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Joel Drucker: Where Once Tennis Giants Walked the Earth

It was 4:35 p.m. in Queens, New York. In the US Open women’s final, Sloane Stephens had just consolidated an early break of Madison Keys’ serve to go up 4-2 in the first set.

Just over three miles to the west, also in Queens, the chairs at the bar of the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) in Forest Hills were now full.

To watch the tennis on this Saturday afternoon had been a capstone, a coda to the kind of sparkling weekend day recreational tennis players live for. All day in Queens, the weather had been dry and crisp, with a touch of a breeze. At 8:30 a.m. there had been the weekly clinic, a trio of WSTC pros, Guillermo Oropez, Akemi Kinoshita and Jeramy Solema, putting members through their paces on three Har-Tru courts.

Scattered throughout the club, there were the regular foursomes and singles matches. There were parents and children. There were older members who didn’t play anymore, but enjoyed the chance to watch their friends, or the better players, or various guests. Outside the iconic clubhouse, a cozy terrace area for dining overlooked a lush bank of grass courts.

Tennis director Bob Ingersole, a kindly Aussie and member of the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame, worked the grounds, from the courts to the terrace to the clubhouse chatting up members. “Get on the court with him and you will see that he runs down every possible ball,” he said as he set up a hit on the grass.

It was all not much different from what you’ll see at many a club on a weekend. But only the West Side Tennis Club had once been the center of the American tennis universe. Only the West Side Tennis Club had hosted the US Open until the end of 1977. Only the West Side Tennis Club had such longstanding members as Nancy Crabill.

In the ‘70s, Crabill had been a model for Kodel, a fashion company with the slogan, “The Fiber of American Life.” Kodel had been a US Open sponsor. From 1974-’77, Crabill had a distinct US Open task. She and another Kodel model would wait just outside the stadium and, as the player arrived, carry his racquets and a bouquet of flowers on the court. Only for the finals were the women players given this treatment; more than 40 years later, Crabill remembered how great it had been to walk Chris Evert out to play three straight championship matches.

It had all been so intimate. To get to the stadium, players would exit the iconic, Tudor-style clubhouse and walk through the grounds across a narrow path, past approximately 7-8 tennis courts. At the 1973 US Open, less than three weeks before she was set to play Bobby Riggs, two-time defending champion Billie Jean King lost a match right in front of the terrace, amid the clatter of clinking silverware and dining members. One year, as Crabill began to head from clubhouse to stadium, she was approached by Jimmy Connors, who asked her to convey a pre-match message to Evert.

That first decade of the Open era, from ’68-’77, had seen the game grow like a weed. The cozy club began to bulge with spectators and see its DNA hit by change. Though members had adhered to an all-white dress code, the pros of those years showcased vibrant colors – Connors in red, John Newcombe in pink, Billie Jean King with her splashy World Team Tennis outfits, Tracy Austin in her peach pinafore. The scoreboard, updates once hand-painted, turned electric and featured a massive Marlboro logo. Television surfaced in a big way, its trucks, cameras and cables slithered across the grounds. And few who’d been there could never forget the life-sized “Mr. Peanut” and his companion, “Ms. Peanut,” that became a presence at the tournament starting in 1973. America, turned Technicolor in the ‘60s, had embarked on a torrid romance with tennis – and the West Side Tennis Club was the helter-skelter center of the shift from acoustic garden party of patricians and cognoscenti to an electric jungle of commerce and commotion.

Then it had all gone away. An upset Crabill did not attend the US Open for the first five years it was held at Flushing Meadows. But by the ‘80s, Crabill realized she liked tennis too much. “It’s fun over there,” she said. It was delightful to see that Crabill had on a pair of aviator glasses quite similar to those King had worn in the ‘70s.

From the morning clinic to the various foursomes and singles that comprised the day, many a member was too young to have recalled those days; or even more pointedly, had any emotional connection to the great tennis and hundreds of players who had trekked across the grounds. Is that good? Is that bad?

There was also Bea Hunt, a member since 1971, co-chair of the club’s archives committee. Thoroughly versed in the club’s history, Hunt devotes hours to sorting through publications, draw sheets, metal signs with player names, photos, furniture, magazines, books; the tennis loot of the world, donated by collectors, other times found in assorted nooks and crannies of the now 94-year-old stadium.

Hunt even had command of a lesser-known aspect of the stadium’s history. In addition to the tennis, it had once hosted concerts (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, The Doors Bob Dylan) and had in recent years begun to host more. It was rather surreal to be shown an excavated and unopened safe that was at least 50 years old (Acme Safe Company, a name evocative of that cartoon character, Wily Coyote) and then spot a yellow and blue billboard listing such acts from 2017 as The Chainsmokers and Chance the Rapper.

Around the stadium were a series of drawings that juxtaposed the tennis players and musicians who’d played at Forest Hills. A pair of lefties, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Connors. The trio of Bill Tilden, Paul Simon, Arthur Ashe. Another trio: The Rolling Stones, Billie Jean King, Barbra Streisand.

The Stephens-Keys final moved swiftly. Members gathered around the bar to watch. When Keys made yet another of her 30 unforced errors, each let out a collective groan. A sharp winner from Stephens earned a loud yell. “This is getting ugly,” said one as Stephens went up a set and 4-love. “Let’s go, baby,” another said to the TV.

West of the terrace, across two grass courts, others competed in a lively team tennis competition. The juxtaposition of Stephens, in her sherbet-color dress, alongside the members on the grass clad strictly in white, was momentarily jarring. “If the members wanted to get rid of that dress code, that would be fine,” a 60+ member told me, adding that in the winter, when an indoor bubble is raised over the courts, there is no all-white rule.

When Stephens closed out the 61-minute match, all at the bar burst into cheers. “Now that’s classy,” said one as she watched winner give loser a long hug.

Back on the grass, the competition continued. Would those in action care to watch the final later? Whether yes or no maybe didn’t even matter. With their own racquets and strokes, many members at the West Side Tennis Club were fully engaged in the tennis lifestyle.

It was a nice chatting point to occupy a spot where tennis giants had once walked the earth. But these kind of iconic venues possessed many strands across their memberships. There were those like Hunt and Crabill who could see yesterday as today. Crabill recalled how fascinated she was by Bjorn Borg, how she’d watched him during the pre-match performance of the national anthem and been struck by his incredible composure. With the requisite empathy, it was easy to picture an attractive young lady, her gaze fixed on the athletic Swede, her imagination headed in all sorts of directions. Had that been merely a passing tremor of memory or a jolt to her consciousness that echoed through decades, shaped even her life choices? Only a very long conversation would provide the answer. Or, to steal from Freud, sometimes tennis is only tennis.

Then there was the steady, relentless stream of time that carried one tennis player and facility after another into a persistent present. The conventional view has it that the US Open had gotten too big for the West Side Tennis Club, that the need for parking, bigger stadia and better player accommodations made it untenable for an old school club to host such a big event.

But perhaps that wasn’t the only answer. Like unraveling why the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, an exploration might reveal how a few steps might have ensured that the tournament stayed where it had long been.

Akin to a mansion that had once been occupied by several generations of a famed family, the West Side Tennis Club was laced with mystery and questions, art and remnants, books and photos, chairs and tables and rugs, voices and pieces of a history that by its nature would remain enchanting and elusive.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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