Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Sun Also Sets: Tennis At Forest Hills

©2011TWMcDermott      Note: print/online versions of this story currently run in The Rye (NY) Record.
Forest Hills Tennis Stadium

As a boy growing up in a place called Forest Hills, I looked forward to late August and early September. I was not thinking about going back to school or even the pennant race. I was thinking about “The Nationals,” which was what we called the US Open before it opened.
Forest Hills Stadium at The West Side Tennis Club,  threatened in the near future with possible demolition,  was built in 1923, the same year as the old Yankee Stadium; and, for many, holds just as many memories of great players and epic games. We saw Hoad, Rosewall, and Laver there in their primes; saw Althea Gibson, Karen Hantze, and Chrissie’s first pig-tailed match. Saw Ashe win the very first “Open” in ’68. We saw Gonzales just past his prime, playing under lights, and then way past his prime, playing doubles with partner Jimmie Connors (true: Connors's mom made him do it). Saw Billie Jean Moffet become a King and then become Queen of tennis. 
And we may have even taken for granted the unique and wonderful fact that tennis alone among major sports held both Mens’ and Women’s Championships together, as it still does.
We also saw The Beatles turn us on in 1964 on a stage set above the turf, heard Bob Dylan get booed for plugging-in, and saw Mick prancing about; but mostly we came to see tennis played on the soft green lawns on crisp September days. 
Lew Hoad
I grew up across the street from the entrance to the club on Tennis Place. My father took me to my first matches, the Mens’ Quarter-Finals in 1956. Rosewall, Savitt, Seixas, Fraser, and Emerson played that day (all eight men were from the US or Australia!), but the one who stood out, the one I most wanted to be, was Lew Hoad, who was seeking to equal Don Budge in completing a Grand slam that year.
Hoad combined the quickness and power of Willie Mays with the agility and finesse of Nureyev (okay, I didn't know who he was in '56, but it's true). I was immediately drawn to tennis as a great running and hitting game, but was also drawn to the aesthetics of the game, as played on soft grass. This has all but disappeared in the men’s game as played today on clay and deco-turf, as well as hard-as-rock Wimbledon lawns. 
People talk today about whether Laver or Federer is the best men’s player ever, and after over fifty-years of observing the best players, I think that’s an appropriate discussion (for the record, Laver, in his prime, would win in four on the soft turf). But, I also think it’s a little sad that two names almost never enter into this conversation: Pancho Gonzales and Hoad. In their primes, at their best, they could consistently play at the same level with Laver and Federer.
Concession Near Portals 5&6
Forest Hills Stadium has seen better days. When I was last there, in 2005, it was sad to see the deterioration. I was lucky to have the very same Ken Rosewall as my partner that day, Hoad’s great friend and doubles-teammate, who defeated him in that ’56 final. Amazingly, there I was nearly fifty-years later playing with Rosewall less than a hundred yards away from center court and the stadium seats between portals five and six, where I had sat as an eight year old boy watching him. There are no coincidences in life, I assure you.
He was, as always, very gracious as I told him my story and how I had revered Hoad, who had recently passed away. We spoke about the old days, when they used to stay together with a family in “The Gardens” up on Greenway North. 
We won our short match that day, I’m relieved to report. When I asked Rosewall whether the Open was planning to honor him the next year on the fiftieth anniversary of his win, typically, he hadn’t even thought about it until that moment. As it turned out, they did honor him at the Open’s current location in what is very generously called Flushing Meadow.
Rolled For Tilden, Gibson, Laver, Evert
There was a time when I could tell people I came from Forest Hills and they immediately knew where it was, because of The Nationals. It is the kind of place that people remember visiting, even if they never really did. Many of these people remember, perhaps not so fondly, boys like myself, who made small fortunes running “pop-up” parking operations. We simply “borrowed” neighbors’ driveways so that visitors could avoid having the famously annoying parking stickers on their windows. 
Then, we conveniently disappeared, leaving clueless home-owners and hapless motorists to their own devices. Terrible, but true.
The Sun Also "Sets"

Forest Hills might have been able to renovate the Stadium and retain the Open for a while after the late-seventies, but, in the end, it would have been the parking that did them in. Whatever you think about the Flushing Open as a venue (I happen to think it’s fine), its parking operation is far superior to anything my friends and I could manage. 
The author is working on a book (a very long book it  would seem) about growing up in Forest Hills Gardens, home of The West Side Tennis Club and Tennis Stadium. You can see more photos of the old Stadium grounds and take a tour of The Gardens at :

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