We were 10, and dashing through the classic green grounds of the West Side Tennis Club – Forest Hills, Queens, and home of the U.S. Open. The place, which seemed immense, was, in fact, tiny compared to the hulking concrete stands of the National Tennis Center in nearby Flushing Meadows where the tournament is now played. What made me think a bunch of pre-adolescent, non-tennis playing girls would wish to go to a U.S. Open birthday party in 1975? But they did so that year, and for a few more birthdays after that.
The catalyst, my mom, was a United States Lawn Tennis Association lineswoman at the U.S. Open. The job didn’t look fun. Dressed in her official’s polyester below-the-knee dress, she stood at court’s edge, hands behind her, and called “Out!” or “Fault!” when the ball landed outside the lines. Then, she braced for players I was pretty sure wished to beat her up.
I watched a newly-defected Martina Navratilova play with ferocity yards from where I sat, and a teenage Chris Evert knock off Betty Stove.
She and the rest of the linespersons moved their heads left and right in unison like group yoga. Some added a personal touch to their calls: a distressed bleat or foghorn’s bellow. There were the cute ball boys able to throw at great distance to keep the whole thing going. There were fans who took in “The Matches” in short, ruffled tennis dresses, as if “more tennis” than the rest of us.
Celebrity Sightings at the U.S. Open
Best of all were sightings of the tennis stars, the remarkably tall and near-royal athletes who cleared a path as they processed to and from the court, their faces grim. Though accompanied by coaches and trainers, they were sure to carry their own bags stuffed with racquets. And maybe wearing tennis whites was a silly thing, but well before Agassi’s cut-off shorts and Serena’s tutu, whites were a standard we embraced. The crisp color established players’ stature in the world, even if they never emerged from rankings in the triple digits.
We went nuts following them for autographs — Ken Rosewell, Stan Smith, Rosie Casales, Virginia Wade and Roscoe Tanner — though I can guarantee my crew had never heard of a single one.
Regardless, these moments made all the difference when we saw them whip a cross court into the corner for a winner. Contact had been made. These were our people. If we were lucky, we’d even catch glimpses of our favorites through a window of the club’s Tudor clubhouse.
A New Era in the World of Tennis
This was the 1970s and beneath all the decorum, players were ruminating about allowing pros to join the amateurs, awarding women equal prize money, fleeing repressive countries, coming out as gay and sitting out tournaments in countries where apartheid was the law. But we were only after sightings of Ilie Nastase and his hugely-muscled tennis forearm that was a mismatch with the other one.
For years after my birthday celebrations at Forest Hills, my family attended the Open at Flushing Meadows. I’d join my mom at smaller tournaments where she’d occupy the umpire’s chair. I watched a newly-defected Martina Navratilova play with ferocity yards from where I sat, and a teenage Chris Evert knock off Betty Stove. A new era was coming, emblazoned with thunderous personalities like Navratilova and McEnroe, and togs equally electric and eclectic.
A Photo Sparks Memories
My mother died more than 30 years ago at 52, and my tournament outings fell off. But I have taken my son to the Open. We have gaped at players stellar and obscure and he has lusted after their autographs without any clue to who they were. I continue working on raising my mediocre game. And birthday party memories re-emerge whenever summer winds down and another edition of the U.S. Open unfolds.
These memories were literally delivered to my doorstep on a Sunday in late August 2018 when I opened The New York Times to a section devoted to the 50th U.S. Open and spotted someone I knew: my mom.
In a full-page black and white photograph of spectators in visors and aviator shades, she is seated in the bottom row, third from the left. Or might be.
This person, who might be Mom, wears a wide-brimmed hat cocked to one side and glasses the size and shape of a monarch butterfly. Her shoulders seem slightly rounder than my mom’s, the eyes more wizened. I don’t recognize anyone seated around her. Still, she did rock those big hats and would not have shied away from the large glasses of the day.
The photo is grainy, and she may be sitting with her tennis colleagues. Moreover, Eddie Hausner’s black and white shot depicts West Side Tennis Club, 1975, capturing just where and when you would have found my mom. The style of the halter top, the short black hair, dark skin tone, petite frame and wide mouth are all her.
I went back and forth as I magnified the online image for clues. Then, I put the question to the world, sharing the photo in emails and on Facebook. The rapid electronic responses — a phenomenon my mother would have kvelled over — brought her back yet again.
“Yeah, it’s her,” offered a childhood tennis-playing friend. A “yes,” then a definite “no” came from my sister. One cousin thought this was my mom, his aunt, and suggested some digital detective work comparing pictures of her in the 1970s to the person in the picture. Another cousin asserted that my mother was prettier than the woman in the photo. But our longtime next-door neighbor recognized my mother’s lipstick.
More striking were the people I was pleased even recalled her, who weighed in with clarity and even emotion. One, a veteran of the fifth grade birthday party, expressed gratitude for the experience, 50 years after the fact. Another remembered my mom’s kindness and our home, but regrettably not her physical appearance.
And people who had never met her shared their own connection to the Hausner photo. A summer-camp friend I have not seen since high school said that like me, the picture brought her right back to how she had felt seated so close to tennis greatness.
Reminders of My Mom
My sister and I, finally, decided to just assume it was her. And then, as if to settle the question, I opened my sister’s 60th birthday gift to me. It’s an Art Deco cameo etched with a winged tennis player — once my mother’s. My sister had the piece made into a necklace months before I spotted my mother in the Times’ photo.
Those who would wish to view these reminders of my mother as a coincidence are welcome to do so. Not me.
To me, the photo and the gift confirmed what I have always thought to be true: that the mothers and fathers, coaches, boyfriends, girlfriends and colleagues who make an impact don’t occupy a single stop in our lives. Instead, like the greats in the tennis whites, they move through time with us.
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