Before moving to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (as it is now known) in Flushing Meadows in 1978, the U.S. Open took place at this historic complex in Forest Hills from 1915 to 1920 and again from 1924 to 1977. (It was originally held in Newport, Rhode Island.)
Bill “Big Bill” Tilden, who was openly gay, is considered the first superstar in tennis. The sport’s mainstream popularity today is attributed to Tilden, who helped move tennis away from being an exclusively high society game. He first competed at the West Side Tennis Club in 1915 and won six titles in a row from 1920 to 1925 (three of which took place here), a record he still holds. He also won here in 1929 and 1931. However, Tilden’s influence on the sport is rarely discussed today because of charges he faced in the 1940s involving sexual encounters with teenage boys.
Current women’s and LGBT rights spokesperson Billie Jean King was the top-seeded women’s player in the world for several years in the 1960s and ‘70s. At the West Side Tennis Club, she became the first player to win a Grand Slam event using a metal racket in 1967. She was also the U.S. Open champion here in 1971, 1972, and 1974. King’s pioneering efforts to achieve gender equality in the sport led to the current U.S. Open complex being rededicated the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006.
Future four-time U.S. Open singles champion Martina Navratilova announced that she was defecting from Czechoslovakia to the United States at the end of the 1975 U.S. Open. The jam-packed press conference has since been considered the biggest tennis story of that year.
At the 1977 U.S. Open, its last year at this venue, Renée Richards became the first trans woman to compete in a professional tennis tournament. The Sunnyside, Queens native underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1975. As controversy grew over whether she should be allowed to compete in women’s tournaments a year later, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) made a chromosome test mandatory for female entrants for the first time in its history. Richards sued, and the New York Supreme Court ultimately ruled in her favor.
“My lawyer handed over an affidavit from Billie Jean King that said she had met me, that I was a woman, that I was entitled to play, and that I couldn’t be denied. And that was it. We won.”
The event is considered a huge victory for transgender rights. Richards, who would go on to coach Navratilova, eventually returned to the medical field. She would become the surgeon director of ophthalmology and head of the eye-muscle clinic at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital on the Upper East Side.
Tilden, King, and Navratilova were inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island in 1959, 1987, and 2000, respectively. King, Navratilova, and Richards were in the first class of inductees to Chicago’s National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.