It’s the 50th year of the US Open. The newly renovated Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is glowing as the clock passes six. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal are both slated to play the first night of the tournament. American sweetheart Kelly Clarkson will perform shortly before their matches commence.
For a seasoned tennis enthusiast, the historic night means celebrating Arthur Ashe’s legacy as well. He was the first (and only) male African American player to win both the US Open and Wimbledon. His win in 1968 at the very first US Open Championship was monumental, and Ashe used his popularity to speak out against South African apartheid. He passed away in 1993, after contracting AIDS/HIV from a heart bypass surgery in the 1980s. He spent the later years of his life raising awareness about the disease. The Arthur Ashe Stadium is a tribute to his legacy.
Last night, his remaining family members were in attendance, as was his opponent from 1968, Tom Okker. He gave a brief speech about Ashe and his enduring status as one of tennis’ greatest players.
Joining him on stage were the first female US Open finalists: Billie Jean King and her victorious opponent Virginia Wade. They spoke of the honor of attending and how their lives have changed over the years.
King has been an outspoken feminist and advocate for equal rights on and off the court since she rose to sporting fame all those years ago. Most recently, her “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs was turned into a hit film starring Emma Stone.
A tribute video to Ashe played on the four screens around the stadium, and USTA President and CEO Katrina Adams welcomed attendees to the tournament.
Then the lights dimmed. Musicians and stagehands converged over the court, and then another champion walked on with a microphone in her hand. The very first victor of American Idol and three-time Grammy Award winner, Kelly Clarkson.
After performing a handful of her best songs, including Stronger, Clarkson joked, “I love opening for Serena Williams.”
Next, singer-songwriter Maxwell performed a swift rendition of the national anthem, with the colors presented by the NYPD and FDNY.
As the lights were turned back up, four-time Olympic gold medalist and new mom arrived to compete against Poland’s Magda Linette. Williams wore the Off-White x Nike Queen Collection asymmetrical ballet dress of our dreams. Even as fashion in the stands at tennis tournaments becomes increasingly followed, Williams easily outshone everyone.
Although she had a rocky start, Williams quickly settled into her signature graceful strength. She advanced to the second round of the tournament after a speedy 70-minute game in which she scored 6-4, 6-0 against Linette. In her parting speech, she highlighted the struggle of motherhood and work by mentioning stories shared with her favorite hashtag: #ThisMom.
Next, Rafael Nadal was up against fellow countryman David Ferrer. The Spaniards caused great excitement in the crowds with their high speed serves and volleys. Ultimately, Nadal advanced to the second round, beating Ferrer 6-4, 3-4. Although pleased with his win, Nadal expressed sadness at the idea of Ferrer going home. Ferrer retired from the grand slam after his loss last night, and with a serious calf injury.
The stadium was packed with long-time fans of Nadal and Williams, children, and celebrities such as Hugh Jackman, Anna Wintour, Vera Wang, and Mike Tyson. The cheers for the two champions’ wins were rightfully thunderous and navigating the crowds at the end of the night was tricky business.
For an anniversary year, the US Open absolutely delivered in terms of the matched abilities of both its men’s and women’s singles players, its headlining musical act, and its acknowledgment of the tournament’s storied past.