The impending shift of the U.S. Open tennis championships from the exclusive West Side Tennis Club to a public facility to be built on the site of the 1964 World's Fair in nearby Flushing Meadow has aroused many stuffy West Side members who long for the so-called "good old days."
"It used to be something to play on this court right here - we called it the 'cocktail court," said Butch Buchholz, holz, who was ranked No. 3 in the U.S. before turning pro in 1960.
Buchholz, now the commissioner of World Team Tennis, was seated on the flagstone terrace at the back of the Tudor clubhouse, looking out at several rectangular plots of grass that remain for the use of West Side's 1,000 members - untrodden upon by the two-week invaders of the Open.
"You'd play at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and all you could hear was clinking glasses and babble," recalled Buchholz. "The players would go crazy, but the members said very condescendingly that if we didn't like it, we could leave."
It was a different time, before the great middle class became infatuated with tennis and top players became celebrities. The U.S. championships - the tournament only became the Open in 1968, when pros were admitted for the first time, ushering in the era of widespread interest in the sport - were played on 23 grass courts. The space was leisurely. Spectators could wander freely from court to court and, if they wished, sniff the flowers along the way.
It is not like that now. Since 1975, the tournament has been played on 12 artificial clay courts. Every year, attendance has grown. Facilities have become increasingly cramped. It is a battle to find a vantage point at an outside court when there is an interesting match going on. Forest Hills is noisy, congested, littered. People are rude. Gentility is a thing of the past.
"When the chlorophyll went out of the U.S. championships in 1975, transforming Forest Hills from a pretty pasture to a dustbin, the last of the romance went with it," wrote Bud Collins in the September issue of World Tennis magazine. "We should have known then that . . . Forest Hills was doomed as the site of the U.S. Open."
Early this year, W.E. (Slew) Hester - a Mississippian who, in his brief tenure, has proved himself the most dynamic U.S. Tennis Association president in recent memory - announced that the Open would move to Flushing Meadow in 1978. Construction problems could delay the move until 1979, but the decision to abandon Forest Hills was irrevocable.
Hester had lost patience with the dinosaurs who run West Side. They have been dragging their feet for years as the tennis world passed them by.
For West Side's share of the Open revenues - "between $250,000 and $450,000 last year, depending how you do your accounting, plus some capital improvements we financed," according to Hester - the USTA wanted co-operation in renovating the stadium, increasing seating capacity and modernizing the physical plant at the club.
A new regime at the Open had made improvements for public comfort - better catering, more toilets, less carnival activity under the stadium - and now it was time to rebuild the grounds before they split at the seams. West Side responded with no vision, only indecision.
And so, while the West Side board of governors snoozed like Rip Van Winkle, Hester made a deal with the City of New York to build a $6.1 million facility on 16 1/2 acres of city-owned land in Flushing Meadows Park.
Louis Armstrong Stadium is already there (it was built as the Singer Bowl for the World's Fair) and current plans are to enlarge it by 12,000 seats to be capacity of 20,840 - 6,000 more than can fit in the 54-year-old horse-shoe at West Side.
Another stadium, seating 7,000, will surround a second show court. Seven additional hard-surface courts, all lighted, will have stands for 1,200 people each. This will be the portion used for the Open, but there will be some 20 more outdoor and eight indoor courts for year-round use.
The site is adjacent to Shea Stadium and will have parking space for 8,300 cars.There are subway and Long Island Railroad stations nearby allowing easy access by public transportation.
The agreement Hester signed calls for the USTA to build the "racket park," own and operate it for 15 years, and then turn it over to the city. The facility will be open to the public year-round, with revenue from court rental and concessions plus gate receipts from the Open paying the costs of construction and maintenance.
Today, some of the officers of the West Side Tennis Club, who have never battled their way to see a match here, who think they are still living in the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald, held a press conference.
They publicly wailed and bemoaned their misfortune in losing America's premier tennis tournament, saying that losing the Open was a blow to their community - a community they have embraced only when it was convenient, whose citizens they have welcomed only when they had proper credentials. (Of West Side's 1,000 members, none are black and few are Jewish.)
"When the Open comes to Forest Hills, it comes to a friendly environment," said William McCullough, West Side's chairman for the Open. "Now let's talk about moving from a friendly, cooperative environment, something that has gone for 50 years uninterrupted, with complete success, going to an unknown . . .
"The people of Corona, 95 per cent are Negro . . . I say this: that when they move from here to a park, they are going to find that they will have not only trouble in making tennis fans come, but in getting the community to work with them . . . The people of the community want the Open to stay here."
Arthur Ashe said, charitably, "I'd like to talk to Mr. McCullough to see if he really meant what he said, but I'd say at first glance that his remarks were institutionally racist."
West Side president Lindley Hoffman, who seems unaware that scenes on the outside courts during last week's early rounds resembled "Day of the Locust" more than "The Great Gatsby," said that, "We're not convinced the move represents progress."
One suspects that the West Side Tennis Club's board would not recognize progress if it rumbled down Queens Boulevard in a moon buggy.