Farewell to carefree Flushing Meadows

Last week's terrorist activities are likely to turn the US Open's home from a venue of cursory security checks into a watchful, impenetrable fortress
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The Independent Online

One week ago this morning, your correspondent arrived home in England from what was, in all probability, the last unfettered major international sports event ever to be held in the United States: the US Open tennis championships at Flushing Meadows, New York.

During the two weeks of the tournament it was possible to walk through the gates of the National Tennis Centre and past security staff with scarcely a pause, except for accreditation badges to be checked, often with little more than a glance. In contrast to previous years, bags were not searched. A colleague remarked at the time that the Americans may have decided bag-searches were a waste of time, given their intelligence-gathering expertise and the deterrent of the death penalty.

At Wimbledon two months earlier, bags were inspected as usual and accreditation bar-codes were scanned, on entering and leaving the grounds. Security screening is strict in SW19. On the Saturday of the women's singles final in 1993, John Curry, who was then the chairman of the All England Club, was flatly refused entry through the gates during a security alert. Steffi Graf, preparing to play Jana Novotna in the final, was moved from practice court to practice court, farther and farther away from the Centre Court. A suspicious package proved to be harmless. We British have become grateful for false alarms. Vulnerability to acts of terrorism has taught us diligence.

Not that complaints were made about the ease of access at Flushing Meadows. This was regarded as a bonus, particularly by those whose working days started early and ended late. Most moans were, as ever, directed at the scheduling of matches to suit the tournament's paymasters, television. Next year, presuming the championships take place, Flushing Meadows may have the ambience of a fortress.

Those whose fascination with the US Open is inextricably linked with its New York location may empathise with Peter Bodo's imagery in The Courts of Babylon (1995): "If the US Open were a coat, it would be a leather jacket. If it were a tool, it would be a chain saw. If it were a vanity plate, it would read FUK U2, and if it were a tennis player, it would be that boy from just down the pike in Douglaston, John McEnroe."

Your correspondent admits to a fondness for the US Open not necessarily shared by the majority of visiting journalists, although even the most critical would acknowledge that the grounds of the National Tennis Centre have been transformed since the building of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was inaugurated in 1997.

Frankly, the scope for improvement was immense, a point graphically made by Kevin Curren in 1985. The runner-up to Boris Becker at Wimbledon in July that year, Curren subsequently lost to the Frenchman Guy Forget in the first round of the US Open, having been distracted by the noise of jets overhead and a restless audience. "They should drop an A-bomb on this place," Curren said. His quote, once considered a masterpiece of understatement, may now be erased from glossaries of sporting wit and wisdom on grounds of taste after the horrific events of 11 September 2001.

The late W E "Slew" Hester, an oilman from Jackson, Mississippi, was president-elect of the United States Tennis Association at the time it was decided that the championships had outgrown the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, Queens, New York. In January 1977, Hester was on a flight approaching LaGuardia Airport when he glimpsed the derelict Louis Armstrong Stadium in a snow-covered Flushing Meadow, five miles from Forest Hills. The stadium, built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and originally called the Singer Bowl, became the property of the city when the fair closed. It was later renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium for the great man of jazz, who lived in the district.

By 1974 the structure was in disrepair and the city, lacking the funds to renovate it, decided to close the stadium. Then in flew "Slew" with the USTA's offer to underwrite the cost of turning the site into a National Tennis Centre which could be used by the public for 10 months of the year. It may not have occurred to "Slew" that his flight was not the only one that passed directly above the stadium.

The shriek of aircraft from LaGuardia, sometimes only five minutes apart, was a headache from the moment the National Tennis Centre opened in 1978. David Dinkins, a tennis-loving mayor of New York, managed to muffle the noise by promulgating an agreement with city and borough officials and the Federal Aviation Administration banning flights over the stadium during the championships, except for reasons of safety. The agreement included fines for breaches of the restrictions.

The USTA officials, having decided that Louis Armstrong Stadium was no longer adequate, insisted that they would only keep the championships in New York if the flight restrictions continued and if they were also allowed to build on additional parkland. Mayor Dinkins signed the enabling legislation at the end of his term, leaving his successor, Rudolph Giuliani, who opposed the plan, powerless to reverse it. Mayor Giuliani, approaching the end of his term, has become a vibrant symbol of leadership amid the devastation at ground zero.

The media used to be housed in a skybox in Louis Armstrong Stadium, providing a splendid view of Manhattan, if not the tennis, and the skyline can still be seen from sections of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Today, tragically, but hopefully not irreparably, the scene is lower Manhattan.