Tennis Revolution: The sport opens up in 1968

by: | July 25, 2009

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On the 20th of June, 1789, in the tennis court in the Place de la Concorde, Paris, the First Republic of France came into being. That was one revolution that changed the face of the world. On the 30th of March, 1968, in the Automobile Club in the Place de la Concorde, just a few yards across one corner of that great concourse, lawn tennis had its own revolution. – Lance Tingay in The Fireside Book of Tennis

If the “Tennis Court Oath” of 1789 gave power to the people, the creation of Open competition in 1968 gave power to the players. Tennis’ revolution was bloodless, of course, but its underlying themes – ideological differences and class warfare – were the same as the ones that had swept France (and America) two centuries earlier.

The roots of the conflict lay within the origins of the game. In the Victorian era during which tennis was born, sport was essentially an amateur endeavor, and in the strictest sense of the word: “amateur” comes from the Latin amare (“for love”), and amateur sportsmen played for love of the game. There was no place for uncouth conversations about money in honorable competition.

Because tournaments offered participants expense reimbursement but no prize money, tennis was often only a short diversion for players before they had to take up real jobs. Those who won multiple majors had the option of becoming touring pros, but at a cost: professionals were immediately banned from all the game’s grand stages, including Wimbledon and Roland Garros.

Many of the early greats, including Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Althea Gibson, and Pancho Gonzalez, followed this course. They spent the first half of their careers recording famous victories in Paris, London, or Forest Hills, and the second half in relative anonymity, trudging from city to city to play one-night exhibitions.

Despite this state of affairs, the cold reality was that there was, in fact, plenty of money in the game. Tennis stars had become big box office draws. But while proceeds from ticket sales poured into the pockets of organizers, players saw little of the cash they were generating.

The imbalance of power between organizers and players led to two developments that slowly corroded the amateur ideal in tennis. First, the big names began departing for the pro ranks earlier and in increasingly greater numbers, leaving amateur-only events like the Grand Slam events with fewer and fewer established champions in the draws. At the same time, smaller purportedly amateur tournaments in Europe began shelling out large under-the-table fees to lure top players – a practice that was branded “shamateurism.”

By the end of 1967, Wimbledon organizers could no longer stomach the façade of the amateur/professional divide. Calling the situation was a “living lie,” the British Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club announced that starting in 1968, the Championships would be open to amateurs and professionals alike.

The bold move threw the game into turmoil. Some national federations wanted to follow the lead of the British, while others were adamantly opposed. In an April 1968 emergency session of the International Lawn Tennis Federation, the two factions struck a compromise that permitted a certain number of “open” tournaments while designating others as strictly amateur. Attendees also devised convoluted means of distinguishing between professional and amateur players.

The timing of the settlement meant it was at Roland Garros, not Wimbledon, that the first open Grand Slam was ultimately held. And French history and tennis history collided again in May 1968, when student riots gripped Paris at the same time as the tournament.

“Had the organizers been prudent, the whole thing would have been cancelled. But the championships were gloriously successful,” wrote correspondent Rex Bellamy in The Times of London. “The fizz and verve of that fortnight sprang from two sources: a revolution on the courts, and a whiff of revolution on the streets. Roland Garros has seldom been so packed, so animated, so stimulating, so early in the tournament. There was an air of tingling expectancy, because the promoter-controlled professionals, great names of past championships, were returning to active service on these famous courts. The flavour of the occasion was like that of a nostalgic reunion.”

Nancy Richey and Ken Rosewall were the winners of that revolutionary tournament. A month later, Billie Jean King and Rod Laver won the first open Wimbledon. And the following year, Laver swept the majors for the first Grand Slam of the Open era.

But though 1968 marked the official beginning of that era, a huge divide remained between tennis’ administrators, who wanted to retain control of the game, and the players and promoters, who sought expanded freedoms. This tension would lead to more upheaval in five years’ time.
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