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A week has passed since the United States Open electrified the tennis world with its bewitching unpredictability and rejuvenated fan base. Unknown to many, top tennis lingered in New York City as the Davis Cup made a quiet and unusual return to the West Side Tennis Club.
Less than 200 happy fans – all members of the venerable club – lined the almost hundred-year-old Forest Hills Stadium in Queens with 14,000 seats on Saturday to watch the first Davis Cup game at this location since 1959.
But the US team was nowhere to be found.
Instead, South Africa hosted Venezuela – two teams looking for a home. They found it tucked away in the leafy Forest Hills neighborhood, once home to the US Championships (later the US Open), until the event moved three miles up Grand Central Parkway to Flushing in 1978.
Lloyd Harris was there ten days earlier and played in front of 20,000 fans at the US Open. Saturday was very different. Yes, it had something of the pomp and circumstance of the Davis Cup – there was an opening ceremony with player presentations, flags and the national anthems of both countries, as well as team uniforms.
But the rough and rowdy atmosphere that is sometimes associated with many Davis Cup encounters, especially in South America, was clearly missing, at least in the opening game.
“It is a very unique situation to play a duel between South Africa and Venezuela in New York,” said Harris. “But it’s pretty cool. It worked out fine for me since I’m here all the time. It wasn’t too difficult to drive four blocks. “
If the idea of two countries from different continents tying in the ancestral homeland of American tennis seemed to tie Davis Cup, it was Harris’ first on the court. He had no problem sending Brandon Perez, Venezuela’s number two, 6-0, 6-0, in the first game of the two-day tournament (the game will continue on Sunday).
Perez ranks 1,596 in the world and plays for the University of Nebraska. He knew weeks ago that he would face Harris in the Davis Cup. Like many tennis fans, he watched Harris slide through the summer season, scooping huge victories in a run that defeated Rafael Nadal in Washington, among others, before hitting the final eight in Flushing.
After losing to semi-finalist Alexander Zverev, Harris moved from an Intercontinental Hotel on the east side of Manhattan – one of the most important US Open player hotels – to one on the west side, where the South African team was headquartered. He spent the last 10 days with his girlfriend relaxing, practicing and sightseeing. They rented bikes and rode over the Brooklyn Bridge and cycled downtown and all the way to Central Park.
Harris, who is from Cape Town, has been in New York for a month – long enough to feel like a local.
“I’ve learned that you have to move quickly and drink a lot of coffee,” he said, “and watch out for the cyclists rushing past you at 200 kilometers per hour. I’ve been almost run over by cyclists 10 times. “
Under normal conditions, Harris might have returned to South Africa immediately after the US Open. But South Africa has a high rate of coronavirus infection, making travel restrictions difficult for visitors and residents who travel back and forth. (Another draw also took place on neutral US soil on Friday and Saturday when New Zealand played South Korea at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI).
Venezuela has not been allowed to host Davis Cup games since 2016 when the International Tennis Association declared it to be unsafe to travel due to the political and economic situation.
“I’m still waiting for the chance to play at home in front of all my friends and family,” said Perez. “Until then, I’ll have my parents here and my girlfriend.”
In the second individual match on Saturday, Philip Henning from South Africa defeated Venezuela’s Ricardo Rodriguez 6-4, 6-4 when the small audience came to life on a sunny, breezy day when at least one supporter from South Africa felt right at home.
“You served a perfect day in South Africa,” said Gavin Crookes, President of Tennis South Africa.
Venezuela was supposed to be the nominal host, but it allowed South Africa to take the role and bring the West Side Tennis Club into play. Jason Weir-Smith, a former college and professional player from Johannesburg, is the club’s tennis director. Tennis South Africa turned to him, and the club was eager to host.
“The last time the club hosted a Davis Cup event 60 years ago,” said Weir-Smith. “It was important for us to get back on the map.”
It was also the first Davis Cup game in New York since 1981, when the US faced Ivan Lendl and Czechoslovakia in Flushing with John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
Tickets to this event were not publicly available as the cost of permits, insurance and staff were prohibitive for Tennis South Africa, which as host country would have borne the cost, according to Weir-Smith. Instead, only 200 club members were allowed to enter the venue, which is sometimes more than what is available at challenger events and college games.
The tie will be played on a blue hard court that was specially renovated in July for the Davis Cup tie.
Monika Jain, the president of the West Side Club, was one of the spectators on Saturday. She watched from metal benches after playing tennis on one of the club’s many grass, sand, and hard courts.
“It’s very exciting for us to have this event here,” said Jain. “With our proximity to the US Open, we think we can do more of it in the future.”
The West Side Tennis Club, with its iconic Tudor clubhouse, hosted the US championships from 1915 to 1977 and saw some of the sport’s greatest players, including Bill Tilden, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert titles to win.
It represents a different era in professional tennis when the game was dominated by international elites. This weekend, however, it served as a temporary landing pad for some of tennis’ s temporary homeless people.
“We’d like to play in front of our people, but unfortunately we haven’t had that chance in recent years,” said Rodriguez. “On the other hand, it’s something very special for me to play in such a historic place. You feel the history and the great moments that happened here. To be a small part of the new story makes me proud. “