August 25, 1997: The day the US Open officially opened Arthur Ashe stadium court
Every day, Tennis Majors goes back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On this day in 1997, the Arthur Ashe stadium court was inaugurated in honour of the great American champion
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, August 25 in 1997, at Flushing Meadows, New York, the new Arthur Ashe Stadium was christened, replacing Louis Armstrong Stadium as the main court of the US Open. Prior to the match, a beautiful dedication ceremony was held, with a tribute to Arthur Ashe, in the presence of his widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe. Whitney Houston was there as a guest star, singing “One Moment in Time” in front of 38 former US Open champions. The first player to win on the new biggest tennis venue in the world, with a capacity of 23,000 spectators, was Tamarine Tanasugarn, who beat Chanda Rubin, 6-4, 6-0.
The facts: Naming the site after Arthur Ashe was a unanimous decision
The US Open (known as the US Nationals before 1968 and the start of the Open Era), was established in 1881 and although it is the only Grand Slam to have been played every single year without an interruption since its beginning, it moved several locations several times throughout the 20th century. First held in August 1881 on grass courts at the Newport Casino, in Rhode Island, the tournament moved to New York in 1915, where it was held at the West Side Tennis Club, at Forest Hills until 1977 (with the exception of years 1921-1923, when the event was moved to Philadelphia).
At Forest Hills, the Center Court built in 1924 could host 14,000 spectators.
In 1978, the US Open left the West Side Tennis Club, which was now too small for such a major event, for the USTA National Tennis Center located in Flushing Meadows, New York. The USTA National Tennis Center was one of the biggest tennis complexes in the world: its Center Court was the Louis Armstrong Stadium, which had a capacity of 14,000 spectators.
In 1990, Flushing Meadows was being heavily criticized by the players, many of them calling it their least favourite Grand Slam, mainly because of loud noises from the planes flying over La Guardia airport. The USTA considered moving the event to a new site but it was eventually decided to renovate the tennis center and make it more attractive to the players and the crowds. The deal between the USTA and the city of New York was sealed on December 14, 1993. The new project included the building of a new Center Court, bigger and more modern than the Louis Armstrong Stadium, to be named after former champion Arthur Ashe – who passed away, from complications due to contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion, in February 1993.
Ashe was the first and only black man to win the US Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon. He was also the first African-American man to compete for the United States’ Davis Cup team. Ashe was also an active civil rights supporter.
“Naming the site after Ashe was a unanimous decision,” reflected David Dinkins, mayor of New York at the time (quoted by theundefeated.com). “More important than what Ashe had done for the sport, was what he had done for society…. I have never, ever, heard anybody question the appropriateness of the stadium being named for Arthur. This is remarkable.”
The Arthur Ashe Stadium was completed in 1997 and its construction cost $254 million. With a capacity of 23,000, the new showcase arena was the biggest tennis stadium in the world. On August 25, 1997, the new court opened its gates to the public for the first time. Before the match started, a dedication ceremony was held, in presence of Arthur Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and 38 former US Open champions.
The ceremony included a video about Ashe, narrated by Dinkins, and a concert by the pop superstar Whitney Houston herself. The famous singer sang “One Moment in Time,” which she dedicated to Arthur Ashe.
His widow commented, “Arthur loved this city. He won the US Open here. We met here. Our daughter has spent her life here.”
After the ceremony, the first players to step on to the new court were world No 32 Chanda Rubin, from USA, and world No 41 Tamarine Tanasugarn, from Thailand. 20-year old Tanasugarn prevailed 6-4, 6-0 although she admitted she was not used to playing on main arenas. “I played on Court 1 in Wimbledon two years ago, the final of junior Wimbledon, so that was my biggest at that time. (…) I feel very happy that I played in the stadium, to be one of the first players (in the) stadium.”
What next? The Arthur Ashe Stadium changes colour scheme
In 2005, the colour scheme for the courts would be changed from green to electric blue for the comfort of television viewers. In 2006, the Hawk-Eye system would be used in Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time. After five straight years of rain delays which forced the men’s singles final to spill over to a third Monday (from 2008 to 2012), a retractable roof would be built on top of the Arthur Ashe stadium for a cost of $150 million. In 2020, the Arthur Ashe Stadium would still be the biggest tennis venue in the world, the second one being the 02 Arena in London, hosting the year-end Masters Cup.