By Randy Walker
I called my book publishing client and good pal Cliff Richey just before the 2017 US Open to ask him what he remembered from the 1977 U.S. Open, the last to be played at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills.
“I remember that Elvis had just died,” said Richey.
Perhaps it was the recent death of “The King” that precipitated what might be regarded as the craziest U.S. Open in history. The event featured a transsexual entry, a player playing with a racquet strung with rubber bands – and beating a former U.S. Open champion – John McEnroe’s first ever US Open point penalty and a fan being shot in the stands.
For Richey, it was also an unusual tournament for him as he lost in the second round to two-time French champion Jan Kodes. “It was the only time I ever lost to him,” said Richey.
The following are summaries of some of the unusual events from the 1977 U.S. Open, as documented in my book “On This Day In Tennis History” that is available as a book, ebook, audio book and mobile app, where books are sold and at www.TennisHistoryApp.com
August 31, 1977: John McEnroe plays his first U.S. Open match and receives his first U.S. Open code of conduct point penalty in his 6-1, 6-3 win over fellow 18-year-old Eliot Teltscher in a first-round night match at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills. Chair umpire Patti Ingersol of Chicago issues the conduct violation after McEnroe stalls and argues over several calls in the second set. Following the point penalty, McEnroe serves the next point underhand and Teltscher, in a show of solidarity to McEnroe over the point penalty, lets the ball bounce twice, surrendering the point to McEnroe. Says McEnroe of his point penalty, “I was just mumbling under my breath and she assumed I said something. No one knows what I said. I was just saying I can’t believe the match was going like this and she said “Love-15.” I guess she was just trying to show her authority, but I think she went overboard.”
September 1, 1977: Renee Richards, the 43-year-old transsexual who fights for more than year for the right to play in the women’s singles of a major tennis championship, is beaten in the first round of the U.S. Open by Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade, 6-1, 6-4. Barry Lorge of the Washington Post describes the match as a media event as “a swarm of photographers, broadcasters and reporters were on hand to record the details of what was purposed to be a grand gesture for human rights by some, and a freak show by others.” Later that evening, 5-foot tall, 90-pound Tracy Austin, at the age of 14 years, eight months, 20 days, becomes the youngest player to play in the U.S. Open, defeating Heidi Eisterlehner of West Germany 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the first round. Austin’s mark would be broken in 1979 by 14-year-old Kathy Horvath.
September 2, 1977: Using the eventually outlawed “spaghetti strings,” 22-year-old Mike Fishbach upsets No. 16 seed Stan Smith 6-0, 6-2 in a best-of-three-set second round match at the U.S. Open. Fishbach, described as “an amply beared, amusing, apple juice-slugging refugee from the satellite circuit,” by the Washington Post, uses a racquet that he has strung with two interwoven layers of gut reinforced with fish test line, adhesive tape and twine that helps him generate extraordinary amounts of spin. The stringing method is eventually outlawed for the governing bodies of tennis.
September 4, 1977: James Reilly, a 33-year-old resident of New York City, is shot in the left thigh as a spectator at the John McEnroe – Eddie Dibbs third-round night match at the U.S. Open at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. The shooting, from a .38 caliber gun, occurs at the start of the match near Portal 8 in the north section of the stadium and delays play for about six minutes as Reilly is taken from the stands to the first aid station and then to nearby St. John’s Hospital. Most of the 6, 943 fans in attendance are not aware that a shooting had occurred. Police conclude it was likely a shot that came from outside the stadium. McEnroe wins the best-of-three set match 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
September 6, 1977: Top-seed Bjorn Borg dramatically quits his round of 16 match with Dick Stockton at the U.S. Open – a sore right shoulder not allowing him to continue as Stockton advances into the quarterfinals by a 3-6, 6-4, 1-0, ret. score-line. Says Stockton, “I’ll take the victory any way I can get it, but I would liked to have seen the match continue. I think I would have won it anyway.“ Also in the round of 16, Manuel Orantes ends the debut U.S. Open of John McEnroe, defeating the 18-year-old New Yorker 6-2, 6-3.
September 11, 1977: Guillermo Vilas and Jimmy Connors compete in the final U.S. Open match played at the West Side Tennis Club with Vilas pulling 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0 upset of Connors in the men’s singles final. After hosting the U.S. Championships since 1915, the U.S. Open moves from the private club in Forest Hills to the other side of the Queens borough of New York City to the new USTA National Tennis Center, a public tennis facility.