US Open - History | Records | Classic Encounters
US Open Tennis: Tournament History, Famous Matches, Legends and Record Breakers
Every year the world’s finest tennis players descend upon the Big Apple to fight for fame and fortune at the US Open. It is the richest tournament of the year and arguably the most prestigious of the four Grand Slams, so it is always ferociously competitive. It has played host to some of the greatest matches of all time and served up a thrilling blend of excitement, drama and heartbreak over the years.
US Open - History and Tournament Prestige
The tournament began life as the US National Championship all the way back in 1881, while the American dream was unfolding and gunslingers were running riot in the Wild West, the tennis connoisseurs had altogether more civilised concerns. They banded together to form the United States Tennis Association in New York City, and the inaugural US National Championship was hosted on grass courts in Rhode Island.
Richard Sears surged to victory that year and he would go on to defend his title for the next six years in a row. The tournament used a challenge system whereby the defending champion automatically qualified for the final, where he would take on the winner of the all-comers tournament, who was presumably exhausted by that point. In 1987, the tournament was opened up to female players and 17-year-old Ellen Hansell won the inaugural title in her home city of Philadelphia. Women’s doubles began in 1989 and mixed doubles commenced three years later.
The men’s, women’s and doubles championships were all contested at different locations until 1968, when the tournament was renamed the US Open and they were hosted at a common site: The West Side Tennis Club in Queens, New York City. That year marked the beginning of the Open era, when professional tennis players were allowed to compete for the first time. Ninety-six men and 63 women entered the tournament that year, and they competed for a total prize pool of $100,000.
In 1970, the US Open hosted the first ever tiebreaker to decide the outcome of a set. Three years later, it became the first tournament to award equal prize money to men and women, with John Newcombe and Margaret Court each receiving $25,000. In 1975, the tournament moved from clay to grass, while the advent of floodlights allowed it to be played at night for the first time.
The US Open moved to its current location – the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens – and the surfaced switched from clay to hardcourt. The venue continued to grow over the years and the main court, the Arthur Ashe Stadium, now hosts 22,000 fans, while the Louis Armstrong Stadium has 10,000 seats.
It typically hosts more than 700,000 fans over two weeks of action, before winners are crowned on the final weekend. The venue was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006 to celebrate the former great. A retractable roof was added to the Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2016 to allow play to continue in the event of rain.
Bjorn Borg vs John McEnroe, 1980 Men’s Final
The 1980 US Open final was probably the most eagerly anticipated tennis match of all time. That summer saw Bjorn Borg beat John McEnroe 1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7, 8–6 in the final of Wimbledon, a showdown regarded as the greatest match ever played. It featured an epic 18-16 tiebreak in the fourth set and captured the imagination by pitting polar opposites against one another. Borg was renowned for his ice-cool demeanour and devastating baseline play, whereas serve-and-volley expert McEnroe was all fire and brimstone. Borg edged the Wimbledon final and they headed to the US Open as the top two seeds once more, on course for another gripping battle.
It did not disappoint. Both men coasted through to the final and they locked horns in another extremely close contest. McEnroe edged the first set via a tiebreaker and then swept his rival aside to clinch the second set 6-1. However, Borg’s resilience was remarkable in the third set as he delivered a string of clean winners to take the tiebreak. He won the fourth set 7-5 to set up a nail-biting finale. Borg surprisingly faltered, committing two double faults in the seventh game of the deciding set, and McEnroe broke. The American then served out the match to seize a second consecutive US Open title in front of his adoring home fans.
Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert, 1984 Women’s Final
These greats of the game faced one another 80 times during their careers, and this match was the absolute pinnacle of their absorbing rivalry. Navratilova had beaten Evert 12 times before this match began, most of them in comfortable fashion. She went in as the defending champion, having beaten Evert the previous year, and she was just one win short of equalling Evert’s Open-era record of 55 straight victories on tour.
Everyone expected this match to be another one-sided affair, but Evert came out all guns blazing and took the first set 6-4. Fans witnessed some terrific rallies as Navratilova rallied to win the second set 6-4 after surviving two tricky break points at a crucial stage in proceedings. In the end, Navratilova closed out 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory and Evert said she choked under pressure, but this match was a turning point in their rivalry and they competed on a much more even keel from that point on. Navratilova did, however, go on to extend her winning streak to 74 matches before she finally tasted defeat at the Australian Open the following year.
Mats Wilander vs Ivan Lendl, 1988 Men’s Final
The 1988 final brought two sensational baseline players together for a truly titanic battle of wills. Lendl had occupied the world number one spot for 159 consecutive weeks and he was bidding to win his fourth straight US Open title. Wilander had never previously lifted the trophy, he had lost his six previous meetings with Lendl and the Swede was considered to be a huge outsider. Yet he won the first set 6-4 and gained belief in his ability to win what would prove to be a real seesaw contest.
Lendl took the second set, Wilander seized the third and then Lendl won the fourth 7-5. Each set was almost an hour long, as many rallies lasted 30 to 40 strokes and it proved to be a real war of attrition. It went into a gruelling final set, and Wilander eventually claimed it 6-4, becoming the first Swedish player to win the US Open, a feat that Borg could not pull off. At 4 hours and 54 minutes, it remains one of the longest matches in US Open history, and it proved to be Wilander’s last Grand Slam title.
Steffi Graf vs Monica Seles, 1995 Women’s Final
Steffi Graf and Monica Seles should have contested the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis. Graf reigned supreme in the women’s game until Seles – four years her junior – came along and won eight Grand Slam titles before her 20th birthday. She deposed the German as world number one and looked to have a great career ahead of her, but a crazed Graf fan ran onto the court in Hamburg and stabbed her in 1993. That kept Seles out of action for more than two years, and many thought she would never return.
Yet she returned to the tour in August 1995 and instantly won the Canadian Open, reminding everyone of her talents. Seles then defeated world number 10 Anker Huber, number four Jana Novotna and number three Conchita Martinez in straight sets to surge into the final, where Graf was waiting. Graf edged a tight first set 7-5, before Seles absolutely blew her away in the second, taking it 6-0. Yet she eventually ran out of steam and Graf won the third set 6-3 to clinch the title. She called the win the best of her career. Seles went on to win the Australian Open in 1996, but that was her final Grand Slam, as she could never rediscover her best form on a consistent basis.
Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi, 2001 Men’s Quarter-Finals
These two superstars dominated the men’s game at the turn of the century and they frequently engaged in almighty battles on court. Sampras held a slim 17-14 lead in the head-to-heads when they met in the 2001 quarter-finals, but they were very evenly matched 22,000 fans inside the Arthur Ashes Stadium settled in for a classic. Sampras eventually prevailed 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5) and the match did not finish until 12.14am, but virtually the entire crowd stayed to watch it unfold.
This match had everything. Agassi saved a triple set point to win the first set tiebreaker 9-7, before Sampras delivered a stunning drop volley to win the second. Consecutive aces landed him the third. It went to 6-5 in the fourth set tiebreaker and Agassi missed a short forehand, giving Sampras the victory.
Neither man dropped a service game and it was a truly thrilling contest. “Probably about as good as it gets, playing the very best in a night match at the US Open,” said Sampras after the match. He went to the final that year, but lost in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt, who claimed his first Grand Slam title and became the youngest male to ever be ranked number one, at the age of 20. Sampras’ reign as world number one ended in 2000 and he never regained it. Agassi returned to the number one spot for 11 weeks during 2003, but Roger Federer seized it in 2004 and held onto it for a record-breaking 237 weeks.
Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer, 2011 Men’s Semi-Finals
Djokovic and Federer have been involved in some of the most spellbinding matches of all time, but this one really stands out. It is notable for Djokovic producing one of the greatest clutch shots ever witnessed. Federer played with supreme panache throughout the match and he won the first two sets on the back of some dazzling winners. Yet the Serb rallied and took the third and fourth sets to set up a tense decider.
Federer opened up a 5-3 lead and he had two match points at 40-15. At that point Djokovic unleashed a crosscourt forehand return winner that McEnroe described as one of the all-time great shots. To produce such a moment of magic in such a tense situation required nerves of steel, and it clearly rattled Federer. Djokovic saved the next match point and went on to win four consecutive games to close out the match. It was the second consecutive year in which the Serb saved two match points to beat Federer in the US Open final. He then beat Nadal in four sets during an absorbing final, gaining sweet revenge for his defeat to the Spaniard the previous year.
US Open Historic Records & Stats
Evert won six women’s singles titles between 1975 and 1982 and nobody has ever bettered that tally. Yet Serena Williams moved level with her on six titles when she lifted the famous trophy in 2014. Williams went to the final last year, but ended up losing 6-2, 6-4 to Naomi Osaka during an ill-tempered match. She will have another chance to become the most decorated player during the Open era when the action gets underway at Flushing Meadows in 2019.
Three men share the record for the most US Open wins during the Open era, as Federer, Sampras and Jimmy Connors are on five apiece. Connors’ haul is arguably the most impressive, as it came when the surface changed twice. He is the only player to win the US Open on grass, clay and hardcourt. Yet Federer could also move out in front of Connors and Sampras this year if he can prevail.
The US Open tennis betting shows that he is among the favourites, although he will need to be on fire to stop world number one Djokovic. The Serb is on three US Open titles, but he might fancy his chances of reaching at least five before he retires.
Sampras and Lendl share the record for the most final appearances during the Open era, with eight apiece, while Evert went to the most finals among the women. She won six, but lost one to Tracy Austin and two to Navratilova. Evert owns the record for the most consecutive US Open title wins, with four. Lendl holds the record for the most consecutive finals, as he went to eight in a row, although he lost five of them. Federer secured the most consecutive title triumphs by winning the tournament five years in a row during an outrageous spell of dominance between 2004 and 2008.
Connors holds the record for the most singles tournaments played, with 22, while Agassi and Navratilova both competed 21 times. Connors also played the most matches at 115, while Evert took part in 113 matches. Connors won a remarkable 98 of his 113 matches, and Evert did even better, winning 101 of hers. Sampras holds the record for the longest gap between men’s singles titles, as he won his first US Open in 1990 and his last in 2002. Williams won her first in 1999 and then her sixth in 2014, a 15-year gap. She heads the tennis spreads for the upcoming US Open, so she might just extend that to 20 years.
The USA has been by far and away the most successful represented country at the tournament, with 25 wins in the women’s singles and 19 in the men’s. Australia is second with four wins in the women’s and six in the men’s. The youngest male champion was Sampras, aged 19 in 1990, and the oldest was 35-year-old Ken Rosewell in 1970. Tracy Austin was just 16 when she won the US Open in 1979, while Flavia Pennetta was 33 in 2015. Federer and Williams will hope to break those records in 2019, as they are both aged 37 now and they are still reaching Grand Slam finals.
Sampras holds the record for the most aces in a tournament, as he hit 144 in 2002. That saw him break his own record of 141, set in 1955. Williams holds the record for the most aces in a women’s singles tournament, as she hit 70 in 1999. She is also second, third, fourth and fifth on the list, as no other player in history can match the power of her serve. She hit 18 aces during a single match on three different occasions, and that remains a record. Ivo Karlovic holds the record among the men, as he thundered in an impressive 61 aces when he beat Lu Yen-hsun in five sets in 2016.