Angie said I should think it over for a couple of days. I then decided to go forward, but I told my wife I would have to dedicate myself completely to it. I knew I would be sacrificing my family. I had two objectives then: to win the US Open and to go on the following May and win the WCT Finals in Dallas. I was seeded 10th at the Open and played average until I faced Andrew Pattison in the fourth round. I lost the first set but came back to win in four and played my best. I told my wife, ‘That’s it, I am going to win the tournament.’ I beat Jan Kodes in a five set final, which was very satisfying because Kodes had beaten me in the first round of the Open two years earlier. I went on to win Dallas the next year. I had done just what I set out to do.
Mary Carillo: My favorite memory is Chrissie Evert’s final match at the 1989 US Open, when she lost to Zina Garrison in the quarterfinals. She left the US Open as she came in—with quiet class and great grace. From her first US Open match in 1971 against Edda Buding until her last against Zina in 1989, Chris kept her feelings to herself as she stirred so many emotions in those of us who watched her win and lose with the same sweet style.
Tony Trabert: The first thing that pops to mind for me is Super Saturday in 1984, the best single day of tennis I have ever seen. I was doing the commentary for CBS and John Newcombe was working with us as well. Newk played a best of three set match with Stan Smith in the seniors that went the distance, and then we had Ivan Lendl beat Pat Cash in a fifth set tie-break. Next up was Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in a great women’s final that Martina won in three sets. It all ended with John McEnroe beating Jimmy Connors in a five-set match. We had started at 11 a.m. and gone past 11 p.m. After each match ended, we kept saying, "Can we possibly top that?" It just got better and better. Around 9 p.m. we realized none of us had anything to eat since breakfast. They brought us up some greasy pizza that was almost inedible. That was the most exciting a day of tennis I have ever seen.
Serena Williams: My favorite memory from the US Open has to be the first time I won it in 1999, when I was still 17 and no one thought I could do it. I was so excited when that happened and I remember how nervous I was before playing the final against Martina Hingis that year. When it was over, I could hardly believe it really happened. It’s such a great feeling to win a Grand Slam tournament no matter where or when, but there is nothing like the feeling you get when you win one for the first time like I did in 1999 at the Open. I love winning Grand Slam tournaments and nothing in tennis means more to me. The thrills I have had winning the others have come close to how I felt after my win in 1999 in New York, but that had to be the best feeling of all for me.


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