By Peter Schwartz
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For many years, Forest Hills Stadium stood dormant. For all intents and purposes, it was rotting away waiting for the wrecking ball to put it out of its misery.
If its walls could talk, the former home of the US Open would have spent its final days telling the stories of so many great moments that took place at the stadium built in 1923. So many greats played there like Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver and Chris Evert. There were also many memorable concerts at the venue including the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and Barbra Streisand.
The US Open left the West Side Tennis Club after the 1977 tournament and relocated to Flushing Meadow. There were other tournaments at the West Side Tennis Club, and the venue continued to host concerts into the 1990s. But the costs of maintaining the stadium became too expensive, and the facility was shuttered for almost 20 years.
It stayed that way until the middle of 2013, when massive renovations brought life back to the venue. Forest Hills Stadium reopened in August 2013 with a Mumford & Sons concert. The schedule of shows, along with additional renovations, has continued over the last couple of years.
And now tennis is returning, as World Team Tennis announced this week that the New York Empire will debut this summer and will play its home matches at Forest Hills Stadium.
“We’re on a big upward swing the last couple of years with bringing the concerts back and now with bringing professional tennis back,” said Bob Ingersole, tennis director at the West Side Tennis Club.
The Empire has already announced two very recognizable names that will be involved with the team.
Former player and current television commentator Patrick McEnroe, the brother of four-time US Open champion John McEnroe, was named head coach while Andy Roddick, a former No. 1 player in the world, was acquired as a marquee player.
“It’s incredible when you think about the history there,” said McEnroe who played at Forest Hills Stadium as a youngster and then in the post-US Open tournaments that took place at West Side Tennis Club.
“I’m so happy that the club and these concert promoters have resurrected the stadium. I think that this is another great step for the club and for the history to get some real professional tennis there.”
McEnroe is no stranger to World Team Tennis having played six seasons and also serving as an owner of the last New York team about 15 years ago. He received a call from WTT co-founder Billie Jean King and WTT CEO/Commissioner Ilana Kloss and was told the league was hoping to bring a team back to New York to play at Forest Hills.
“That was a no-brainer for me,” said McEnroe. “I’m excited to be back in the game.”
McEnroe will have the opportunity to coach Roddick in what will be a reunion of sorts for them. They have a long history with the Davis Cup together, as Roddick played for about a decade with McEnroe serving as the United States captain for most of those years.
“(Roddick) and I have a great history,” said McEnroe. “I think he still really loves to play. I’m super happy that he’ll be part of the team.”
In addition to Roddick, the remainder of the Empire roster will be filled via the draft coming up in about a month or so, and it’s possible there could be some young local players available to be picked.
For those who are not familiar with World Team Tennis, it’s been around for over 40 years.
The most important aspect of WTT is that men and women play together on a team on equal footing. Fans will see a set of men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles.
“Every game counts,” said McEnroe. “Every person that’s on the team is an integral part of the overall result of the match.”
Entertainment is also a big part of World Team Tennis with music on the changeovers, no-ad scoring, on-court coaching and timeouts, multi-colored courts and player names on the back of shirts.
And what makes it even more special is that it marks the return of professional tennis to Forest Hills Stadium, a venue that could have been converted into condos if two separate proposals had not been voted down by West Side Tennis Club membership.
“They didn’t want to give away the club,” said Ingersole. “It’s a magical place.”
There have already been extensive renovations to the venue with more on the way, including a new court for the Empire and the construction of bathrooms under the stadium.”
“There’s money being put into it all of the time,” said Ingersole. “It’s coming along nicely.”
Forest Hills Stadium will seat 2,500 for the Empire’s six home matches, creating an intimate atmosphere. The first match will mark the first professional tennis event at Forest Hills Stadium since the final WCT Tournament of Champions in 1990.
“Hopefully, we’ll get people that are a bit nostalgic about West Side Tennis Club,” said McEnroe.
I grew up in Forest Hills and lived there until I was 12, when my family moved to Long Island. Forest Hills Stadium will always hold a special place in my heart because it was so close to where I lived and I was lucky enough to see some tournaments there.
For many years, it was very difficult to take the Long Island Rail Road into New York City and see Forest Hills Stadium in the condition it was in. It’s great to see that it’s going through a rebirth and that professional tennis is returning.
For more information on the New York Empire and World Team Tennis, visit NYEmpireTennis.com and WTT.com.
Follow Peter on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow the New York Empire @nyempiretennis and World Team Tennis @WorldTeamTennis.