TBT, 1881: The birth of USLTA, when the game was called lawn tennis

TBT, 1881: The birth of USLTA, when the game was called lawn tennis

The 1974 US Open marked the last time America’s most prominent tournament would be played on grass. Fittingly, the next year the “L” was dropped from the title of the organization, creating the contemporary, business-focused USTA as we now know it.

Given what happened on this Saturday in 1881, the Fifth Avenue Hotel was a logical setting. Located at the corner of 23rd Street and 24th Street in Manhattan, the Fifth Avenue Hotel was a prime meeting spot for many American movers and shakers, including such notables as President Ulysses S. Grant, robber baron Jay Gould, political operator Boss Tweed and New York Times editor John C. Reid. If you were among New York’s power elite, you knew this hotel. 

So naturally, a newly imported leisure sport fit in quite nicely. Tennis as we currently know it—called "lawn tennis" in those days—had been invented in Great Britain in 1874.  Soon enough, it made its way to America. According to the scholar Digby Baltzell, author of the book “Sporting Gentlemen: Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar,” by 1880 the game was being played at approximately 30 exclusive clubs in the United States, mostly in the East, but also in San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans. 

Around this time, such tennis lovers as Clarence Clark of Philadelphia, Mary Outerbridge of Staten Island, NY and James Dwight of Boston agreed that it was necessary to start a singular, national organization to create rules and regulations for court dimensions, the weight of the ball, and other aspects of the game. 

So it was that nearly 100 people, representing 33 clubs, met in Room F of the Fifth Avenue Hotel and brought to life the United States National Lawn Tennis Association. A constitution was drafted, with R.S. Oliver of the Albany Lawn Tennis Club elected president and Clark becoming secretary-treasurer. By that summer, at the newly opened Newport Casino in Rhode Island, the first U.S. Championships was played.

One approach to history enjoys saying that things were never quite the same, events occurring at the speed of lightning. 

Not quite. Not quite by a long shot.

By 1915, the U.S. singles championship had relocated from Newport to the West Side Tennis Club in New York City’s Forest Hills neighborhood. Five years later, the word “National” was dropped from its name.

And that was pretty much it. 


AP Photo

Over the next half-century, the USLTA, in lockstep with national associations all over the world, largely stayed the same and rarely sought ways to bring tennis to the masses. A great many American clubs had exclusionary membership policies. The structure of tennis was confusing at best, devious in the middle, odious at the bottom. Officials at both the national and sectional level often behaved as autocrats, in many cases single-handedly determining which players could play where. Davis Cup selections, be it the captain’s post and even the players chosen to compete, were intermittently flavored by political machinations.  

When it came to earning a livelihood from tennis, players were technically considered amateurs and barred from collecting prize money—even as a great many events all over the country made discreet under-the-table payments in a set-up informally known as "shamateurism." When such greats as Bill Tilden and Pauline Betz even toyed with the notion of turning pro, each was summarily banned by the USLTA. As recently as 1967, Billie Jean King pled her case for a more fair and just way for tennis players to earn a legitimate living tennis. That year, having won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships, King earned just under $20,000 in disparate payments that were often labeled as “expenses.” As King wrote in 1974, the USLTA “had absolutely no commercial interest in the game whatsoever.”    

Only the coming of Open tennis in 1968 changed things. Even that wasn’t easy as USLTA President Bob Kelleher was working hard to convince his fellow board and committee members that their fears about so-called “money-changers” were off base.

But once that at last happened, at the USLTA’s annual meeting in early ’68, America and the entire world was ready for a revolution—Open tennis, prize money, TV coverage, increased attendance. The 1974 US Open marked the last time America’s most prominent tournament would be played on lawns of grass. Fittingly, the next year the “L” was dropped from the title of the organization, creating the contemporary, dynamic, business-focused USTA as we now know it.