US Open's storied history began at the West Side Tennis Club, a hidden jewel in Queens

Tim Joyce, special to
Key Points
  • At The West Side Tennis Club in 1968, Arthur Ashe became the first ever U.S. Open champion. 
  • The stadium went through a rocky period in the 1980s and 90s, but has recently seen a revival.
Arthur Ashe in the U.S. Open tennis championships at Forest Hills, 1968.
Bettmann | Bettmann | Getty Images

The U.S. Open's illustrious history began at an idyllic location in Forest Hills, Queens.

It was at the West Side Tennis Club in 1968 that Arthur Ashe became the first ever U.S. Open champion, as well as the first African American to hoist a Slam trophy. Fifty years ago, total attendance at Ashe's history-making performance at the West Side was only 97,000, compared to last year's massive crowd of nearly 700,000.

As U.S. Open spectators swelled, the tournament eventually outgrew the West Side and relocated to its current location in Flushing. That was the start of a rocky period the club's management has just recently managed to turn around.

The Tennis Industry Association currently estimates that only 18 million Americans actually play tennis, down sharply from Nielsen estimates of 34 million back in 1974. Even still, tennis' global appeal with spectators has skyrocketed, and Open champions (both male and female) are set to reap a purse worth nearly $4 million this year. That's a far cry from the $20 per diem Ashe took home in 1968 for defeating Tom Okker of the Netherlands (an arcane rule governing amateur players made Ashe ineligible for the $14,000 prize money that year).

For years, the West Side has been something of a hidden jewel in New York's sprawling architectural crown. Despite being located near a commuter rail, even locals still aren't aware of a verdant paradise nestled among Queens' stately Tudor homes. However, the club's relative anonymity could fade as it continues to pull off a remarkable feat: Adapting to the 21st century without forfeiting a distinguished history, rebounding from a period of decline.

The West Side derives its name from its original geographical location on the west side of Manhattan before moving to its permanent home in 1914. In Forest Hills, the club was compared to Wimbledon, the United Kingdom's Grand Slam venue, and represented a lush recreational oasis within The Big Apple.

A view from the West Side Tennis Club's horseshoe stadium during a championship match between Pancho Gonzales and Ted Schroeder on September 5, 1949. 

Even still, in 1978 the U.S. Open opted to switch its location to the glamorous and mammoth National Tennis Center in nearby Flushing, leaving the fortunes of the West Side club to languish in its wake. Since the 1960's the iconic West Side was also a prime concert venue that hosted an astounding selection of brilliant artists, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Jimi Hendrix, among others.

However, beginning in the late 1980s, the club's structure began to deteriorate rapidly, and by the 1990's the historic venue looked destined to become a relic of a past era. At that time, much of New York City was in the throes of urban blight that left once-regal architectural masterpieces – such as Grand Central Station – decayed and badly in need of resuscitation.

Things looked so dire at one point that in October 2010, the club's management held a vote to weigh whether to allow a condo complex to be built on its site, to generate badly needed revenue for the club. The measure was ultimately voted down, temporarily saving the stadium, until a new setback emerged the following year. The city's Landmark Preservation Commission refused to grant landmark status to the stadium due to extensive damage to the structure. It seemed as if the historic site was set to be condemned to decay.

Yet soon after, Mike Luba, the owner of concert promotion company Madison House, placed a call to the West Side as part of a search for new venues to hosts events. The timing couldn't have been better.

After inspecting the stadium with an engineer — and despite numerous problems that made the stadium appear like what Luba said was "a relic from war torn Baghdad," Madison House forged ahead with his plans to bring music to Forest Hills.

With that decision, what was once a lump of concrete with small trees growing through old bleachers is now a landmark restored to its former glory. Beginning with an August 2013 show by Mumford and Sons, the West Side played host to subsequent shows that slowly helped revive its fortunes. Currently, the restored stadium hosts more than a dozen concerts per year, including the Who, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tom Petty and others.

"The club is in a very strong position and is thriving again," said Mario diPreta, general manager and CEO of the West Side Tennis Club. "The concerts have brought tremendous visibility to the club, and our membership has grown 10 percent in just the last year."

And the notion of multiple uses for a tennis facility is also on the mind of the U.S.Tennis Association. Danny Zausner, the COO for the National Tennis Center,  believes that the current home of the US Open a few miles away in Flushing might also benefit from concerts and other revenue sources.

"The National Tennis Center will definitely look into doing more events throughout the facility during the balance of the year now that we have completed the strategic transformation," Zausner told CNBC. 

"Our priority the rest of the year will continue to be our year round tennis programs, but when the opportunity arises, we will look at concerts, graduations, festivals, etc that make sense...[and] to grow the sport of tennis," Zausner added.

Earlier this year, the West Side hired TV commentator and former French Open doubles champion, Luke Jensen as a director of racquet sports. Jensen is excited about the potential of the club, he told CNBC recently.

"England has Wimbledon and the All England Lawn and Croquet Club. In America it is Forest Hills and the West Side Tennis Club," Jensen said. He noted the stadium's role in hosting Ashe's 1968 breakthrough, the same year Virginia Wade defeated Billie Jean King to claim the women's title.

"West Side will always be about the great influence of yesterday, but forever looking forward into the new for a greater tomorrow," Jensen said. "We hope to build the best club junior program in the country in the coming years."