A panoramic shot of Arthur Ashe stadium at the U.S. Open. The shot shows the tennis court and the audience in the stands

A Look at the History and Some of the Best U.S. Open Tennis Matches of All Time

A photo of the tennis court at the 2021 U.S. Open. The photo is taken from the upper stands looking down at the court. Two players are on the court.
The court at the 2021 U.S. Open. Source: New York Times

Every year from late August to early September, the U.S. Open is held in New York City. Tennis players come from around the world to crown the top players of the sport. The U.S. Open comprises the fourth part of the Grand Slam tournament; the other three are the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. Winning each of these four tournaments is a spectacular feat for any tennis player. Only a select few have achieved this prestigious goal. The most recent U.S. Open finished on September 12, 2021. Several new champions were anointed, and fans were permitted in the stands once again after not being present in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This article will look at the long and storied history of the U.S. Open. I’ll also list some of the best all-time matches to take place at this tournament. First, let’s go back to the late 1880s, when the U.S. Open tennis tournament began.

Early Years

A black and white photo, most likely taken during the late 1800s, of the U.S. National Championship. The players are playing on a grass court, and they are surrounded by spectators.
The U.S. National Championship during the late 19th century. Source: USOpen.org

The current version of the U.S. Open evolved from the U.S. National Championship, which began in August of 1881. Technically, this makes the U.S. Open one of the oldest tennis championships in the world. The tournament was first held at the Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island. Games were played on grass courts. In it’s initial year, only members of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA) were permitted to compete. This rule was soon overturned.

In the tournament’s early years, only men were allowed to play. Then, in 1887, women were permitted to compete in the championship, albeit in a division separate from the men. This is why there is a men’s singles and a women’s singles division in the U.S. Open. As the years progressed, more divisions were added to the U.S. Open. Men’s doubles was added in 1888, while the Mixed Doubles division first took place in 1892. The women would get their doubles division in 1899.

Move to New York City

For the first 27 years of the U.S. Open’s existence, tournaments were held in states neighboring New York, such as Rhode Island and New Jersey. This all changed in 1915. In that year, a group of 100 tennis players signed a petition in favor of relocating the tournament. The group argued that more tennis clubs, players, and fans lived in the New York City area. Therefore, moving to the New York Area would increase the popularity of the U.S. Open. Not everyone supported this view. The petition was opposed by a separate group of tennis players. The issue was brought to a vote at the annual USNLTA meeting. Those in favor edged out those who opposed it 128 to 119.

With the victory, the 1915 men’s singles tournament of the U.S. Open took place at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York City. However, the women’s division was held in Philadelphia at Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill.

The tournament would bounce around locations for several years. It would not be until the 1950s that the U.S. Open permanently resided in the New York City area.

The Open Era

A poster for the 1968 U.S. Open. A professional tennis player smashes his raquet against the head of an amateur tennis player.
In 1968, professional tennis players were finally allowed to compete at the U.S. Open. Source: New York Social Diary

Up until the 1960s, only amateur tennis players were allowed to compete at the U.S. Open. In 1968, professional tennis players were finally allowed to play at the tournament. This change started the “open era” of tennis; basically, the entering of professional tennis players into tennis tournaments. The prize money for the 1968 U.S. Open was $100,000, and 96 men and 63 women entered for the chance to take home the prize.

At first, the prize money for the men and women were of unequal amounts. The men received larger amounts, while women players won significantly less money. In 1973, the U.S. Open awarded equal prize money to men and women players: $250,000.

Another notable change occurred in the 1970s. For years, the U.S. Open was played on grass courts. This playing surface received complaints from players. They argued the ball bounced poorly on the grass surface. Taking these complaints to heart, the U.S. Open switched to clay courts in 1975. This change was also an experiment. The U.S. Open wanted to make their matches more T.V. friendly; clay courts looked better on television.

Post 1978

The U.S. Open underwent more changes in 1978. First, the playing surface changed from clay to hardcourt. Second, the tournament moved to the USTA National Tennis Centre in Flushing Meadows, Queens in New York City. From then on, the U.S. Open has remained at the USTA National Tennis Centre, now named the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre.

A panoramic photo of Arthur Ashe stadium, taken from the upper stands.
Arthur Ashe stadium is one of the premier venues at the U.S. Open. Source: USOpen.org

From 1984 till 2015, the U.S. Open used a scheduling strategy known as “Super Saturday”. In this schedule, men’s and women’s final matches were played on the final Saturday or Sunday of their respective tournaments. Semifinal matches were played the day before. The scheduling strategy did increase television viewership, particularly in the women’s division, which grew in popularity in the early 2000s. However, players came to dislike this schedule. It did give them a rest period between their semifinals and finals matches.

Recent Years

In recent years, more additions have come to the U.S. Open. In 2018, the tournament added a shot clock that checked the time players took between points. The U.S. Open was the first Grand Slam tournament to include this feature. The other tournaments followed suit. By 2020, all Grand Slam tournaments used a shot clock.

In 2020, the U.S. Open was held without spectators due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was the first time in the tournament’s history where fans were absent from the stands. But thanks to increased vaccination rates, the 2021 U.S. Open welcomed back fans. However, a surge in cases due to the delta variant led the U.S. Open to require fans to provide proof of a negative test result or proof of vaccination.

This tournament welcomed a new generation of tennis players battling for the coveted championship. There were plenty of great matches and surprising upsets, all of which have become a staple of the U.S. Open.

Notable Matches

Here are some of the greatest ever matches to take place at the U.S. Open. Some of these matches were epic struggles between two premier tennis players. Others featured inspiring comebacks or surprise upsets. And lastly, some matches anointed a new champion in the world of tennis. So let’s get started.

Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer: 2011 Semifinals

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic posing together on the tennis court.
Tennis greats Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic played an epic tennis match in the 2011 U.S. Open men’s semifinals. Source: Tennis World USA

This contest took place between arguably two of the best and most recognizable male tennis players of the 21st century. Federer and Djokovic, along with Rafael Nadal, make up the Big Three of men’s tennis. This trio has dominated men’s tennis with a combined win of 60 Grand Slam titles. At the U.S. Open, the Big Three have collectively won 12 titles. So it’s no surprise that two members of the trio would meet in the 2011 semifinals to determine who would go on to compete for another championship.

The match saw Djokovic make an impressive comeback. He lost the first two sets 6-7 and 4-6 to Federer, but Djokovic rallied back during the middle sets. After forcing a fifth set, Djokovic faced elimination at five games to three. Federer was about to serve for match point at 40-15. Djokovic returned the serve with an excellent crosscourt forehand return which saved him the match. Former tennis player John McEnroe called the return “one of the all time greatest shots”. Djokovic next saved the second match serve from Federer and went on to win the next four sets to seal victory.

Djokovic went on to win the men’s singles title, further adding to his impressive championship resume.

Steffi Graf vs. Monica Seles: 1995 Finals

Monica Seles in 1995 playing a tennis match. She is holding a tennis raquet.
In her finals match against Steffi Graf, Monica Seles made her return to tennis after a two and a half year absence. Source: Sport360

The finals match between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf is equally famous for its buildup in addition to the tennis played. Seles was playing in her second tournament after a two and a half year absence from tennis. In April 1993, Seles was stabbed by a German fan while playing a tennis match. The fan wanted to take Seles out of competition so that Graf, a German, could regain supremacy over the number one ranked Seles. Many tennis fans eagerly anticipated Seles’ return to tennis; they wanted to see if she could regain her number one status.

In the meantime, Graf spent much of the 1995 U.S. Open facing questions from the German press about her father, who was in jail for failure to pay income tax on his daughter’s $1.5 million earnings. All of these circumstances created an intriguing women’s singles finals match.

Graf won the match against Seles 7-6, 0-6, and 6-3. The first was highly competitive, with Seles believing she won after hitting a tiebreaker shot. However, the shot was ruled out, and Graf went on to win the opening set. Seles easily won the second set, but Graf took the third and decisive set with some of the best tennis playing of her career. Seles did not go without a fight, but she ultimately lost when she failed to return Graf’s winning serve.

The drama on and off the court made the 1995 women’s singles final match one of the best and most compelling in U.S. Open history.

Bianca Adrescu vs. Serena Williams: 2019 Finals

Bianca Andreescu and Serena Williams embracing after their 2019 U.S. Open women's finals match.
In the 2019 U.S. Open Women’s finals, Bianca Andreescu persevered to defeat tennis legend Serena Williams and win the title. Source: DW

Serena Williams may be the greatest player of her era. Williams has won 23 major singles Grand Slam titles and has dominated women’s singles for long stretches of time. On eight separate occasions, from 2002-2017, the Women’s Tennis Association ranked Williams singles world number one. On the sixth occasion, she held the status for a record-tying 186 consecutive weeks. Heading into 2019, Serena Williams was on the comeback trail. In 2017, she took time away from tennis after giving birth to her daughter Olympia. In 2018, Williams lost the U.S. Open final match to Naomi Osaka. In 2019, Williams looked to regain her Grand Slam title.

Bianca Adrescu rocketed to prominence in the tennis world in 2019. But she experienced her share of ups and downs. In the past two U.S. Opens, Andreescu lost in the qualifying rounds. Andrescu also dealt with nagging injuries, including a torn rotator cuff and back problems. However, Andrescu showed remarkable resilience. She battled back from injuries, improved her game, and entered into the top 10 rankings.

The match between Williams and Andreescu was filled with drama and tension. Andreescu jumped to an early set lead, and Williams soon found herself down 1-5 in set two. However, Williams battled back to tie the set 5-5. The crowd grew excited at the Williams comeback, but she was unable to complete it. Andreescu refused to crack under the pressure and won the set 7-5, sealing her title victory.

This tension-filled match makes it one of the greatest U.S. Open title games in history. It also established a great new young tennis star in Bianca Andreescu.

Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe: 1980 Semifinals

John McEnore and Jimmy Connors conversing on the court. The net separates the two. The photo is in black and white.
John McEnroe (left) and Jimmy Connors (right) were two of the most explosive personalities in tennis. Source: Cracked Raquets.

Both of these tennis greats were famous both for their exceptional play and explosive personalities. Both men were opinionated and extremely emotional, and to top it off, both disliked the other. This sometimes led to outbursts on the court. In the 1980 U.S. Open men’s semifinals match, there was plenty of emotional outbursts as well as great tennis play.

McEnroe jumped to a quick start, winning the first set and poised to win the second. But Connors roared back to take the second set and proceeded to win the third set. Now McEnore was losing the match. Growing frustrated, McEnroe began arguing with the courtside umpire. McEnroe called the official “Mr Incompetent” along with other less flattering names. Although these outbursts were not as famous as McEnroe’s “You can’t be serious” rant at Wimbledon in 1981, his U.S. Open tirade gave him further infamy with tennis fans.

McEnroe regained his composure and won the fourth set. In the fifth set, McEnroe was on the doorstep of winning the match. Then something unexpected happened. McEnroe lost control of his racket; it flew across the court, narrowly missing Connors. This act cost McEnroe a $250 fine. The match went into a fifth set tiebreaker to decide the winner. McEnroe prevailed as he built a strong lead against Connors, a lead he would not relinquish. McEnroe advanced to the finals, where he won against Bjorn Borg.

This tightly contested match between two explosive personalities ranks this match as one of the greatest in U.S. Open history.

Andre Agassi vs. Peter Sampras: 2001 Quarterfinals

A courtside photo of Andre Agassi and Peter Sampras playing their 2001 quarterfinals match. Agassi is returning Sampras' shot with a backhand shot.
The 2001 quarterfinals match between Andre Agassi and Peter Sampras is often hailed as one of the greatest U.S. Open matches of all time. Source: The New York Times.

At the time of this match, the rivalry between Andre Agassi and Peter Sampras was already established as one of the greatest in tennis history. Their 2001 quarterfinals match is arguably the best match in their legendary rivalry. The match was tightly contested. In fact, the match was so close that not a single service break occurred.

Sampras quickly established an early lead, but Agassi fought back to even things up. Agassi battled to win the first set tiebreaker 9-7, which was an impressive feat. But Sampras would not let this stop him. He won the second, third, and fourth set tiebreakers, and he was poised to clinch the fifth set tiebreaker. However, Agassi battled back to make the set score 6-5. It seemed like Agassi would win the tiebreaker, but he missed a crucial shot that sealed the victory for Sampras.

Many regard the 2001 quarterfinals match between Andre Agassi and Peter Sampras as the best U.S. Open match. And there is good reason to believe this. The back and forth, tightly contested tennis match provided plenty of excitement, and it added a further chapter to a historic rivalry.

A Grand Slam Tournament

Emma Raducanu holding up the women's singles title at the 2021 U.S. Open.
Emma Raducanu is the latest women’s tennis player to win the title at the 2021 U.S. Open. Source: CBS Sports

The U.S. Open comprises one of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments. First starting in 1881, the U.S. Open is technically the longest running of the four Grand Slam tournaments. And since it’s inception, this tennis tournament has undergone several changes. Initially, only a select few were allowed to compete in the tournament, like men and association members. However, this rule evolved into including women as well as professional players.

The U.S. Open has had its share of great tennis matches. Some matches featured intense duels between two tennis greats. Others saw inspiring comebacks or shocking upsets. And last of all, some matches established the next star in the sport of tennis. This article only listed a few of the outstanding matches to be played at the U.S. Open. There are countless others to mention. And each year, more and more stand-out matches are played at the U.S. Open. It’s safe to say that the history of the U.S. Open is forever ongoing.

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