TBT: The Open era begins at Bournemouth's West Hants Lawn Tennis Club

TBT: The Open era begins at Bournemouth's West Hants Lawn Tennis Club

While the men’s field ran quite deep, including long-exiled pros Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, and Ken Rosewall, most of the top women were not entered at the event in 1968.

It was 1:43 p.m. on April 22, 1968. This moment marked the start of tennis’ Open era.

For more than 40 years, a schism between amateurs and pros had greatly hindered the sport’s growth. Amateurs earned fame at iconic venues like Wimbledon, but received no compensation. Those few players who sought to earn a living as professionals were banned from the prominent events. “It created so much bad publicity for tennis,” said Jack Kramer, the great player who through the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s ran the pro barnstorming tour, all the while ceaselessly crusading for Open tennis.

How Open tennis came to be is a subject worthy of a dissertation in political science. But at last, by the spring of 1968, the time had arrived. The launch point was the West Hants Lawn Tennis Club in Melville Park, Bournemouth, a seaside town just over 100 miles southwest of London. Since 1924, this had been the site of the British Hard Courts Championships—a so-called “hard” court in Great Britain consisting of red clay, as distinct from the nation’s prevalent “soft” surface of grass.

While the men’s field ran quite deep, including long-exiled pros Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, and Ken Rosewall, most of the top women were not entered. Absentees included longstanding amateur greats Margaret Court and Maria Bueno, as well as a quartet of women—Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Ann Jones, Francoise Durr—who just a few months earlier had turned pro and felt little incentive to compete at an event where the winner would receive a paltry $720, compared to $2,400 for the men’s champion.

So it was that on the opening point of the Open era, in front of 100 fans and a dog, amateur John Clifton served to pro Owen Davidson, Clifton closing out a five-ball rally with an overhead winner. Soon enough, though, Davidson took command, winning the match 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6.

The pros surely felt the pressure of taking on a number of free-swinging amateurs. None better personified the latter than Mark Cox, a Cambridge graduate whose lefty strokes were often struck crisp and hard. In the second round, Cox came up against the great Gonzales. It began as expected, Gonzales taking the open set, 6-0.

After topping Laver for the Bournemouth title, Rosewall would back that victory up six weeks later at Roland Garros by defeating his countryman in the final. (Getty Images)

But Cox, tournament tough after competing on the Caribbean circuit, soon began to find his range. The 39-year-old Gonzales hadn’t played a five-setter in five years. As veteran journalist Linda Timms wrote, Cox “prodded the old man-eater with more and more daring. Gonzales prowled, snarling and wounded, but could not make the kill.” Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes—yes, this was how fast tennis matches moved then—Cox won 0-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. “Somebody had to be the first to lose,” said Gonzales, “so it might as well be me. This open tennis is a whole new world.” Cox went on to beat another pro, Roy Emerson, before losing in the semis to Laver.

Years later, Cox told ATPWorldTour.com writer James Buddell, “I was associated with a stockbroking firm and never really thought of tennis as a career. There was no view of open tennis, so when I initially left university, playing felt like a gap year—great fun.” But as opportunities opened up, Cox turned pro and won 14 singles titles in a career that lasted well into the late 1970s.

The mix of amateurs and pros made for a lively week. Still, for all the ways the amateurs had shaken things up, the men’s final matchup went as anticipated. As they had so often over the last five years as pros, Laver and Rosewall moved steadily towards the finals, neither losing a set. The final began in cold conditions and was soon delayed by rain, with Rosewall leading 3-6, 6-2, 3-0. It resumed the next morning at 10 a.m., Rosewall winning the last two sets, 6-0, 6-3.

On the women’s side, wrote Timms, “For years, the women’s event predominated at Bournemouth; this time, it was definitely a side issue.” The number one seed was defending champion Virginia Wade, who beat her compatriot Winnie Shaw in the finals, 6-4, 6-1. Like Cox, Wade too would enjoy even more success, including a run to the US Open title later that year.

With 23,000 spectators attending, the most in 20 years, the tournament earned a record-breaking profit. Wrote Timms, “If anyone doubted that Open tennis would galvanize public interest overnight, here was their answer.”