The story about the 1st US Open of the Open era in 1968, and how the winner Arthur Ashe almost missed it!


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The story about the 1st US Open of the Open era in 1968, and how the winner Arthur Ashe almost missed it!

1968 saw the dawn of the Open era when professionals and amateurs were finally merged to play together, and the US Open was the 3rd Grand Slam tournament of the Open era, following Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The crowd at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills got the opportunity to see some of the most prominent players of tennis world for the first time in many years, such as Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Pancho Gonzales (won his first Major here 20 years ago), Roy Emerson and other professionals, battling against amateurs in the unknown territory for them, on the outdoor courts with heavier balls than they were used to play. Just like at Wimbledon, amateurs gave them a hard time, and beat the pro players in some 13 matches.

Also, in the final, we had Arthur Ashe and Tom Okker, and none of them was a pro. Okker alone defeated 3 pro players en route to the final, and he was a so-called registered player, an amateur who was allowed to take the prize money in certain events.

The draw was really strong, with 20 players who among them shared the 52 Wimbledon or US Open crowns, and for example, last year's finalists were set to play in the quarter-final this year. Also, the draw was rigged, as the pro players were supposed to meet from the 4th round.

How chaotic were the beginnings of the Open era we can see from the prize money awarded to the finalists. Namely, despite winning the title, Arthur Ashe earned only $15 per day, while Okker went home with immense $14,000! The tournament wasn't perfect, but it was clear that organization can not be at its best with 3 groups in charge of running it: USLTA (the latter L will later be expelled), West Side Tennis Club and Madison Square Garden Attractions Inc., all separate to each other.

Still, this was also the unique chance for the crowd to see the current and former legends at one place, including the names like Don Budge, Frank Parker, Bobby Riggs and Pancho Segura. Among them all, Pancho Gonzales was the one who got the most attention, as probably the greatest player of all time at that point.

He was a 40-year-old giant who still had the fire and heat in his shots, reaching the quarter-final where he lost to Tom Okker by 14-16 6-3 10-8 6-3 (he defeated the 2nd seed Tony Roche in the previous round). The first seed, Rod Laver, was also eliminated before the quarter-final, as he struggled with an injured wrist that summer and coming to New York without good preparations.

Thus, for the first time at Forest Hills, none of the first two seeds managed to reach the last 8, leaving the draw wide open and with a chance for the amateur players. Arthur Ashe took down Clark Graebner 4-6 8-6 7-5 6-2 while Tom Okker ousted Ken Rosewall 8-6 6-4 6-8 6-1, to set up historic first US Open final with all relevant players included after many years.

25-year-old soldier Ashe will be victorious in the end, to write a golden page of the American tennis and make proud all the colored people of the United States. This was the biggest success of black players in the men's tennis, and it happened only 5 months after Martin Luther King have been killed, which adds additional importance to the Ashe's triumph. Only a few weeks earlier, Arthur was victorious in the US Amateur Championships at Longwood, Massachusetts, and in general, he came to Forest Hills in amazing form, not dropping a match in almost 2 months, winning the Pennsylvania Grass Court championship, US Amateur title, 4 Davis Cup matches and an Army tournament.

Some 7000 people attended the final match, which was postponed due to rain, and the crowd could see Ashe celebrating by 14-12 5-7 6-3 3-6 6-3, in a memorable match worth of such a big occasion. In addition, Arthur became the first player from the USA who won the US Open crown since 1955 and Tony Trabert, setting up the path for the Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe that will soon emerge.

It was an open battle right from the opening point, with Ashe taking the opening set 14-12. Although they played 26 games, the set lasted just 63 or 64 minutes, as both players were engaged in fearsome serve&volley tennis (Ashe fired 15 aces in the first set alone).

Okker got back in contention when he took the 2nd set 7-5, only to trail again after set 3, which went to Ashe's favor by 6-3. Okker refused to be defeated without further struggle, he won the 4th set to send the match into a decider, giving the crowd a first class tennis encounter.

In the 5th set, Arthur made a crucial break in the 2nd game and kept the lead until the end, for his 25th victory in a row that summer, for sure the most important one. The match lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes and Arthur became the only amateur who held some of the 6 biggest national championships: Laver won Wimbledon, Rosewall Roland Garros, Newcombe Hamburg, Drysdale Gstaad and Okker, as registered player, lifted the Irish Open in Dublin. One fact is also interesting, and it is linked to the tremendous importance of Davis Cup in those chaotic tennis times.

Arthur Ashe was an instructor of the computer programming at West Point Academy, and he was a part of the USA Davis Cup team in the matches against Ecuador and Spain (both at home in the USA) that summer. The USA won both ties and they are about to play in the Interzone final against West Germany, Japan or India in November, so the US Open served as a kind of preparation for Ashe for that upcoming Davis Cup match.

If it was the other way around, Ashe would be forced to go back to the West Point, and he wouldn't be allowed to play in the US Open! From today's perspective, and knowing everything he has done for the American tennis (the greatest tennis stadium has been named after him), it is easy to see how devastating could have been the consequences of such a decision if it comes to it.

Around 100,000 people went through the gates at Forest Hills that season, with $400,000 earned by the organizers. 1968 US Open results since the 4th round: 4th Round: [16]Cliff Drysdale (RSA) vs [1]Rod Laver (AUS) 4-6 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-1
[5]Arthur Ashe (USA) vs [14]Roy Emerson (AUS) 6-4 9-7 6-2
[4]John Newcombe (AUS) vs Torben Ulrich (DEN) 5-7 4-6 6-4 10-8 6-4
[7]Clark Graebner (USA) vs Eugene Scott (USA) 7-5 6-0 6-3
[6]Dennis Ralston (USA) vs Niki Pilic (YUG) 2-6 6-2 5-7 13-11 6-3
[3]Ken Rosewall (AUS) vs Ron Holmberg (USA) 6-3 6-3 2-6 8-6
[8]Tom Okker (NED) vs Peter Curtis (GBR) 8-6 2-6 6-3 6-2
[13]Pancho Gonzales (USA) vs [2]Tony Roche (AUS) 8-6 6-4 6-2 1/4: [5]Arthur Ashe (USA) vs [16]Cliff Drysdale (RSA) 8-10 6-3 9-7 6-4
[7]Clark Graebner (USA) vs [4]John Newcombe (AUS) 5-7 11-9 6-1 6-4
[3]Ken Rosewall (AUS) vs [6]Dennis Ralston (USA) 6-2 6-2 6-3
[8]Tom Okker (NED) vs [13]Pancho Gonzales (USA) 14-16 6-3 10-8 6-3 1/2: [5]Arthur Ashe (USA) vs [7]Clark Graebner (USA) 4-6 8-6 7-5 6-2
[8]Tom Okker (NED) vs [3]Ken Rosewall (AUS) 8-6 6-4 6-8 6-1 Final: [5]Arthur Ashe (USA) vs [8]Tom Okker (NED) 14-12 5-7 6-3 3-6 6-3 ALSO READ: Rafael Nadal to Play Davis Cup World Group Play-off Tie against India