August 29, 2010 11:00 AM ET
"I'm not sure you understand - I really don't have anything against dentists."
August 29, 1968: The first tennis match of the U.S. Open is played, with Billie Jean King defeating Long Island dentist (!) Dr. Vija Vuskains 6-1, 6-0. The five major championships that constitute the U.S. Open (men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles) sprouted from a single men's tournament in Rhode Island back in 1881.
Obviously, it has evolved quite a bit since. The two-week sports and entertainment extravaganza will attract an estimated 700,000 fans when it gets underway from August 30th through September 12th this year. But even in 1968, there were what seemed to be humble beginnings.
A total of $100,000 was offered by the USTA to the field of 96 men and 64 women who entered the 1968 U.S. Open. Today, the U.S. Open offers more than $22.6 million to a field of more than 600 men and women. In fact, when Arthur Ashe won the first ever U.S. Open men's singles title in 1968, he was ineligible (as an amateur and lieutenant in the U.S. Army) to receive the $14,000 first prize. Instead, Ashe collected only his $20 per diem.
As for Billie Jean King, the first prize eluded her as well. Despite her dominant early dispatching of a dentist (!), King lost to Virginia Wade of Great Britain in the women's single championship match and missed out on a $6,000 payday. King would eventually get her due, winning a trio of U.S. Open women's singles titles in 1971, 1972, and 1974.
Ten years to the day after opening play at the U.S. Open, on August 29, 1978, the gates opened at the present home of the U.S. Open, the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York. The grand facility would continue to be known under that name until it was rededicated in 2006 - as the USTA Bille Jean King National Tennis Center. And on that day, King had a bright smile, one that even a vanquished dentist (!) could be proud of.