What the US Open Tennis Tournament Was Like In 1948

The early years – by Stephen Miller

Photo courtesy of Michael Perlman

Photo courtesy of Michael Perlman

It was my very first US Open – 1948. But of course it was not the Open yet. That era started much later and it was then referred to as the US Tennis Championships held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. I was 8 years old. My father and I got into our 1938 Chevy and drove from Flatbush in Brooklyn out to the tennis site - Forest Hills, Queens. This was an upscale community of tree lined streets filled with beautiful Tudor homes and limited parking which presented the biggest problem of the day. But, my father got lucky getting a spot and in no time we were at the center where we just walked up to the ticket window, purchased the tickets and as easy as that, we were in. This was an early round – certainly later round tickets were much harder to come by. Much to my luck I happened to catch my favorite, Pancho Gonzalez, in an early round and easy win.

What was it like then? How did it differ from today’s game. For sure, it was a quieter and simpler time in many respects.

The stadium was modest in size. On average, the fans were much closer to the players and action than in today’s huge arenas. We had the cheap seats, towards the back sitting on concrete benches – not individual seats. The view, though from just about any seat was fine.

If there is one word to describe the difference between 1948 and 2015, it is civility. People were relatively well dressed then – no t-shirts, jeans or even shorts. During play there was absolute silence – only the sound of the racquet hitting the ball. There was no yelling, screaming or even talking. Only at the end of the rally would there be quiet applause. After a particular long rally or great shot surely there would be prolonged applause and cheering. Occasionally, at the end of a rally, the audience would respond with whistling to signal a disagreement with the decision of the umpire or linesman. Another feature of those days was good sportsmanship. If a player thought his opponent received a particularly bad call, he would deliberately lose the next point (typically by hitting the ball softly into the net so that there was no doubt of his intent). Of course today, with Hawkeye, this would not happen but this display of sportsmanship, had an impact on me whenever I competed. Winning fairly, winning the ‘right way’ was more important than just winning. Can you imagine that in today’s world? But that was how tennis was played in those days.

Who can say which era is better? Going to the Open today is an exhilarating experience. The huge crowds, the noise, the cheering, the music, the instant replays all add to the intensity, fun and excitement. But there are times, while sitting in the nosebleed section of Arthur Ashe, barely able to see the match, amongst all the noise and craziness going on around me, I sit back, close my eyes and imagine I am sitting on those uncomfortable concrete benches in the West Side Tennis club hearing only the sweet sounds of tennis.