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1968: Open Era Begins in Bournemouth
Tennis' big bang moment fittingly occurred in a year of revolutio
Published Jan 22, 2015
Nineteen-sixty-eight was a year of revolt, 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 its own quiet way, of course—in the sleepy seaside resort town of Bournemouth, England. That’s where, on April 22, at 1:43 P.M., in front of 100 hardy fans and a shivering dog, a 22-year-old from Scotland named John Clifton squinted up through the fog and mist and hit the first serve of tennis’s Open era.
As revolts go, this may sound a little mild. But in the ensuing week at Bournemouth, tennis caught and 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 began had begun to dissolve by its end. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage; in ’68, women students were finally admitted at Yale and Princeton. In Bournemouth that spring, tennis added its own once-unthinkable co-mingling to the 60s cocktail party: The end of the distinction between amateur and professional.
That division had been at the heart of tennis since the game was invented in Victorian England nearly a century earlier. “Amateur” was the athletic version of “gentleman,” the man of inherited means who didn’t need to play a sport for money—having the leisure time to hone his skills on court was a sign of his status. The professional, on the other hand, had to serve and volley for his living. For much of the 20th century, the two groups competed on separate but not equal tracks. The amateurs gamboled on the grass and hoisted the trophies at the Grand Slams, while grabbing appearance money under the table. The pros drove through the small-town wilderness, on one-night barnstorming tours in the U.S., Europe, and Australia; any place where they could put together a semblance of a paying audience would do.
The pros were 60s all the way. One writer fancifully compared them to the decade’s 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 that the pros gave to their objective—“open tennis”—was an echo of that Civil Rights-inspired buzzword of the early 60s, “free.” After many struggles and setbacks, tennis freedom was achieved in March of ’68, when the sport’s amateur governing body, the ILTF, bowed to the inevitable and voted to allow the barbarians inside the gates at its events.
Wimbledon, fearing irrelevance as more young stars joined the pro ranks, had instigated the move the previous fall; the All England Club had staged an experimental, pros-only invitational in ’67, and the club’s chief executive, Herman David, had 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.
The town’s West Hants Lawn Tennis Club was cozy and unassuming, but the British Hard Courts weren’t too far off of Broadway. The dual-gender event been an important stop on the amateur circuit since 1924, and boasted a who’s who of past champions. The “hard” courts in the name were actually made of red clay; the word was used in England to distinguish “hard” shale from the country’s primary surface, “soft” grass.
Despite the rain and fog, tournament organizers described the 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 six years), Ken Rosewall (gone for 12 years), Pancho Gonzalez (gone for 19 years) joined fellow pros Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson, and others in the men’s draw, all of them competing for the $2,400 first prize.
These ghosts were spooky enough to keep many of the best amateurs away from Bournemouth. Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase, and Manual Santana skipped the event 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. Plus, the amateurs had their own reputations to uphold.
“I suppose the top amateurs won’t come to play the professionals because the amateurs’ [appearance-fee] price would go down if they lost,” mused Derek Hardwick, head of Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association.
On the women’s side, it was the pros who decided the give Bournemouth a miss. Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Ann Jones, and Françoise Durr boycotted the tournament because the $720 top prize was so low—and, more important, so much less than the men’s. Even before a ball had been struck, the Open era’s fight for equal prize money had begun.
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; they were supposed to return in triumph, and 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, and they weren’t used to the best-of-five format that was still in place at Bournemouth. “There are so many we’ve never seen or heard of,” an anxious Laver said of the amateurs.
Owen Davidson, an Aussie pro, was so concerned after losing the aforementioned opening point of the tournament to John 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. The burly, curly-haired young lefty ambushed the two old pros to reach the semis. His upset wins made him a front-page hero to 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.
Cox, a soft-spoken Cambridge graduate and old-fashioned tennis gentleman, was slightly more level-headed about what he had done. “These fellows are under a lot of pressure this week,” Cox said of the pros. “It’s as if they’ve got weights around their legs.”
“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 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,” Derek Hardwick said, champagne glass in hand, when the tournament was over. Tennis was open for business, and ready for Broadway.