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Monday, September 3, 2012
West Side's story has rich history

By Adena Andrews

In the shadow of the Long Island Railroad tracks, a drop shot from the U.S. Open and steps away from the hustle and bustle of Queens Boulevard, lies an oasis in the heart of Queens.

When you cross into the Forest Hills neighborhood on the other side of the boulevard, Tudor-style houses and well-manicured lawns make it feel as if you aren't in gritty Queens anymore. A few blocks tucked into the haven is a small wooden gate signaling you've arrived at a New York City gem, the West Side Tennis Club, once home to the U.S Open.

The WSTC resembles a country club, with members wearing all white while eating off fine China in the dining room or grabbing a drink at the bar. Others prefer to lounge on the patio after a rousing tennis match or game of bridge.

Founded in 1892, the West Side Tennis Club hosted the U.S. Open from 1915 to 1978. For six decades, the world's greatest tennis players descended upon this humble neighborhood in the heart of Queens to determine the winner of one of tennis' Grand Slams.

The club was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, hence its name, and started out with 13 members but quickly grew and endured much relocation. From Central Park West it moved to 117th street near Columbia University to 238th Street and Broadway to its current location. Next year, it will celebrate its centennial at the Forest Hills location.

Due to growing crowds, the Open moved to the current more modern location at Flushing Meadows. Before the move, Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and other tennis royalty walked the halls of the posh club. All that remains of their legacies are black and white photos in gold frames lining the halls of the clubhouse.

Behind its 38 courts and four different surfaces is the 15,000 concrete-seat stadium where the U.S. Open was held. The club's signature blue and yellow flags fly high above the deteriorating stadium, where weeds peek through cracks on the lower level. Even with age, the palatial grandeur of the stadium has not been lost. The excitement of tight matches and the energy of performances from The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan still fill the seats.

"One of my most memorable moment in the 1975 Open. It was a semifinal match between [Manuel] Orantes and [Guillermo] Vilas," said Jean Frangos, social chair and almost 40-year member of the WSTC. "It ended at 2 in the morning.

"A lot people went back to the clubhouse to have drinks and a nice dinner. When they heard it was still going on they all trooped back here. There may have been about 1,500 people still here but it was a very exciting evening."

The liveliness of the final U.S. Open held at the WSTC still lives in tennis folklore. In 1977, the last Open to be held on clay, as McEnroe took on Eddie Dibbs in a third-round match, a spectator was shot in the leg. The bullet came from a nearby apartment building, according to The New York Times. That also was the year Vilas was carried off the court after defeating Connors, and when transgendered player Renee Richards made an Open appearance.

"There's a lot of history here and anyone should be proud to be a member," said Bob Ingersole, tennis director.

The WSTC stadium is still in use and hosted the first Evian Wood Racket Cup and a Little Mo Championship this year. The pristine grounds are also host to numerous corporate events and youth camps and even serve as a practice site for the Australian Davis Cup team.

The club went through some financial difficulties but has since rebounded. It now boasts 850 members, 100 new ones this year. In addition to a brief screening process, membership is $1,700 annually for players under 35 and $6,000 annually plus initiation for members older than 35 to join.

That's a small price to play a big piece of history.