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How the U.S. Open Changed the History of Tennis

This Grand Slam's legacy goes way beyond Flushing Meadows.
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The 2019 U.S. Open is officially underway, and while the action may be on the courts, the history of the event goes far beyond Flushing Meadows. Whether you're a hardcore tennis fan or someone looking for some trivia to share between Honey Deuces, here's everything you need to know about how one of tennis's biggest competitions came to be.

It started in 1881.

Though it wasn't yet known as the U.S. Open, the competition that would transform into the Open (then the U.S. National Championship) was first established in 1881 by the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association. The first tournament was held that year at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island with competitions held only for men's singles and men's doubles. That status quo shifted over the next decade to incorporate first women's singles competition in 1887, women’s doubles in 1889, and mixed doubles in 1892.

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By the 1920s, the U.S. National Tennis Championships were attracting major international names like Rene Lacoste
Photo by GEORGE RINHART / GETTY IMAGES.

It became the United States Open Tennis Championships in 1968.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the individual competitions of the U.S. National Championship were held at a variety of separate locations, until 1968, when all five tournaments were finally collected into a centralized event at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens. This was the first year that the event took on its new name, and was also the first time that professionals and amateurs were allowed to compete together. Arthur Ashe and Virginia Wade became the very first U.S. Open singles champions that year.

In 1978 the tournament moved to its permanent home in Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Tennis Association National Tennis Center, which was in 2006 renamed the U.S. Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

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Arthur Ashe became the first men’s singles champion of the renamed U.S. Open in 1968
Photo by NEW YORK DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES.

It's the fourth and final of the annual Grand Slam events.

Held each year over a two-week period of late August and early September, the international competition is the last of the Gland Slam events of the tennis season, following the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon.

It also has the biggest payout.

The U.S. Open has a reputation as the largest purse in tennis; in 2019 the event organizers announced that the prize money would reach a record of $57 million, with the largest prizes going to the winners of the singles competition who will take home a hefty $3.85 million apiece.

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Tennis icon Billie Jean King was integral in getting the U.S. Open to pay female competitors equally
Photo by CENTRAL PRESS.

It was the first Grand Slam competition to begin paying male and female competitors equally.

In 1973, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Billie Jean King and her work to help form the Women's Tennis Association, the U.S. Open became the first of the Grand Slam events to award the same prize values to men's and women's competitors. King, who was at the time the defending champion, had threatened to boycott the tournament if the prize values for the women's competitors weren't equal to the men's, and the organizers ultimately gave in. Margaret Court, that year's women's singles winner, took home $25,000, the same as her male counterpart, John Newcombe.

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Althea Gibson was the first African-American to compete in the tournament.

Eleven-time Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson became the first African-American player to compete in the U.S. Open in 1950
Photo by BETTMANN / GETTY IMAGES.

In 1950, at a time when the majority of America was still segregated, Althea Gibson made history by becoming the first African-American to compete for the U.S. National Championships. She would go on to become the first black athlete to play at Wimbledon a year later and the first black player to win the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open née U.S. National Championships in singles competition, with a career total of 11 Gland Slam titles.

At the 2019 U.S. Open, officials unveiled a statue in Gibson's honor outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It wasn't always played on hard-court.

From 1881 to 1974, the official rules of the tournament required to play on grass. For the following three years, from 1975 to 1977, players took to clay courts, then finally in 1978 the hard-court surface known as DecoTurf became the standard. 

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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