If you were asked about the larger historical significance of the 1970 U.S. Open tennis tournament, you would almost certainly cite the introduction of Jimmy Van Alen’s tiebreaker, a revolutionary addition to tennis scoring which permanently and profoundly changed the sport for the better. This was an occasion in which a tennis reform was good on a large and lasting scale. Disrupting “The Way Things Have Been Done” clearly helped tennis in this case.
The tiebreaker IS the biggest and most resonant aspect of the 1970 U.S. Open. There is no real debate.
Yet, in the shadows of that historical reality lies a hidden component of the 1970 U.S. Open which makes that tournament noteworthy in the Open Era: It was the only time the U.S. Open men’s tournament had 108 players in the field.
The first U.S. Open in 1968 had a 96-player field. The second one in 1969 had the full 128, as did 1971. In 1970, though? Only 108, with 20 byes — 10 at the top of the bracket and 10 at the bottom.
You can put the pieces together and make these simple statements about the U.S. Open men’s tournament at the start of the Open Era:
A) The U.S. Open had a different number of players in the main draw in each of the first three years of its existence.
B) The U.S. Open field size varied from year to year in each of its first four editions.
As I similarly noted when remarking on the smaller-size field at the 1972 French Open, these smaller fields at the U.S. Open in 1970 and 1968 don’t cheapen the titles won by the players involved. Shaving one round off a seven-round tournament isn’t cause for a vocal outcry. The much more salient and lasting point is that tennis had a very tough time creating consistency even then.
If you think the sport struggles with consistency now — as shown primarily through the four different approaches toward a final-set tiebreaker — the 1970 U.S. Open reminds us that the sport wasn’t much better back then when facing this particular challenge.