A Port in a Storm: Revolution on the Courts, Roland Garros

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As Danny the Red (bottom left) drew teeming crowds in Paris for protests, fans packed Roland Garros to see Pancho Gonzalez (bottom right), who was playing his first Grand Slam since 1949, and Ken Rosewall (top left), who would win another title. (AP)

The Open era began as a refuge from the chaos that swept Paris in May 1968. Fifty years later, we look back on those two tumultuous weeks.

"We thought of Nero and his fiddle,” Rex Bellamy of the Times of London wrote in one of his first dispatches from Roland Garros in 1968. “In a strife-torn city, the mighty center court blazes with color. The vast amphitheater has smoldered with heat. Its steep banks, tightly packed with spectators in summer colors, have been a dazzling sight.”

Fifty springs ago, there was revolution on the courts, in the streets and in the tear-gas-filled air of Paris. Bellamy was reporting from the inaugural French Open, the first Grand Slam tournament in tennis’ 90-year history to welcome professional players. The much-anticipated, long-delayed Open era had kicked off, and people streamed in record numbers to the Bois de Boulogne to witness it. Those who couldn’t find seats clambered on top of the scoreboards above the courts.

But even as he watched the sun blaze down on the red clay at Roland Garros, Bellamy was reporting from a City of Light that had grown darker and more ominous over the past month. During the heady, convulsive days of the uprising now known as May ’68, Paris was overrun by violent clashes between police and students, and paralyzed by a strike involving 11 million workers. With no gasoline, no public transportation and no factories or schools in operation, life in France came to a standstill. Roland Garros would draw 10 times as many spectators as it had in 1967, in part because it was a safe port in the surrounding storm.

Each day, Bellamy joined throngs of Parisians on the streets as he made the 90-minute walk—through gusts of tear gas and mounting piles of garbage—from his hotel in the Latin Quarter to Roland Garros. One evening he found himself standing in the middle of a deathly hushed Boulevard St. Michel. Helmeted riot police were lined up on one side; students clutching cobblestones were massed on the other. Bellamy tiptoed through the intersection and, just as he shut the door behind him, the battle between the two camps began to rage again, and wouldn’t stop until 3 a.m.

WATCH: The 1968 French Open

Merely getting to Paris was an adventure. Ken Rosewall was flown to a nearby military airfield. Four women pros made nine-hour drives from Amsterdam. Cliff Richey flew to Luxembourg and took a four-hour taxi ride. Torben Ulrich came by bicycle. Once she’d made it in, Nancy Richey asked the next logical question: “How do we get outta here?”

“We’d venture out to a restaurant for dinner and suddenly there’d be a mob of people charging down the street,” said Rod Laver. “There’d be cops and a pitched brawl and we’d take refuge in a shop or anywhere handy. It was scary.”

If Paris was a nightmare, the tennis at Roland Garros was the stuff of fans’ dreams. The game’s legends had emerged from the pro-tour wilderness. Laver was back after six years away, and Rosewall after 12, but the biggest draw was Pancho Gonzalez. The Lone Wolf turned 40 that month, and he hadn’t played a major tournament since 1949.

“They gave him a standing ovation fit for a conquering monarch,” Laver said of the fans who came to see the mythic, artistic American make the ball dance and dart. “Some in the crowd wept for joy.”

Best of all for Gonzalez and his fellow pros may have been the simple chance to play in the sunshine again. For years, they had staged their shoestring tours in dim gymnasiums. Now, as Bellamy wrote, “They looked at the brightness and beauty around them and felt, perhaps, that such gloriously open tennis as this was made for the gods.”

The pros, and their sport, had finally seen the light.

On the surface, the joyous revolt taking place at Roland Garros that May didn’t seem to have much in common with the unruly upheavals in the streets. But each had been inspired, in its own way, by the rapid social changes that had defined the 1960s. “Dreams are reality,” and “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” were two of the hundreds of utopian slogans scrawled across the walls of French universities in the spring of ’68. They described what was happening in tennis every bit as well as what was happening in Paris.

Bringing amateurs and professionals together had been a dream of progressive tennis types for four decades. During the ’60s, as other professional sports leagues thrived and other social divisions were erased, the mission took on new urgency. “Open” was a rallying cry in tennis, in the same way that “freedom” was for the Civil Rights Movement. Where the Jim Crow South was segregated by race, tennis was segregated by class. The requirement that players maintain their amateur status had been a way of restricting the sport to ladies and gentlemen of independent means. But its governing bodies had grown accustomed to controlling the players, and were willing to pay them under the table to do it. Amateurism was derided as “shamateurism.” As the ’60s progressed, more star players opted for anhonest day’s pay on the pro tours.

In 1967, the All England Club caved in and held an invitational event for the top professionals. After seeing the enthusiasm of the sellout crowds, Wimbledon’s chief, Herman David, announced that the tournament would open its door to all comers the following year. The first domino of the old order had tumbled; it took just four months for the rest to fall.

On March 30, 1968, representatives of the ILTF (now the ITF) met in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. During the French Revolution, this had been the site of the Oath of the Tennis Court, which signaled the formation of the first French Republic. Now it was the site of tennis’ own, quietly momentous coup d’état. After years of fighting it, the delegates voted unanimously for open tennis.

“It was unbelievable,” British journalist Lance Tingay wrote. “Last December Great Britain raised the revolution. This March that revolution was accepted as fact.”

It was a spring full of unbelievable revolutions. Twenty-four hours after the ILTF ceded control of tennis, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson ceded control of his country by announcing that he wouldn’t run for reelection. With the world’s ultimate symbol of authority declaring himself a lame duck, chaos ensued. Six days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Across the United States, riots tore apart cities and students occupied campus buildings. Political uprisings swept through Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and Tokyo. On June 6, during the second week of Roland Garros, Robert Kennedy was killed.

True to their ancestors, French youth pushed this conflagration to its limit. Demands to improve the facilities at an obscure university outside Paris morphed into a mass movement that nearly toppled the country’s president, Charles de Gaulle. Each protest led to a crackdown, which only led to bigger protests. In early May, the Sorbonne was shut down and 600 students arrested. Two weeks later, they were joined in revolt by the country’s workers, who walked off their jobs en masse.

According to the movement’s leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit—known as Danny the Red—France’s workers wanted “radical reform of factories [and] wages.” But the students, he said, were agitating for “a radical change in life.” For the duration of that spring, they got it, as the barriers that normally kept citizens divided began to crumble.

“The real sense of ’68 was a tremendous sense of liberation, of freedom,” one Parisian told the historian Mark Kurlansky, “of people talking on the street, in universities, in theaters.” And also in tennis arenas. Nowhere was that sense of liberation—of openness—felt more keenly than at Roland Garros. “The flavor of the occasion was that of a nostalgic reunion,” Bellamy wrote. Pros talked with amateurs. Men and women spoke of their first dual-gender tour, which had started in April. And fans were happy once again to cry “Allez!” for the two men’s finalists, those clean-cut rebels known to all as Rocket and Muscles.

Danny the Red, the front man for France’s youth movement, was a stocky redhead. So was the front man for the open-tennis movement, Laver. Like his fellow pros, Laver felt pressure to live up to his reputation in Paris, but live up to it he did; the 29-year-old reached the final, where his friend, counryman and rival Rosewall awaited.

The two had faced off in a hundred little-known locations over the last five years; Laver would win, by one count, 79 of their 150 meetings. But this one went to Rosewall. Fifteen years after he had last conquered Roland Garros, the 33-year-old showed the world what the pro game was all about. “Ken was placing his shots perfectly,” Laver said.

While Rosewall and Laver were well-versed in the professional ropes, 24-year-old Billie Jean King was learning them the hard way in ’68. That April, King and three other women made history by joining the National Tennis League, the first co-ed pro tour. They visited 18 European cities in 20 days, and matches ended at 2:00 a.m. In Cannes, the tiny gym was so humid that King’s glasses fogged.

“Welcome to the pros!” a grinning Vic Braden screamed.

Yet King had no regrets. “At last I was a pro,” she recalled. “Play-for-pay.”

As with so many things in 1968, there was a utopian element to this tour. The four women were joined by six men—including Laver, Rosewall and Gonzalez—who, according to King, “treated us magnificently.” Like all utopias, though, the NTL’s camaraderie was short-lived. In 1969, it was sold to Lamar Hunt. King was crushed when the men took the Texan’s oil money and left the women behind.

“That was a profound wake-up call,” she said.

By the time she reached Roland Garros in ’68, King was running on fumes. Seeded first, she lost in the semifinals to Nancy Richey. Then she bolted for home. “I woke up one night and said, ‘I can’t stand the sight of another tennis ball,” she said. After a week in California, King flew back and won her third straight Wimbledon.

The battles were only beginning for King and her fellow pros. There were tours to form, Bobby Riggs to beat and a tennis boom to start. Fifty years after the Open era began in Paris, we can look back and see that, in reality, it was that head-spinning spring’s most successful revolution of all.

—Tennis Channel Plus features up to 10 courts of live action from Roland Garros beginning Sunday, May 27 at 5:00am ET.

—Catch up and watch all your favorite stars anytime on-demand with Tennis Channel Plus.

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