Tennis built it and they came

The dream and the building of the National Tennis Center -- and later Louis Armstrong Stadium -- in Flushing, New York, yanked tennis out of the country club and transformed this once elitist game. Mike Stobe/Getty Images for USTA

NEW YORK -- Shortly before the start of the 1978 US Open, the first to be held at the newly built National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, USTA president Slew Hester took this reporter for a walking tour of the facility.

The NTC was a mass of macadam walkways; rubberized, green DecoTurf courts; and cyclone fences interspersed here and there with a lonely tree. Louis Armstrong Stadium, the only stadium, was a jumble of exposed steel beams and concrete.

I expressed some reservations about the charm deficit and lack of greenery. In a typical gesture, Hester clapped me on the back and said, "This is just the beginning, boy -- by 1979, the US Open is going to be more beautiful than Wimbledon."

Well, that didn't happen in 1979. But over time, and in its own way, the National Tennis Center has gotten there. And that's but one of the reasons that on this 50th anniversary of Open tennis, the NTC -- now the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center -- stands out as perhaps the most significant development of the past half-century.

Watching the tennis over the next two weeks at the NTC, it will be difficult to imagine the humble beginnings. Not many spectators will know, or even need to know, that Roger and Serena, Rafa and Simona are playing in the venue that transformed tennis.

Wimbledon's Centre Court might be tennis' most ancient, sacred shrine. But it was the National Tennis Center that yanked tennis out of the country club, launching the democratization that transformed the face of this once thoroughly elitist game. It happened a decade after tennis opened up the Grand Slam tournaments to professional players in 1968, launching the Open era.

Not coincidentally, the driving force was a visionary populist named Slew Hester. The USTA president in 1977-78, Hester was from off the tennis grid, a native of Jackson, Mississippi. He convinced his reluctant peers in the USTA to back his plan to move the US Open from the private, grass court-heavy West Side Tennis Club in Queens, New York, into the public park, using a public facility built by the USTA.

Distance-wise, Forest Hills and Flushing Meadows are just 2.9 miles apart. Demographically, and in just about every other imaginable way, they were, and remain, light years divorced.

Within a decade of the USTA's move to the NTC, Tennis Australia took its own Grand Slam out of Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club and built a public venue with hard courts in Melbourne Park. Wimbledon and Roland Garros resisted such a drastic move, but the overnight success of the fan-friendly, egalitarian-minded US and Australian opens motivated officials at those events to renovate and expand, and to cater to far larger and more diverse audiences.

In 1977, the last year the US Open was held at Forest Hills, attendance topped out (and this was the height of the "tennis boom") at 250,000. Nearly three times that many fans attended the tournament last year. In Australia, the last tournament at Kooyong drew 140,089 fans. This year, 743,667 flocked to Melbourne Park. The promise to make the game more available and welcoming to a larger audience seems fulfilled.

But there's another story within the story. It's the evolution of the NTC, a transformation reminiscent of that beloved fairy tale, "The Ugly Duckling."

Hester was able to build the NTC on its present 17-acre site in less than a year, running just $500,000 over a $9 million budget. It was clear that the architects were not tasked with creating a genteel, country club vibe. At night, under the lights, Louis Armstrong Stadium could easily be mistaken for an oil refinery.

What passed for "show courts" had temporary bleachers thrown up parallel to the sidelines. Court 3, one of the most strategically located of courts, was so close to a grilled hamburger concession that sometimes clouds of deliciously greasy smoke would waft over, tempting players and fans alike to abandon their posts.

More than 75 flags lined the boardwalk from the subway to the gates and the rim of the Louie. Oddly, every one of them was the Stars and Stripes, as if this were the US Closed. But it was easy to understand why the USTA was moved to thump its chest, celebrating the start of a new era. Building the NTC was a bold and risky move.

People often go on about our (American) habit of bulldozing our past into oblivion, our mania for the new or next great thing. But the NTC was never abandoned for that mythical something better. The USTA has entertained offers to move the tournament to other, more user-friendly places, but never seriously. What bulldozing has been done occurred in the name of improvement (witness the brand-new, covered Louis Armstrong Stadium). Renovation, not razing, has been the guiding principle. And isn't that statue of Arthur Ashe, near the South Gate, just beautiful?

The most amazing thing about the National Tennis Center is that time has not left it behind. Over 40 years, Hester's vision has come to pass in more ways than one.