One of the most dramatic events in New York isn’t happening in a Broadway theatre right now; it’s taking place in Flushing, Queens, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Tennis fans from all over the globe—including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hugh Jackman—have gathered at the tennis complex and the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium to witness the mental and physical strength of the sport’s best athletes. For those who don’t know, the U.S. Open is one of four Grand Slam tennis tournaments throughout the year-long season, which also includes January’s Australian Open, May’s French Open, and June’s Wimbledon in London. These slams are the apices of competition. Aside from theatre greats in attendance (and performances by theatre talent like Tony winners Ben Platt and Ali Stroker at this year’s opening ceremonies and Adrienne Warren at the finals), tennis and theatre have actually crossed paths numerous times.
Before you tune in to the drama on Arthur Ashe, we investigate the songs, productions, and moments when theatre and tennis faced off.
1. Don’t You F**king Say a Word
In 2016, 59E59 presented this play by Andy Bragen Off-Broadway. Kate and Leslie posit the ins-and-outs of their boyfriends’ competitive natures as the men duke it out in scenes on the court.
2. Big Bill
This drama by A.R. Gurney played Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater in 2004. Starring John Michael Higgins in the title role, the play dramatized the life of real-life player Bill Tilden as he battled between his WASP standards and upbringing and his sexuality. A tennis star of the 1920s, Tilden came from a wealthy Philadelphia family and lived in the closet—though his identity eventually led to his career decline.
Written by Tony winner Terrence McNally, Deuce gets its name from the tennis term, which indicates an all-even score of 40-40 in a tennis game. The play bowed on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre in 2007, starring Angela Lansbury (in her first Broadway appearance in over 20 years) and Marian Seldes as two former successful doubles partners who reunite to attend a women’s quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open. As they watch the match, they reminisce about the great women of the sport and the changing of the game.
Set in the men’s locker room of the Norwalk Racquet Club, Doubles follows the tribulations of four middle-aged men whose regular tennis game also serves as a time to vent about their failing marriages and personal woes. The show played Broadway’s Ritz Theatre in 1984 and starred Tony winner John Cullum (On the Twentieth Century, Shenandoah), Tony winner Ron Leibman (Angels in America), Tony nominee Austin Pendleton (The Little Foxes), and Tony nominee Tony Roberts (Play It Again, Sam; How Now, Dow Jones).
5. “The Tennis Song” in City of Angels
From the Cy Coleman show, this song is one big innuendo. City of Angels is a double story: one of the “real” world of a writer trying to turn his book into a screenplay, the other the world of his film. Stone, the detective in the screenplay, and leading lady Alaura play a game of cat and mouse in this jazzy tune.
You seem at home on the court
Let’s say that I’ve played around
Well you don’t look like the sort
My hidden talents abound
A competitor hasn't been found to defeat
I bet you’re a real good sport
Shall we say the ball is in your court?
6. The Nederlander Theatre—or should we say Nederlander Court
As theatre historian and author of The Untold Stories of Broadway series Jennifer Ashley Tepper writes, “The Winter Garden was once a horse exchange, and the Broadway was once a silent movie and vaudeville house—but most of New York’s central theatres opened specifically to house musicals and plays. The Nederlander is another of those rare exceptions; it was once a large, multi-level carpenter’s shop that also had club rooms, showers, apartments, and even a tennis court. When converted to a theatre in 1920, a new fire escape had to be added, given the increased intended capacity in a live performance space. This is why the Nederlander’s fire escape doesn’t seem to match the rest of the exterior’s design.”
7. Kristin Chenoweth picks up her racket
Back in 2011, Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth joined American tennis great (and current ESPN tennis commentator) John McEnroe in Times Square to launch the first day of ticket sales to the 2011 U.S. Open. (Fun fact: Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother, former tennis player, winning David Cup captain, and fellow ESPN tennis commentator, is married to Tony nominee Melissa Errico.)
8. She is King
The 2014 Off-Broadway play examined tennis icon Billie Jean King by re-staging three key interviews from during her career. Created by Laryssa Husiak and directed by Katherine Brook, the play enjoyed its New York premiere at the Incubator Arts Project.
9. The Last Match
Anna Ziegler’s sports drama played Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. Set during the semifinals of the U.S. Open, follows fictional tennis greats Tim Porter, the aging American favorite, and Sergei Sergeyev, the temperamental Russian. The work, which premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego, California, put the drama center court (made to look like the real U.S. Open by designer Tim Mackabee).