Former champions saluted on 40th anniversary of Open era

TWENTY-four former champions – from Rod Laver to Roger Federer and Virginia Wade to Maria Sharapova – launched opening night at the US Open on Monday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the professional era.

In 1968, Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam title when he triumphed at the first US Open at Forest Hills while Wade raised the women’s trophy and pocketed the tournament’s first prize money as champion.

Also gracing the Arthur Ashe Stadium court were the likes of John Newcombe and John McEnroe on the men’s side, and Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova among women who triumphed after professionals were allowed to play the Grand Slam events four decades ago.

McEnroe, the tempestuous local hero who won four Opens, and four-time defending champion Federer drew the loudest roars from the crowd.

Gathering of legends: Billie Jean King (centre) and Monica Seles (back to camera) greet each other while other former US Open champions, including (from left) JohnNewcombe, Chris Evert, Stan Smith, Gabriela Sabatini, Boris Becker and Rod Laver, applaud during the opening ceremonies at the US Open on Monday. – AP

A festive programme full of music from gospel singers to period band Earth, Wind and Fire livened up the “Showtime” opening and the band serenaded the champions with their hit, “Shining Star”.

A montage of great moments played on the jumbo television screen, along with excerpts from an interview with Ashe, who talked about the political upheaval of the times, from US race riots in the cities, to Vietnam War protest and the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

“You didn’t get five minutes to breathe,” said Ashe, who died in 1993 at age 49 from AIDS after contracting HIV during blood transfusions for a heart surgery.

“This was the first US Open. It was a very good time for something positive to happen in the sports world.”

Ashe himself did not benefit monetarily from his victory since he was still an amateur. Wade won US$6,000.

The new era led to explosive growth in tennis. The US championships purse in 1968 was US$100,000. This year the purse is US$20.6mil with the men’s and women’s winners each receiving US$1.5mil.

Some lustre was lost on Monday night by the absence of crowd favourites Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf.

The champions in attendance, however, were aglow over the occasion, entering the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre on a red carpet with cameras flashing and reporters in wait.

“I still get a thrill to be around Rod Laver and champions of the past and Billie Jean. I idolised them when I was growing up,” said six-time US Open singles champion Evert.

“These ceremonies are really thrilling,” said Wade. “This one is very special and also a special year to win in ‘68.”

Rod Laver, who in 1969 became the only men’s player in the professional era to complete a Grand Slam sweep, remembered the relief he felt to be able to compete again in the majors.

“It was nice to finally make it legal, so we could go play,” said the 70-year-old Australian, who turned professional after sweeping the Grand Slam titles in 1962 as an amateur.

“You’d play seven months of the year and go home and you’d made US$5,000.

“Officials were mad if anybody turned professional because there went your draw card. They finally saw the light and had Open tennis, which we all knew was going to be successful.” – Reuters

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