At 5:52 under a slate-gray sky Tuesday evening, a lefthanded Spaniard named Feliciano Lopez slammed his fastest serve of the day – 131 MPH – into the body of American Mike Bryan. Bryan’s forehand return veered wide by a couple of inches, a shot that not only ended a US Open men’s doubles quarterfinal, but also the storied, tumultuous 38-year run of Louis Armstrong Stadium, on the eastern edge of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
The next thing that will be slammed in this corner of Queens will be the concrete of the Stadium itself, the demolition scheduled to commence not long after the conclusion of the 2016 Open.
Since the US Open moved from the grass and gentility of Forest Hills to the hard courts and hubbub of Flushing Meadows, Armstrong has been the site of more than 2,000 matches across nearly four decades, the first of them won by Bjorn Borg over Bob Hewitt, 6-2, 6-0, on another Tuesday night – Aug. 29, 1978. The last of them was contested by two Lopezes, Feliciano and his countryman (but not his brother), Marc, and a pair of Bryans, Mike and his brother, Bob. The third-seeded Bryans, 38-year-old twins and the most successful doubles team in tennis annals with 111 titles, among them a record 16 Grand Slams, were upset 7-6, 4-6, 6-3.
“That we played the last match in this special stadium and that we beat the Bryans, the best doubles team in history, makes this day very special for us,” said Feliciano Lopez, wearing a New York Mets baseball cap in the interview room.
In the last of the three doubles matches scheduled on Armstrong’s farewell day, the players had to deal with two rain delays, something that will not happen when the new stadium is up in 2018, as it will be equipped with a roof. There was also the regular rumbling of Long Island Railroad trains, and a steady stream of jets taking off from LaGuardia Airport throughout the match. Commotion has always seemed to be part of the Armstrong experience, and its final day was no different.
The crowd was sparse at the start, but when the Bryans took the second set people began to pour in, with the usual stragglers elbowing their way past ushers and making the players wait before finding their seats. Fans heard Louis Armstrong himself singing “Hello, Dolly,” on a couple of changeovers, which seemed vastly more appropriate than Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water,” which was played right before the second rain delay.
The building may not stir quite the same feelings as places such as the original Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field or the Garden on 8th Ave. and 50th St., all homes to New York teams, but for tennis fans, Louis Armstrong Stadium has its own pull. It was where 16-year-old Tracy Austin and her bouncing pigtails became the youngest champion ever in 1979, and where John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in an epic five-setter in the 1980 men’s final, a match still regarded as one of the great championship battles in history. It was where Ivan Lendl made it to a record eight straight finals, and where Jimmy Connors celebrated his 39th birthday by beating Aaron Krickstein, in the same year (1991) that two ball-bashing teenagers, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, had a stirring semifinal that was decided by a third-set tiebreaker.
Every year seemed to brings its own theatre, even after the massive big brother next door, Arthur Ashe, made its world debut in 1997. There was no way that Bernard and Barbara Simons, big tennis fans and a retired couple from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, were going to miss the farewell. After all, they have been coming to the place from the time it opened for tennis, and even before, at the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The Simons play tennis three or four times a week, and are ardent fans of the Rangers, Mets, Nets and Knicks, along with this very special fortnight of tennis that comes at the end of every summer.
Barbara Simons was sitting next to her husband, just a couple of rows up from the aisle behind the baseline. She looked around at the blue seats that surround the court at all angles with quirky intimacy. A train whistle blew. A plane flew over. What were you expecting in Louis Armstrong Stadium?
“It really does make you feel nostalgic,” said Barbara Simons, who spent 34 years teaching elementary school in city schools. “I have a lot of wonderful memories here.”
Said Bernard Simons, “You’ve got to go with change. They want to make it better.”