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Tennis Tumult: 1981 US Open

Matt Zemek



Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

The 1981 U.S. Open is the answer to a great tennis trivia question.

You’re surely interested in what the question is. Here:

When was the first time 128 women’s singles tennis players were in a major tournament field?

Yep — not until 1981, and not at Wimbledon.

While Wimbledon beat the U.S. Open in arriving at a smaller milestone of 96 players — and was the only major of the four to have at least 96 women’s singles players in 13 consecutive years, from 1968 (the first year of the Open Era) through 1980 — the U.S. Open gained a 128-player women’s field first, in 1981.

The 1981 U.S. Open was a highly significant tournament for all sorts of reasons. Most people (rightly) remember it as Bjorn Borg’s last hurrah at the Open, an urgent attempt to finally win the major tournament he kept pursuing, but to no avail. Borg, burned out and troubled, faded away from the tennis scene as he encountered his dark night of the soul. John McEnroe, who beat Borg in the 1981 U.S. Open men’s final, cemented his ascendancy and continued his prime period, which burned brightly through his 82-3 masterpiece in the 1984 tennis season.

The women’s final in most years would have been the headliner, but prime-period Borg-McEnroe was a larger-than-life tennis event at the time. The women’s final wasn’t a bigger global story — Tracy Austin won the Open again, beating Martina Navratilova in a close, tense match — but it provided the single most memorable image of that tournament: Navratilova sobbing after the match.

It was easy to think this was the pain of defeat being poured out in Martina’s tears, but as the world would learn, the tears flowed from a place of gratitude and transformation and so many other emotions which came at the end of a very long struggle… and at the beginning of new and positive epiphanies which would soon make Martina the tennis icon she remains today.

It is fascinating to step back and contemplate the huge, earth-shaking moments which marked the 1981 U.S. Open… and then realize that the tournament marked a seismic change and a huge milestone in tennis history which practically no one talks about nearly 40 years later.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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