Big Bang in Bournemouth: The Open Era Began 50 Years Ago Today

by: Steve Tignor | April 22, 2018

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Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played huge parts in ushering in the new era. (Michael Cole) 

Nineteen-sixty-eight was a year of revolution, when cities from Tokyo to Chicago to Paris to Prague were convulsed with protest. Things got so wild that even the staid old sport of tennis joined the fun in the sleepy seaside resort town of Bournemouth, England. That’s where, at 1:43 p.m. on April 22, in front of 100 hardy fans and a shivering dog, a 22-year-old from Scotland named John Clifton squinted up through the mist and hit the first serve of tennis’ Open era.

As revolts go, this may sound a little mild. But that week at Bournemouth, tennis channeled the anarchic spirit of the 1960s. It was a decade when traditional divisions were erased and age-old hierarchies came crashing down. Black and white in the American south; men and women in workplaces and on college campuses; fine art and commercial art; jazz and rock: What had seemed like essential distinctions as the decade started had begun to dissolve by its end. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage; in ’69, female students were admitted to Yale and Princeton. In Bournemouth that spring, tennis added its own once-unthinkable commingling to the ’60s cocktail party: The end of the distinction between amateur and professional.

That division had been at the heart of tennis since its invention a century earlier in Victorian England. Amateur was the athletic version of “gentleman,” the man of inherited means who didn’t need to play a sport for money. The professional, by contrast, had to swing for his living. For decades, the two groups traveled on separate but unequal tracks. The amateurs gamboled on the grass at the Grand Slams while grabbing appearance money under the table. The pros drove through the small-town wilderness on one-night barnstorming tours; any place where they could put together a semblance of a paying audience would do.

WATCH: Our Stories of the Open Era video series, on cultural tennis icons

One writer compared the professional players to the ’60s original wilderness heroes: Fidel Castro’s Cuban rebels, who roamed the hills and bided their time before making their advance on the capital. Even the name of the pros’ objective—“Open tennis”—was an echo of that Civil Rights-inspired buzzword, “free.” After many setbacks, tennis freedom was achieved in March of ’68, when the sport’s amateur governing body, the International Lawn Tennis Federation, voted to allow the barbarians inside the gates.

Wimbledon, fearing irrelevance as more young stars joined the pro ranks, had instigated the move the previous fall. The club’s chief executive, Herman David, dropped a bombshell when he called amateurism a “living lie.” But, as Bud Collins wrote, “The British weren’t so brave or brazen to drop the bomb at the sacred Big W.” Open tennis would make its debut Off-Broadway, a couple of hours from London, at the British Hard Court Championships in Bournemouth.

Despite the rain and fog, tournament organizers described the ’68 event as a “bonanza.” Twenty-thousand fans attended, twice as many as the previous year. They were there to see those legendary, long-suffering professionals finally come in from the cold. Rod Laver (gone for five years), Ken Rosewall (gone for 10 years) and Pancho Gonzalez (gone for 17 years) joined Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson and others in the men’s draw, all of them competing for the $2,400 first-place prize.

These ghosts were spooky enough to keep many of the best amateurs away. Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase and Manuel Santana skipped Bournemouth on the men’s side, as did Margaret Court and Maria Bueno on the women’s. At this stage, there was still a question of whether other tournaments would allow amateurs to compete after they had entered an open—i.e., tainted—event.

A few of the male pros may have wished they had skipped Bournemouth as well. For them, it was put-up or shut-up time; anything less than total domination would be a headline-making embarrassment. Yet they were older and inbred now, having spent years facing only each other. “There are so many we’ve never seen or heard of,” Laver said of the amateurs.

Owen Davidson, an Australian pro, was so concerned about losing the aforementioned opening point of the event to Clifton—the first in history between pro and amateur—that he was left “ashen,” according to Collins. But Davidson went on to win the match; Gonzalez and Emerson weren’t so lucky against Britain’s top amateur, Mark Cox. His upset wins made him a front-page hero in London’s newspapers, which were firmly on the side of the amateurs.

“The mind boggles at the enormity of his achievement,” boomed Rex Bellamy of the Times of London.

“Somebody had to be the first to lose to an amateur,” the 39-year-old Gonzalez said with a weary smile after his three-hour, five-set defeat.

In the next round, Laver, solemnly determined to defend the pros’ honor, ended Cox’s run in straight sets. “He made mincemeat out of me,” Cox said.

In the end, the pros triumphed, and the crowds at Bournemouth saw a fine, if damp, show. Rosewall beat Laver for the men’s title, while Virginia Wade beat fellow Brit Winnie Shaw for the women’s. “There’s no going back after this,” said Derek Hardwick, chairman of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, champagne glass in hand, when the tournament was over. Tennis was open for business, and ready for Broadway.

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