This year marks the 50th anniversary of what’s likely the most important occurrence in the history of tennis: The creation of Open tennis. It happened in 1968, and in large part was the launching point for what has blossomed into today’s worldwide, multi-million dollar professional circuit. Understanding the landscape of tennis at the time and how this change revolutionized the sport can be complex.
Here's 5 things you need to know to understand the transition, as International Tennis Hall of Fame historian-at-large Joel Drucker explains more about how Open tennis came to be, what happened when it all began and its vast implications.
Plus, be sure to watch the video above for an exclusive interview with Hall of Famer Ken Rosewall, winner of the first ever Open tournament.
1. A Sport Split in Half
For decades, tennis was split in two – in a way that hardly benefitted the sport. In theory, the vast majority of its players were amateurs, competing around the world in a wide range of tournaments, including such prestigious events as all of the major championships (Australia, France, Wimbledon, United States), Davis Cup and most other well-known tournaments. Alas, the more fitting name for this milieu was “shamateurism,” as many players were rewarded with discreet, under-the-table payments in all sorts of random and beguiling ways.
Meanwhile, for more than 40 years, the best of these amateurs often opted to become professionals -- to compete and overtly earn prize money. But the price these pros paid for wanting to earn a legitimate livelihood was that they were banned from the prestigious events and instead became what were informally known as “barnstormers,” a traveling retinue playing in disparate cities and towns all over the world. As legendary player and promoter Jack Kramer once said, “The most well-known events didn’t have the best players. Tennis was a great sport, but with amateurs and pros in two different areas, it couldn’t get the exposure it truly deserved.”
2. Tipping Point
Kramer and others had long advocated for Open tennis – amateurs and pros, all competing together for prize money. But many of tennis’ powers that be resisted, most notably in 1961, when an International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) vote for Open tennis failed by five votes. Throughout the ‘60s, many other sports grew, aided by the ascent of television and other cultural factors such as the growth of leisure time. Alas, tennis continued to stumble, its potential popularity hindered by its politics. In 1967, a proposal for Open tennis was soundly defeated.
But a major tipping point came in August 1967. The leaders of Wimbledon had agreed to let the pros stage an eight-man tournament on the grounds of the All England Club. This event also coincided with the BBC’s transition to color TV. There was a demand for engaging programming, and so the tournament was given extensive airtime. It was also heavily attended. In the wake of this tournament’s tremendous success, All England Club chairman Herman David that October declared that no matter what the circumstances, Wimbledon in 1968 would be open to pros and amateurs. Added to the mix was the late 1967 creation of the “Handsome Eight,” a professional circuit comprised heavily of leading amateurs. With the sport’s preeminent tournament taking a bold step, with so many players entering the pro ranks, the time for change had at last come.
3. At Last, Open Tennis
On March 30, 1968, in the Automobile Club in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) voted to approve Open tennis. The way was now paved for tennis to become a full-fledged professional sport, complete with prize money and sponsorships that would in time trigger more extensive television coverage, publicity and full-fledged opportunities for players. As 2014 International Tennis Hall of Hame inductee John Barrett wrote years later, “At last the game had been set free.”
Tennis’ first open tournament began on April 22 – the Hard Court Championships of Great Britain, played at West Hants Club in Bournemouth, a seaside resort town just under 100 miles southwest of London. The surprise of the week came when an amateur, Mark Cox of Great Britain, upset two pros, Pancho Gonzalez and Roy Emerson. But in the end, form played out, the final pitting the two best pros of recent years, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. In this case, Rosewall was the victor. But best of all, advance ticket sales were six times greater than in prior years. “If anyone doubted that Open tennis would galvanize public interest overnight,” wrote prominent British journalist Linda Timms, “here was their answer.”
4. Grand Slam Glory
There was a poetic element to that year’s three Open Grand Slam events (since the vote had happened in March, the first Australian Open would not take place until January 1969). The French Open men’s final pitted Laver and Rosewall. In an impressive testimony to longevity, the 33-year-old Rosewall earned the title for a second time, having won it 15 years earlier as an 18-year-old amateur. The next major was Wimbledon, a grand occasion for many past pros who’d long been banned to return to the All England Club. Laver, who’d last played and won the title in 1962, picked up where he left off, taking the crown yet again. On the women’s side, Billie Jean King snapped up the singles crown for the third straight year. But perhaps the biggest sign that tennis was entering new territory came at the end of the summer in New York. The first US Open offered the largest purse of the year – $100,000 in prize money. And the men’s singles champion was Arthur Ashe, the first African-American man to ever win a Grand Slam title. The tennis boom was just beginning.
5. The New Frontier
It had been an eventful year, one that remains the most significant in tennis history. In large part, the sport now had to build itself from the ground up. Questions abounded: Could these many events and circuits, operated by disparate promoters, be harnessed into a cohesive circuit? Where would the prize money come from? What kind of administrative infrastructure was required? How would those who’d long held power continue? Familiar leaders such as Kramer offered answers they’d been pondering for decades. New leaders like Donald Dell – tennis’ first agent, representing Ashe and Stan Smith – also began to take a seat at the table. A new promoter, Lamar Hunt, stepped up in a major way. World Tennis magazine publisher-editor Gladys Heldman, long immersed in the sport’s politics, continued to weigh in on these complicated issues. Sponsors like Philip Morris entered the picture. And best of all, the sport’s popularity began to soar. After years divided, tennis was coming together – and beginning to flourish as it never had. All the sport is today began in that fateful spring of 1968.