This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
Tennis has undergone revolutionary change at every level over the last 50 years. From the strokes to the clothes to the money on offer, the sport today would be unrecognizable to its 1965 self. But nowhere is this more true than in the realm of television. Before the Open era, tennis was, as Bud Collins once called it, the “secret sport,” hidden away from America's great unwashed behind ivy-covered walls. Today, between ESPN, the Tennis Channel, and those ever-flowing steams on our computers, there’s hardly a match anywhere that we can’t watch from our living rooms. By now, young viewers might believe it’s their right to have access to live tennis at all times.
What would those same kids think if you told them that until 1979, the only matches from Wimbledon that were broadcast in the U.S. were the finals, and they were shown on tape delay, cut to fit a short window of programming time, eight hours after they had ended and the world already knew the result? Even during the boom years for the sport here, that was all we got from the Big W.
It wasn’t as if the sport’s potential on-screen appeal had never been noted. In 1966, Sports Illustrated, casting its eye across the TV-sports landscape, predicted that tennis would be the game that fit the medium perfectly. The court filled the screen, and, through constant close-up shots, an intimate connection between the players and the spectators at home was fostered. By the start of the ’70s, that forecast seemed to be coming true, as television began to bend the game to its rules. The tiebreaker was introduced at the U.S. Open in 1970 to make match lengths more predictable for programmers. Two years later, Penn’s “optic yellow” balls, which popped on color screens, replaced white balls at pro events. That same season, in 1972, NBC made Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis (WCT) tour the first to secure a regular spot on national TV. To Hunt, a pro football executive, television was the promised land.
NBC also secured the rights to the biggest fish in the tennis sea, Wimbledon. But the network, which was accustomed to showing U.S.-based sporting events at convenient viewing times, didn’t know what to do with the five-hour time difference between London and the East Coast, and the eight hours to the West Coast. Worse, the All England Club was one of the rare entities that refused to kowtow to the demands of American TV. The massive rights fees that U.S. networks paid usually came with dictatorial power over scheduling. Even the International Olympic Committee understood who paid the bills and who was in charge; the infamous basketball game that the U.S. lost to the Soviet Union in 1972 began at midnight in Munich so it could be seen at a decent hour in the States.
Wimbledon was different. Officials there knew that a big part of the tournament’s commercial appeal was that it didn’t allow itself to appear commercialized. Tradition dictated that play began at “precisely” 2:00 P.M. on Centre Court, which meant 9:00 A.M. on the East Coast and an eye-opening 6:00 A.M. out west. In 1979, NBC’s new executive producer of sports, Don Ohlmeyer, would find out just how precise Wimbledon could be.
Ohlmeyer—“imaginative, hard-driving, big, self-confident, and abrasive” in the words of Collins—was hired from ABC to give its sports coverage a jolt. He quickly realized that Wimbledon was a world-class event, and that tape-delaying it wouldn’t do. In '79, after much wrangling, Ohlmeyer convinced his bosses at NBC that, yes, Americans would turn on the TV for tennis at 9:00 A.M. on a weekend morning for tennis. His assistant, Bob Basche, came up with a clever name, "Breakfast at Wimbledon," and Clark Gault composed a memorably grand opening theme.
Everything appeared to be ready for a brave new world of televised tennis to begin; except, of course, for Wimbledon itself. When Ohlmeyer asked to have the players walk out at 2:05 instead of 2:00 sharp, so that NBC could run its introductory segment (along with the ads that went with it, of course), officials at the All England Club balked.
Ohlmeyer turned to his lead commentator, and one of tennis’ all-around insiders, Donald Dell, and asked if he could help. Dell happened to manage one of the men’s finalists that year, Roscoe Tanner. Dell, smirking a little as he left the booth, said he would see what he could do.
Two o’clock came and went. To the astonishment of everyone, and the delight of the NBC crew, neither Tanner nor his opponent, Bjorn Borg, appeared on Centre Court. Five full minutes later—an eternity in Wimbledon time—the Swede and the American finally stepped out onto the grass.
What had happened? It was very simple, really: Dell told Tanner the situation, and asked if he could find a way to delay his entrance. When the ushers came to get the two players in the locker room at 2:00, Roscoe said he had to go to the bathroom and proceeded to sit in the stall for five minutes. Even the sticklers at Wimbledon couldn’t do anything about that.
Ohlmeyer and his network were eternally grateful. The theme song was played, the match was set up by Dell, Collins, and Dick Enberg in the booth, and, of course, the commercials were run. All with plenty of time to get back for the first point—live. Breakfast at Wimbledon had been served, and coverage of tennis in the U.S. had made its first leap across the pond. NBC had arrived, as it would find out one year later, right on time.