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Friday, October 17, 2008
Forgotten moments of the Open era

The Open-era highlight reel features extraordinary moments in tennis history, including the recent Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal Wimbledon final, the 2000 Wimbledon final in which Pete Sampras shattered the all-time Grand Slam singles title record held by Roy Emerson, and the historic first-ever Grand Slam singles final(s) between siblings Venus and Serena Williams.

But here are five other electric, but not necessarily glorious, moments and events that helped shape the emergent pro game:

• The very first tournament of the new Open era that began in 1968 was won by Ken "Muscles" Rosewall, who upset Rod Laver in the April final at Bournemouth, a British seaside resort town. Laver would go on to record his first and only men's Grand Slam win of the era, in 1969.

• In 1977, Mike Fishbach, a Long Island, N.Y., journeyman, used a curiously double-strung racket, called a "spaghetti racket," to score two upsets at the U.S. Open. The racket produced wild, exaggerated topspin, and although it would soon be outlawed, Ilie Nastase later used it in the fall of that year to end Guillermo Vilas' 53-match clay-court winning streak (a record that remained intact for nearly 30 years, until Rafael Nadal shattered it in 2006). Vilas quit in the middle of the final to protest the use of the racket.

• In 1979, just the second year the U.S. Open was played at the National Tennis Center in New York, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase were the principals in a match now sometimes known as the Monday Night Massacre. A match full of bickering (encouraged by a loud, raucous, inebriated crowd of Nastase fans) resulted in chair umpire Frank Hammond defaulting Nastase for refusing to play when ordered to do so. Fearing a riot, tournament referee Mike Blanchard reinstated Nastase, making him the first (and thus far only) player of either gender to be defaulted -- and continue to play. (McEnroe ultimately won the battle.)

• Jimmy van Alen, who invented the tiebreaker (previously, deuce sets were the order of the day all the way through a match), died on July 3, 1991, the same day Michael Stich upset Wimbledon defending champion Stefan Edberg in a four-set match in which Edberg never lost his serve. Stich lost the first set and then won the next three, all in tiebreakers.

• Martina Hingis laid claim to the Greatest Missed Opportunity of the Open Era title when she fell just short of becoming the only player besides Rod Laver and Steffi Graf to complete the ultimate accomplishment in the game: a calendar-year Grand Slam. Hingis was the victim of the greatest upset of the Open era in the 1997 final at Roland Garros, which she lost to hard-partying journeywoman Iva Majoli. Hingis won every other match she played in a major that year.

It's been 40 great years of Open tennis, and not always in a good way, thank God!