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US Open marks 20th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Stadium

On Feb. 19, 1997, the United States Tennis Association honored the late Hall of Famer by naming tennis venue after him

Naming the center court stadium at the renovated USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center after tennis legend Arthur Ashe was a no-brainer for the United States Tennis Association.

Ashe won the first US Open in the Open era in 1968, becoming the tournament’s first African-American male champion. On Feb. 19, 1997, the USTA and the New York City Council announced that the $234 million facility would bear the International Tennis Hall of Famer‘s name.

The 23,771-seat Flushing Meadows-Corona Park tennis complex is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

David Dinkins, who served as New York City mayor when the USTA approached the city in 1990 about the possibility of a new stadium, said naming the site after Ashe was a unanimous decision. More important than what Ashe had done for the sport, Dinkins said, was what he had done for society.

“I have never, ever, heard anybody question the appropriateness of the stadium being named for Arthur,” Dinkins said Monday. “This is remarkable.”

Ashe died of AIDS four years before the stadium was named in his honor. At a Grand Hyatt ballroom in Manhattan, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe watched as a screen displayed images and videos of her late husband during the name announcement ceremony.

”Emotional piece, emotional day,” Moutoussamy-Ashe told The New York Times. ”Tomorrow would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. This is an honored gift for our family.

”Arthur loved this city. He won the US Open here. We met here. Our daughter has spent her life here.”

The five-time Grand Slam champion also was the first and only black man to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The Richmond, Virginia, native and American Tennis Association prodigy was the first African-American chosen to compete for the United States’ Davis Cup team and the first to win the U.S. Amateur Championships. Ashe helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 and co-founded the National Junior Tennis League.

“There was no other tennis great like Arthur,” Dinkins said. “I spoke at one of his many memorials, and I recall my final comment was, ‘He’s a credit to his race. The human race.’ ”

Ashe was an author, activist, civil rights advocate, educator and tireless fighter for the issues that affected not only those in the United States but also the world, and specifically South Africa’s apartheid system.

“I have become convinced,” Ashe wrote in a 1977 letter, “that we blacks spend too much time on the playing field and too little in the libraries.”

Dinkins said: “Who can count the ways [Ashe has been missed in the past 24 years]. Arthur was truly a remarkable human being, not just as an athlete. One of the statues of him in Richmond is him with books in one hand and a tennis racket in the other. He holds the books higher than the other.”

At a time when few sports complexes were named after former athletes, then-USTA president Harry Marmion said there was never any thought given to corporate sponsorship. Marmion died in 2008.

”We didn’t have any corporate offers,” Marmion told The New York Times in 1997, ”and we never looked for any.”

The complex is one of a handful of sports facilities named after African-Americans. One of the first stadiums to bear the name of a black athlete was Atlantic City, New Jersey’s, Pop Lloyd Stadium, which is named after Hall of Famer and Negro Leagues Baseball star John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. It opened in October 1949. Thirty years later, Detroit named its new multipurpose arena after native and famed boxer Joe Louis. The facility closed on July 30 and will eventually be demolished.

The same year Arthur Ashe Stadium opened, Iowa State renamed its Cyclone Stadium after Jack Trice, making it the only Division I FBS stadium named after an African-American athlete. The 61,500 seats make Jack Trice Stadium the highest-capacity venue with an African-American sports figure’s name. Trice was Iowa State’s first black athlete. He was trampled by several University of Minnesota football players in an Oct. 6, 1923, game and died from hemorrhaged lungs and internal bleeding two days later.

General view of opening ceremonies for the United States Open at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, on Aug. 25, 1997.

Al Bello/Allsport

Sealing the deal

The New York Times first reported the USTA’s interest in a new site in an article titled “U.S. Open: New Site or Not?” on May 7, 1990.

In that article, Ashe, who was a member of the USTA’s executive committee, was critical of the current complex. Tennis’ best players largely did not enjoy playing the fourth and final Grand Slam championship in Queens, New York, because of the loud noise from the planes flying over La Guardia and also the smell. Players were threatening to blacklist the event.

”They don’t call it Flushing for nothing,” Ashe told the Times. “I’m not privy to what’s going on, but there’s no question that of the four major tournaments, this is the least favorite among the players. Unless you shore it up, raze the place and get rid of the planes, I’d think a move is inevitable.”

There was talk of moving the tennis facilities to Westchester County, Nassau County or New Jersey, but with preference being given to Flushing Meadows. The renovation was estimated to cost about $150 million.

Dinkins, who is an avid tennis player, fan and US Open attendee, and Queens borough president Claire Shulman worked over the next 3 1/2 years on a deal that would keep the US Open in New York City.

An agreement was reached on Dec. 14, 1993. Dinkins called it “the best deal for a municipal stadium in the nation.”

The USTA would pay $172 million for the expansion of the tennis center, and it received 20.6 acres (besides the 21.6 acres it was already using) of parkland from the city. The Grand Slam would remain in New York for at least 25 years, with the possibility for the city to make it 99 years through various leasing options, while the USTA maintained and operated the complex.

The city, however, would own the facility and the center court stadium, and New York City could use the center for public activities the 11 months outside of the U.S. Open.

“It has never cost the city of New York 5 cents in all these years,” Dinkins said. “And I might add further that the revenue generated into the economy of the city during the two weeks of the tournament are more than the Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers combined. It was a big campaign issue in ’93 with [former New York Mayor] Rudy [Giuliani], and his supporters would argue that I was just interested in tennis, but Mike Bloomberg said it’s the best deal in the nation for municipal stadiums — and keep in mind, the city did not pay to build that stadium.”

Andre Agassi (L) and John McEnroe laughing after a tennis match.

Andre Agassi (left) and John McEnroe laugh after their exhibition men’s singles match at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Aug. 23, 1997, in Flushing Meadows, New York. Players gathered to take part in the opening of the new stadium.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

arthur ashe kids’ day

The first people to play on the new tennis courts at Ashe Stadium were children, which is just the way Ashe would’ve wanted it to be, on Aug. 23, 1997. Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day received support from Aetna, Radio City Productions, the ATP, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Tennis Industry Association (TIA). Whitney Houston sang “One Moment in Time” to christen the stadium.

Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Martina Hingis were some of the tennis stars who participated in the exhibition matches for the kids. The first Kids’ Day, derived from the Arthur Ashe AIDS Tennis Challenge that began in 1992, took place in 1996.

“It’s remarkable, these youngsters from all over the country know about and admire Arthur Ashe,” Dinkins said.

This year’s AAKD exhibition matches were played by Roger Federer, Venus Williams, Rafael Nadal and Angelique Kerber. Musical performers included Sofia Carson, Jack & Jack, Alex Aiono and Why Don’t We.

The USTA said that for the first time, American tennis will have one unified youth brand, Net Generation, for kids to get into the sport.

The proceeds from Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day will benefit National Junior Tennis & Learning Network (NJTL), which Ashe founded with Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder in 1969. NJTL is a nationwide, nonprofit youth-development network composed of more than 500 groups that provide free or low-cost tennis, education and life-skills programming to more than 225,000 children each year.

“One of Arthur’s many accomplishments was providing children with the opportunity to experience the sport he loved,” said Moutoussamy-Ashe to New York Voice Inc. in 1997. “Over the years, the USTA has been a great partner in introducing tennis to today’s youth on Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day and throughout the year with the National Junior Tennis League program. Arthur would have been thrilled with today’s activities surrounding the opening of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.