Straight Sets at Night: How the Lights at the U.S. Open Changed Tennis
On the 40th anniversary of the U.S Open's first match under the lights, an examination of how night tennis has succeeded and failed at making the sport more democratic.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
By 1975, American tennis was at something of a crossroads.
It had only been seven years since the start of the open era that allowed professionals to compete in Grand Slams, five years since the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam to use tiebreaks in a deciding set, and two years since the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money for men and women, a milestone that still remains too rare in professional sports. The sport was booming with dynamic personalities on court and fans clamoring to watch them play professional levels of the sport that David Foster Wallace wrote decades later "involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action." The sport, itself, seemed to be in similar period of growth.
For American tennis, it was a matter of go big or get out. So organizers with the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, said, let there be floodlights.
This year, the United States Open celebrates the 40th anniversary of night matches, an element of the tournament that many tennis fans may miss as they sip their martinis from plastic glasses. The introduction of night matches marked a glacial, but significant, shift in thinking around sports spectatorship, and who and how people consume sports.
"You have so many great sporting events that are at night like the World Series and the Super Bowl," Paul Fein, a tennis writer who has studied the history of the game, said. "It just made sense to capitalize on that. You had millions of people working 9 to 5 who couldn't watch. It was a brilliant move to make the sport more accessible to the masses."
Today, just as in 1975, tennis is trying to shed its image of being solely a country club sport and push to wider audiences. By some measures, that effort has worked. When New Zealand's Onny Parun defeated American Stan Smith in straight sets in the first-ever U.S. Open night match, an estimated 5,000 people— less than a quarter of the capacity of today's Arthur Ashe Stadium—reportedly were in attendance. Today, the night sessions have also created a longer and denser calendar that allowed for more than 700,000 fans to attend the Open for the seven of the last eight years. Thursday's women's semi-final will be the last night match of this year's tournament.
By shedding the sport's aristocratic roots, the U.S. Open was reversing a longstanding history in which one-percenters of yore had sufficient (daylight) leisure time to play the sport, as opposed to commoners who were more concerned with trying to survive. In The Turke and Sir Gawain, one of King Arthur's knights, Sir Gawain, played tennis against a gaggle of giants. Henry VIII of England was a tennis fan, as was Francis I of France. King Charles IX was a big enough tennis fan that he reportedly commissioned the Corporation of Tennis Professionals in the late 1500s, what may have been the first-ever professional tour.
The daytime flavor of the game continued to spread among Europe's upper crust, and in the late 1800s, made its way onto posh lawns, particularly in England. With access to outdoor lighting being extremely limited, lawn tennis continued its American ascent with a reputation as a daytime sport of sophistication and leisure. American Mary Ewing Outerbridge is credited with bringing tennis to the United States, and in the 1870s, she set up one of the nation's earliest tennis courts near where the Staten Island Ferry Terminal is today. (The Outerbridges were something of a power family when it comes to overlooked New York City institutions. Her brother, Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge, was the first chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.) By 1881, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the U.S.T.A.), was formed and a men's singles competition was held that year in the wealthy mecca of Newport, Rhode Island.
Only clubs that were members of the Lawn Tennis Association were allowed to compete and in 1915, precisely a century ago, the tournament moved from Rhode Island to New York with the hope that it would expand the reach of the sport to a wider swath of tennis clubs and fans. If they couldn't come to the lawn, the lawn would come to them.
It would take another 60 years for night tennis to arrive, and it has successfully accommodated most workday schedules, even as night tennis has garnered some grumbling from players, fans and coaches, as some sets are played well past 2 a.m. But night tennis has also offered up some of the sport's most iconic moments. The late 1970s night matches provided a glowing backdrop for John McEnroe's outbursts. In the first-ever women's night final in 2001, Venus Williams defeated her sister, Serena, just three days before the planes would hit the World Trade Center. In 2005, Andy Roddick, a 2003 U.S. Open champion was knocked out in the first round by the 68th seed from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller.
Television then, and now, drives much of sports business, and common sense dictates that by airing games at night (think: Monday Night Football), the working class fans are more likely to tune in. But there tennis has still found resistance. In 1975, the year that the Open introduced night matches, 5.5 million households tuned into the CBS telecast, according to Nielsen. Last year's tournament drew only 1.6 million.
Part of the lack of interest in night—or day—matches is that ironically, aside from the Williams sisters, the pipeline for American tennis talent is sputtering. It has been more than a decade since Andy Roddick captured the men's singles title at the U.S. Open. John Isner, ranked No. 18, is the lone American in the top 25 of the ATP men's singles rankings. Ask any parent of an elite youth tennis player how much they spend on travel, lessons, fees and equipment for their child and prepare to be met with laughter.
Regardless of on-court rankings, the atmosphere of the night matches at the U.S. Open have earned a reputation for rowdiness; booze is served, hooting expected, a celebrity sighting more likely than the daytime matches.
"The quiet crowd at Wimbledon is one extreme and the U.S. Open night crowd is on the other," Fein said, pointing to one night match incident in 1977 when a spectator was shot in the stands. "More crazy things happen at the U.S. Open than any of the other tournaments."
It's fitting for New York, Marija Zivlak, author of the Women's Tennis Blog, said. "Night matches at the US Open are the tennis reflection of that electrifying atmosphere of the metropolis. The lights, loud music and ecstatic fans make the night sessions a spectacle, ensuring unique experience with big tennis names who have earned their place at the grand stage. It's more than a sports night; it's also a show, a party."
This year's evening tournament has produced a decent dose of drama, but controversy has remained over how much of tennis's fortunes will ripple throughout Queens, a cloud of debate that surrounds many professional sports. Already, tickets for night matches are going for several thousands of dollars, far out of reach for most people in a county where the median family income is $57,000. Nor are many of the luxury brands on board as sponsors of the event – Mercedes Benz, Tiffany & Co., Grey Goose, Citizen – household brands for locals...or most Americans.
Wallace, himself a top junior player, wrote in his epic Infinite Jest that "nets and fences can be mirrors."
"And between the nets and fences, opponents are also mirrors," he said. "This is why the whole thing is scary. This is why all opponents are scary and weaker opponents are especially scary. See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the Game. To accept the fact that the Game is about managed fear. That its object is to send from yourself what you hope will not return."
Perhaps, for the athletes, the nets and fences are mirrors and will continue to be such, day or night. But as fans make their way to the hallowed night grounds for a 40th time, it's as good of an occasion as any to think about the implications of who can access sports, on and off courts, even when the lights are on.