Written by Joel Drucker, ITHF historian-at-large
This year's French Open marks 50 years since tennis' first major of the Open Era. The tournament in 1968 was an historic moment for the sport, featuring great champions and widespread crowd support.
1. The First Open Slam
The International Lawn Tennis Federation voted to approve the concept of Open tennis on March 30, 1968. Tennis, previously divided between amateur and professional circuits, would now be unified – all players, competing in the same events for prize money. And so what had once been called the French Championships would now be known as the French Open – tennis’ first Open Grand Slam event.
2. A Paris Spring Like None Other
The tournament was set to take place from May 27 to June 9. But something much bigger than a tennis event made its mark on Paris that spring. Throughout May, there had been a series of riots and strikes involving students, teachers, workers and thousands more. Amid tear gas, police movements, agitated rioters and sporadic public transportation, Paris was pandemonium – hardly a conductive environment for a tennis tournament. For the players, simply reaching Paris and then getting to Roland Garros was a major challenge, involving random and longer-than-usual treks. Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals, Francoise Durr and Ann Jones at last reached the City of Light at 2 a.m. after a nine-hour cab ride from Amsterdam. The tranquil Dane, Torben Ulrich, surfaced on a bicycle. Flying from New York, Ken Rosewall landed at a military airfield.
3. Exiles' Return
The men’s tournament was marked by strong spectator delight at the return to Roland Garros of a trio of legends. Rod Laver had last played – and won – the title in 1962. Ken Rosewall hadn’t graced the terra battue in 14 years. And most amazing of all, the legendary Pancho Gonzalez, who turned 40 that May, was back on the dirt for the first time since 1949.
Each of these three titans played superbly. In the quarters, Gonzalez won the match of the tournament, taking out defending champion Roy Emerson, 6-4 in the fifth. Wrote notable British tennis writer Rex Bellamy during the tournament, “To watch Gonzales was to think in terms of poetry and music. He did not play the game. He composed it.” Meanwhile, Laver and Rosewall steadily advanced to the finals. And though Laver was the favorite, in the end it was Rosewall who won the title. The elegant Aussie had won his first French singles title as an 18-year-old amateur in 1953. This time, he was 33, making him the first man to ever win majors in his teens, 20s and 30s (that feat has since been matched only by Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal). For good measure, Rosewall also won the doubles, partnering with compatriot Fred Stolle to beat Laver and Emerson in the finals.
4. A Clay Court Dream
The women’s event took a series of surprising twists and turns. Billie Jean King had won the last three Grand Slam tournaments and was seeded first. But King was also exhausted, having that spring played an arduous pro tour that at one point saw her trek to 18 European cities in 20 days. In the semis, King was tripped up in three sets by one of the premier claycourters of that era, fellow American Nancy Richey. In the finals, Richey was once again forced to go the distance by two-time French champion, Ann Jones. But in what would prove her fourth three-setter of the tournament, Richey emerged triumphant and was the first ever Open Era women's champion at a major.
“It was the most significant win of my career. I was raised training on clay with my Dad and my brother and so I had always dreamt of winning the French. The win meant that I was the best clay court player in the world and it was a dream come true,” stated Richey.
Richey's brother, fellow professional Cliff Richey had competed earlier in the tournament. Travel issues created by the riots resulted in Cliff staying in Paris for the duration. Fifty years later, Nancy credits her brother's support as playing a major role in her victory.
Despite the historic change that was sweeping tennis with the shfit to Open tennis, the champion American was ironically still playing still as an amateur and unable to accept prize money. American players working with the U.S.L.T.A. were not allowed to compete for prize money until a rule change in 1969. To this day,Richey is the only amateur woman to win a major title in the Open Era.
5. A Brilliant Start
It had been a fitting start to Open tennis at the majors, a kickoff Slam with exceptional clutter that complicated matters beyond the lines and sublime tennis that defined it inside the lines. The pros, long banished from these prestigious events, often confined to indoor tennis and dim lighting, burst brilliantly in the daylight. The amateurs welcomed the competition. Wrote Bellamy, “the ambience of Roland Garros was thrilling: and the crowd figures soared to unprecedented heights because the professionals were back, the sun was shining, and the strikes left Parisians with time on their hands.”