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.
Prior to the Open Era, players who competed as amateurs were not supposed to earn any prize money playing tennis. Although, it was an open secret that some amateurs received money from the tournaments under the table for competing in the events. However, as a result of the policy, it was nearly impossible for the best players in the sport to earn a living competing. In order to do so, many players opted to turn professional, competing on privately funded pro tours where they were paid to play and could earn prize money. These limitations led many players to leave the amateur ranks to turn professional, even though they were then forbidden from playing in the most prestigious tournaments on the calendar.
As legendary player and promoter Hall of Famer 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.”
Photo: AP Images
The concept of Open Tennis - allowing professionals and amateurs to compete together for prize money - had long been discussed, but was often rejected by traditionalists who were against allowing sponsorship or prize money because they thought professionals would mar the legacy of the “sport of gentlemen.”
In August 1967, the tables began to turn, when the leaders of Wimbledon had agreed to let the pros stage an eight-man tournament on the grounds of the All England Club. They told the players and the tennis world that it would be a good litmus test for Open tennis, and gave it a try. The event drew champions like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, along with thousands of fans and extensive television air-time. 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. The time for change had come.
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.”
Indeed, it was a new era, but 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.
New for summer 2018, our special exhibit "50 Years of Open Tennis" explores the stories of the pioneers who fought for this revolutionary change, and the progress that tennis has experienced over these five decades.
The exhibit features historic objects from milestones of the early years, inlcuding the racquet that Arthur Ashe used to win the 1968 US Open, a congratulatory letter from baseball legend Jackie Robinson to Arthur, programs from the first Open majors, reporter's notebooks from the early years and more.
50 Years of Open Tennis will be on display at the International Tennis Hall of Fame through early next year.