The American Invasion: Revolution on the Courts, Wimbledon

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Fifty years ago, Open tennis came to Wimbledon, and the sport changed hands for good. (AP)

For Steve Tignor's essay on the first Open tournament at Roland Garros, fifty years ago, click here.

In the summer of 1968, Abe Segal drove to London’s Heathrow Airport to pick up friends from his native South Africa. Big Abie, as he was known, had been one of the most flamboyant characters on tennis’s amateur circuit, and at 37 he had lost none of his irreverent joie de vivre. He showed up in a Rolls Royce and greeted his compatriots, as one of them recalled, “wearing a pair of pink trousers and the kind of wide eternal grin which suggests champagne for lunch and the prospect of a thousand hearty laughs.”

Segal, in truth, was only keeping up with the times, and the place. This was the Swinging London of the late-‘60s, home to mods, miniskirts and supermodels; hippies, gurus, the Beatles and the Stones. During that decade, as post-war austerity gave way to baby-boom hedonism, England’s capital had undergone a metamorphosis. The land of Churchill was now the land of Twiggy.

“Place has gone mad,” Segal said, climbing back into the Rolls.

Segal gave his friends a taste of the delirium in London’s streets, which were drenched in psychedelic hues and blaring acid-rock. While other Western cities had been rocked by rebellions that summer, London was having a party—the Youthquake, it was called. The song that topped England’s charts in June wasn’t a protest anthem; it was the Rolling Stones’ pulverizing hymn to liberation, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Mick Jagger’s exuberant howl—“It’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas”—was inescapable as Segal passed those teeming arteries of trendiness, Carnaby Street and King’s Road.

“There’s madness here, a sort of happy irresponsible insanity,” said Segal’s doubles partner, Gordon Forbes. “A bomb attack on the mind.”

WATCH—Rafael Nadal speaks about playing on grass:

Maybe the gaudy heart of London was a bit much, and a bit young, for Segal and Forbes, but they were heading to a different party, one that was more their speed. For the first time in its 90-year history, the All England Club was allowing professionals to trod its lawns, and offering prize money—a then-princely $35,000—for their efforts.

The previous month, those same pros had been admitted to Roland Garros for the first time; compared to Wimbledon, though, the inaugural French Open was just a test run. Nothing could officially begin, including the Open era, until it had happened on Centre Court. In the 1870s, it was the All England Club that had established the sport’s rules, one of which was that its competitions would be for amateurs only. Nearly a century later, it was the All England Club that had abolished that rule. In the fall of 1967, the club’s chairman, Herman David, denounced amateurism as a “living lie” and declared that in the future Wimbledon would be open. The rest of tennis soon joined the revolt.

Anyone and everyone took advantage of the AELTC’s amnesty offer. Bobby Riggs and Don Budge, pro-tour pioneers of the 1940s, returned for the legends draw, as did 47-year-old Pancho Segura. His friend Pancho Gonzalez was back in the men’s event after two decades away, while Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad appeared for the first time since 1956. There were 13 former champions in the men’s field.

“Players wandered around the grounds,” journalist Richard Evans wrote, “bumping into old foes and old friends who were usually one and the same and kept on exclaiming, ‘Great to see you! I don’t believe this, do you?’”

The most accomplished of those players, Rod Laver, was back after six years in exile. He was also better than ever. “Like a king sweeping squatters out of his castle,” as Evans wrote, the Rocket won his third Wimbledon title in 1968. But he was never prouder than he was on the tournament’s opening day.

When he won his first Wimbledon, seven years earlier, Laver received—as all champions received in lieu of prize money—an All England Club tie. Two years later, when he turned pro, he received a letter from AELTC officials instructing him never to wear the tie again.

“I took enormous satisfaction from dragging my old purple and green Wimbledon tie, the tie that had been unceremoniously yanked from my neck when I turned pro in 1963, and putting it on,” Laver recalled. “I wasn’t the only former champion taking my tie out of mothballs.”

Why did London swing, and not burn, that summer? Forbes’ description of the capital’s “happy irresponsible insanity” provides a clue: While the rest of the world may have been coming apart, this time the British didn’t have to hold it together.

By 1967, the British Empire had been contracting for 40 years. At its peak in 1922, it covered a quarter of the earth’s land mass. During the long period of Pax Britannica—“British Peace”—the Empire served as the world’s policeman. But after World War II, and America’s victories in Europe and the Pacific, that role had gradually been assumed by the U.S.

In 1960, Britain ended its national service requirement—the equivalent of the draft—for young men. In 1965, Winston Churchill, living symbol of the Empire, died at age 90. “Now Britain is no longer a great power,” Charles de Gaulle said upon hearing the news. Finally, in 1967, prime minister Harold Wilson “gave up on the remnants of Pax Britannica,” according to The New Yorker, by pulling British forces out of the Persian Gulf and the Pacific Rim. “That retreat handed responsibility for security in the the United States.” The world had a new sheriff.

As politics went, so did sports. In the 19th century, England spread its homegrown leisure activities—soccer, cricket, rugby, lawn tennis—across the Empire, and maintained control of them in the 20th century. Since 1939, tennis’s ruling body, the ITF, has been headquartered in London. For decades, one of its primary functions was to define and defend amateurism in tennis.

The amateur ideal, which made the sport an aristocratic pursuit, was another export of the British Empire. But the U.S. never had a deeply rooted leisure class, and an alternative to amateurism eventually arose here. In 1926, promoter C.C Pyle signed Suzanne Lenglen to play on the first pro tour. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Jack Kramer continued Pyle’s quixotic attempt to professionalize tennis. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that a group of U.S. team-sports promoters mounted a full-scale American invasion of tennis.

Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, organized the WCT. George MacCall, a Las Vegas impresario, signed Laver and Billie Jean King to a rival pro circuit. Dave Dixon, founder of the New Orleans Saints, created the Handsome Eight. When Dixon poached John Newcombe, champion at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, the All England Club finally waved the white flag for amateurism. In 1967, while Harold Wilson was ceding Britain’s role as global policeman to the U.S., Herman David of the AELTC was surrendering control of tennis to the Americans.

The biggest story of Wimbledon in 1968 was its acceptance of professional players. But it was the access granted to another type of pro—the American hustlers looking to get a piece of the Open-era action—that would prove more significant. Along with the game’s superstars, Wimbledon also welcomed super-agent Mark McCormack and his company, IMG, inside its ivy-covered walls.

“Mark the Shark” knew what to do when he got there. He was a fast-moving, forward-thinking lawyer from Chicago who had, with his first star client, Arnold Palmer, pioneered the concept of the athlete endorsement. When he turned his attention to tennis, he brought a less romantic—and more American—view of the sporting world with him. “Fans do tend to be children,” McCormack told Sports Illustrated. “They try to pretend the athlete of their fancy is out there doing what he excels at for some greater good or glory than a buck.” To McCormack, players were “pawns in the massive, changing, vigorously competitive arenas of advertising and marketing.”

McCormack first visited Wimbledon in 1966, and was less than impressed with its organization. In ’68, he set about rectifying that. He negotiated the tournament’s TV contracts, provided corporate hospitality services, and helped sign Rolex as a sponsor. Soon McCormack represented Wimbledon, the BBC, WCT, the USTA, Laver, Newcombe, King, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg and Bud Collins, among many others.

During the amateur era, tennis’ ruling body was the ITF; during the Open era, its ruling body would be IMG. Tennis was part of the American Empire now.

It’s fitting that McCormack’s first tennis client, Laver, won the first open Wimbledon. In the final, the Rocket tore through fellow pro Tony Roche in 60 minutes flat.

“If not the briefest of Wimbledon finals, it was among the most shattering,” wrote journalist Lance Tingay.

More fitting still was what happened in the women’s event. In the semifinals, King and Britain’s Ann Jones faced off. To the delight of the crowd, Jones found herself serving at 5-4 in the third set for a spot in the final.

Back when she was the bespectacled Billie Jean Moffitt of the early ‘60s, King had been a fan favorite at Wimbledon; “Moffitt Mobs” gathered wherever the chatty Californian played.

“The British loved me then,” King said. “I was young and chubby...The romance began to unravel when I became a winner.” English fans, she thought, loved “r/u’s”—runners-up—more than they loved champions.

By 1968, King was the two-time defending champion; worse, she had beaten Jones in the final the previous year. Now the home favorite had a chance for revenge, but she couldn’t take it.

“Some psychological gremlin perched on her shoulder at the moment of truth,” journalist Rex Bellamy wrote. “We had seen it happen before. Mrs. King flicked her glasses into their most effective viewing zone, stuck out her chin defiantly, and came back to win.”

That a battle-ready American would find a way past a diffident Brit was an appropriate symbol for that era-changing fortnight. Through the ‘60s, King had beaten the drum for change—for Open tennis and gender equality—and her efforts would lead to a new women’s tour two years later.

Looking at the men’s and women’s champions in ’68, Forbes could see the similarities, and he could glimpse the future.

“Billie Jean King won the ladies’ singles with the same inexorability with which Laver won the men’s,” he wrote. “They are, in a way, out of the same mould, although their personalities differ widely. Billie Jean is the modern American female through and through, and a great tennis player.”

No one knew what was in store for Open tennis in 1968, but Laver and King would do as much as anyone to ensure its success. The Rocket won the Grand Slam in 1969, and three years later played in what was then the most-watched tennis match in history; it took place not on Centre Court, but in Dallas’s Memorial Coliseum, in the WCT Finals. The following year, King would shatter that ratings record when she won the Battle of the Sexes in another Texas stadium, the Houston Astrodome.

Fifty years ago in London, the future of tennis was American, and the party was just getting started.


In association with All England Lawn & Tennis Club, Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment and Amblin Television.  Directed by Andrew Douglas.

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