Remembering The Start Of Open Tennis... 50 Years On
With exclusive insight from those who took part in the Hard Court Championships of Great Britain, which began on Monday, 22 April 1968, James Buddell of ATPWorldTour.com recounts one of the most significant periods in the sport’s history that led to the first tournament open to amateurs and professionals.
Fifty years ago, tennis was a non-commercial enterprise with amateur players receiving tournament expenses, often better than the living wage, and were still able to compete in the world’s leading tennis tournaments. Across the great divide, ever since the first pro tour in 1926, were a small band of former amateurs turned contract pros, who had been banished from the public spotlight and criss-crossed the globe in search of a pay cheque. Over the course of one eventful decade, starting in the late 1950s, a handful of leading powerbrokers began to effect a change in the way the sport was promoted, for a free, shared market that led to the modern professional game of superstar athletes.
The featherboard fence, on the upper extremities of the centre court, had got a new coat of light green paint. Fold-up wooden chairs, many of which had first been used in 1927, when the Hard Court Championships of Great Britain was first held in Bournemouth, were laid out on concrete walkways surrounding the main show court — 12 steps up on one bank adjacent to No. 1 court, nine steps up on the other side. The front two rows of seats were always occupied by old ladies, with thermos flasks and rugs over their legs, who never moved. Dark green canvas framed the red shale court, with an exit to a wide walkway — "nerve-wracking when walking out, but exhilarating coming back with a victory,” Mark Cox, the first amateur to beat a professional in an 'open' tournament, told ATPWorldTour.com 50 years on. The old wooden pavilion, colonial in style with a front-facing veranda, "had a long bar, changing rooms with wooden lockers and showers that didn’t work quite as effectively as they should."
It was here at The West Hants Lawn Tennis Club in Melville Park, Bournemouth, close to eight miles of sandy beaches in the south of England, that after morning rain 50 years ago today, on 22 April 1968, two sides of the same coin — amateurs and professional players, who had been barred for more than 40 years from playing on the sport's greatest stages — began to compete together in the same draw at an ‘open’ tournament. Ticket sales of 23,000 were at a 20-year high, and the programme noted, “Yes, ‘open’ tennis has come at last and Bournemouth has been entrusted with the task of a world-shaking launching.” Cox, now 74 and set to return to Bournemouth for a special celebration, told ATPWorldTour.com, "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The event was historic and the significance enormous, meaning the news went all over the world. It was the beginning of a new era."
The seeds had been sown to put an end to long tolerated ‘shamateur’ tennis — illicit payments, more often better than the living wage, to guarantee deals with many of the leading amateurs globally — in late June 1966, when, during The Championships at Wimbledon, Jack Kramer (1921-2009) had been called to the BBC tent in order to meet the corporation’s head of sport Bryan Cowgill (1927-2008) and Herman David (1905-74), the All England Club chairman since 1959, who had long become tired of staging ‘second-class tennis’ and of the clandestine nature of attracting star amateur players to compete at tournaments. There, the trio agreed to stage a three-day Wimbledon World Lawn Tennis Professional Championships in 1967, over the 25-26 and 28 August bank holiday weekend. Kramer would supply eight players — Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Richard Pancho Gonzales, Andres Gimeno, Lew Hoad (a personal favourite of, and at the request of, David), Fred Stolle, Dennis Ralston and Earl Butch Buchholz — while the BBC provided the prize money of £16,500 (approximately £283,000 in 2018) and would launch their colour television service on their second channel, BBC Two, then under the control of famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough. The All England Club would undertake the administration and running of the event.
It proved to be a remarkable success, with 14,000 spectators watching Laver beat Rosewall, who almost didn’t play in the Monday final due to a stiff neck, 6-2, 6-2, 12-10 on Centre Court. It also highlighted what could be possible in an equal tennis world and cemented David's view for the All England Club to stage an 'open' Wimbledon in June 1968. "Despite the success of the tournament, we still didn’t feel Open Tennis would happen," Laver told ATPWorldTour.com. "But it did break the back of amateur tennis. When players such as Rosewall, Gonzales and Hoad walked out onto Centre Court, the British public, so keen on tennis and Wimbledon, were so happy that they could watch us play."
The All England Club had long supported ‘open’ tennis, a concept first mooted by player Charles Dixon (1873-1939) in the pages of English publication Lawn Tennis in 1909. Fifty years later, in December 1959, the Club had called an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the issue and a motion had been passed calling upon the British Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to stage an open championship. The LTA, a majority of whose councillors supported the idea, had proposed such a motion at the International Lawn Tennis Federation (now ITF) A.G.M. in the summer of 1960 in Paris. Frustratingly, the motion "to end the distinction between amateurs and professionals" had failed by only five votes — 134 of the 209 votes — to reach the two-thirds majority (139) required for a major rule change.
All England Club chairman David, a Welsh expert on industrial diamonds, declared publicly that amateur tennis had become a “living lie”. A further vote was also comfortably defeated by 49 votes in 1964. Three years later, David’s reaction was unequivocal when the British LTA’s proposal to introduce a limited number of ‘open’ tournaments in 1968 was defeated by a majority of 56 at a 1967 meeting at Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg. "It seems we have come to the end of the road constitutionally and that the only way to make the game honest is by unconstitutional action," said David, when he heard of the latest defeat. "But any constitutional step must be taken by the LTA."
On 5 October 1967, an LTA council meeting made public the proposal to delegates that “all reference to amateurs and professionals be deleted from the rules of the LTA, and that the Association itself should legislate only for players,” according to Tennis Pictorial International magazine. Derek Penman OBE (1915-2004), a future chairman of the British LTA in 1970, eloquently presented the proposal to "'go it alone' on open tournaments starting on 22 April 1968." So, in a momentous LTA A.G.M., on 14 December 1967, in spite of the fact that Great Britain faced probable isolation from the international tennis community, a big stumbling block for some, the vote for ‘open’ tennis and a welcome to all players at The Championships at Wimbledon of 1968 was overwhelming (295-5 votes). The Swedish Lawn Tennis Association quickly aligned themselves with the view.
Ever since the first pro tour of 1926, many of the world’s best amateur players had opted for financial security, leaving behind the chance of competing at the sport’s biggest tournaments, in order to play one-nighters and, later, short-form organised tournaments on improvised courts in venues such as army drill halls, university gyms, empty warehouses and even ice rinks. Bill Tilden, wrote in his 1948 memoir, My Story, "If tennis is to realise its full potential, it must find a solution to the pro-amateur problem plaguing it for so many years. Only through such a solution can there be free competition among not just a few of the great players of the world, but among all of them. The sporting public wants to see the best. It doesn't give a hoot whether that best is amateur or professional."
As each year passed, the pressure continued to mount on the sport’s leaders and the amateur game fractured further in September 1967 with the launch of World Championship Tennis, initially by New Orleans promoter Dave Dixon (1923-2010), then, soon after, by the Texas oil millionaire Lamar Hunt (1932-2006) and his nephew, Al Hill Jr. (1945-2017). The WCT's announcement was for a new professional tour starting in Australia in January 1968 and moving onto the United States, involving eight of the world’s leading players, popularly known as ‘The Handsome Eight’ — John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Cliff Drysdale, Pierre Barthes, Roger Taylor, Niki Pilic, Buchholz, Ralston. As John Barrett wrote at the time, “So, with one swift stroke, the cream had been skimmed from the top of the amateur milk." Another promoter, former US Davis Cup captain George MacCall (1918-2008), soon signed Laver for a reported five-year $500,000 contract in January 1968, according to The New York Times, to join Rosewall, Gonzales, Gimeno and Stolle, plus a later addition Roy Emerson, for a 26-week National Tennis League (NTL) beginning two months later. "MacCall had taken over Kramer’s pro group when Kramer thought it was in the interests of the sport for him to step aside in the push for open tennis," Barrett told ATPWorldTour.com. Robert Kelleher (1913-2012), then president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (now USTA), guaranteed support after a February 1968 meeting at Coronado, California, which triggered more countries to fall into line with the proposal.
The official decision on ‘The Report of the Committee of Management on the Subject of Amateurism’ was taken on 30 March 1968, when in a Special General Meeting of the ILTF, held at Place de la Concorde in Paris, scene of another revolution almost 180 years earlier, 86 representatives from 47 nations this time voted unanimously in support of 12 ‘open’ tennis tournaments in eight countries. Pandora’s box wasn’t completely opened, however, as it was agreed that there would be several categories of 'players', thus protecting certain aspects of amateurism, in the 1968 season. As Fred Tupper of The New York Times noted, “amateurs, who are not paid; registered, who can profit from the sport while not making tennis his profession; or professionals, who make money from teaching or playing in events not organised by the national associations.” Barrett told ATPWorldTour.com, "From henceforth lawn tennis would be an 'open' sport, but not in the way Great Britain had hoped to see with everyone allowed to play in all tournaments. The compromise required to persuade the amateur diehards to vote for change was messy and would sow the seeds of future discord. Each nation was free to decide the status of their players within four new categories."
The British LTA requested to stage nine ‘open’ tournaments in the summer of 1968 and in the end were allocated four events at Bournemouth (1927-76, 1978, 1980-1983, 1995-99), and three grass-court events: the Kent Championships at Beckenham (1886-1996) and the London Championships at The Queen’s Club and Wimbledon. There were eight other open tournaments that year, including two major championships at Roland Garros and the US Open, plus the Irish (Dublin), Swiss (Gstaad), Dutch (Hilversum), German (Hamburg), South American (Buenos Aires) championships, and the Pacific Southwest in Los Angeles. The following year, 1969, the ILTF granted 'open' status to 30 tournaments worldwide. "The British LTA decision was the light at the end of the tunnel, but we didn’t know how long it would take," Laver told ATPWorldTour.com. "It had been almost six years since I turned pro, and back then I had to turn pro because I wasn’t making any money. The prospect of returning was all encompassing, because I had accepted that Open tennis wasn’t going to happen as it kept being voted out."
Invitations were immediately sent out to leading amateurs after news broke that the world's first 'open' tournament would be the Hard Court Championships of Great Britain in Bournemouth, which would be organised by the LTA with the support of Bristol-based tobacco manufacturer W. D. and H. O. Wills. Derek Hardwick (1921-1987), a member of The West Hants Lawn Tennis Club and outgoing chairman of the British LTA, who had lobbied so hard to gain support for ‘open’ tennis, said, "We invited every association to send players. I suppose the top amateurs won't come to play professionals because the amateurs' price would go down if they lost." But Cox, a regular competitor in Bournemouth, ventures, "Perhaps, when the decision to enter was due, other leading amateurs may have defied their associations by entering." The World Championship Tennis (WCT) troupe, now under the control of Hunt and Hill Jr., after buying out Dixon’s 50 per cent stake in March 1968, was on a tour of the United States, so National Tennis League (NTL) founder MacCall frantically organised for his players to compete on the south coast. After the staging of two indoor tournaments at Wembley in England and in Paris, competing on slippery red shale was a tough transition.
Rosewall, who had turned pro at the end of 1956 to guarantee his financial security shortly after marrying his wife, Wilma, told ATPWorldTour.com, "When Open tennis was agreed, MacCall, with Jack Kramer, helped in putting on some extra tournaments to prepare, so we switched between Cannes, Wembley and Paris before arriving in Bournemouth, my first visit there. Everyone was excited about it and we looked forward to playing in Bournemouth, for some of us, for the first time. George, a quiet man, arranged for us to stay in a hotel and we largely kept ourselves to ourselves, obviously knowing each other better over years of touring. Although we were aware of the other players."
Six (Laver, Rosewall, Gimeno, Gonzales, Emerson and Stolle) of the eight seeds (which also included Owen Davidson, the professional coach to Great Britain’s Davis Cup team, and Bobby Wilson) were NTL professionals. Luis Ayala, then a coach in Puerto Rico, paid his own way to take part and 17 of the 32 draw were British players. Like Cox, believing he wouldn’t survive the early rounds, Wilson opted to collect tournament expenses of £50, as a first-round loser would receive £20. Cox, who remembers paying 10 shillings and six pence a night for a nearby Bournemouth bed and breakfast, told ATPWorldTour.com, “It was stepping into the unknown and perhaps some amateurs felt that taking prize money would mean that they couldn’t play elsewhere in Europe, or Davis Cup. 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, and the expenses helped keep my head above water."
Barrett told ATPWorldTour.com, "There was a huge excitement and also a sense of achievement. There was enormous pressure on the pros as they had shown such wonderful tennis at the 1967 Wimbledon Pro, that it was assumed they would sweep the board. The fact is they had played tennis together, so knew one another’s games." Rosewall, a winner of eight major singles titles from 16 finals, certainly remembers, 50 years on, "There was some thought that the pros would be better than the amateurs and I felt it did lead to a tense situation during the week." Laver, who won at the West Hants Club as an amateur before turning pro at the end of 1962, agrees with Barrett and Rosewall's assessment, adding, "Because of the slippery nature of the courts, I struggled to find a solid grip and footing. The pressure was entirely on the pros that first week in Bournemouth, as it was an opportunity for the amateurs to show us how good they were."
After a glorious weekend of fine weather, the start of main draw play in Bournemouth, which had been organised by Wimbledon referee Captain Mike Gibson (1916-1983) on Monday, 22 April 1967, was delayed by more than one hour due to drizzly rain that ultimately curtailed a number of the day’s completed matches to just four. Stolle and Peter Curtis had originally been scheduled to contest the first match of the day on centre court, but due to poor drainage the pair had to watch from the pavilion as John Clifton served the first point to Davidson on No. 1 court at 1:43 p.m. — according to a reporter from American weekly Sports Illustrated. Clifton completed a five-stroke rally with a smash winner. Watched by 100 fans and a dog, Davidson would go on to win the first match of the open era against one of his pupils, 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, on the clubhouse court.
Eventually, Stolle took to centre court and beat Curtis 5-7, 6-4, 14-12, 6-1, in two hours and 30 minutes, in front of 500 spectators. “Matches between the pros and amateurs were not necessarily the one-side affair predicted by amateurs,” Stolle told ATPWorldTour.com. “In coming up against a younger player, playing for guaranteed expenses, I felt that they would have nothing to lose and do their very best. It meant that we, as professionals, were the ones with the reputations to lose. If they lost, it meant nothing.” In other results on day one, Barrett beat Montreal’s Keith Carpenter 6-2, 7-5, 6-1, for a second-round match against Laver, and Gimeno defeated Stanley Matthews Jr., son of a famous former Stoke, Blackpool and England footballer, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
The BBC broadcast live on their first channel for three hours each afternoon from 23-26 April, with the ‘voice of tennis’ Dan Maskell (1908-1992), alongside Kramer, a commentator with the corporation since 1961, for centre court matches and Peter West (1920-2003) and Billy R. Knight describing the action on No. 1 court. While the first match between two professional players saw Gimeno beat Ayala 6-1, 6-0, 6-0 in the second round, it was 24-year-old Cambridge University graduate Cox, recently returned home following the Caribbean swing, who earned the headlines worldwide by becoming the first amateur player to beat a professional, Gonzales, 0-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in two hours and 15 minutes. “I remember being in awe of Gonzales, he was an intimidating presence, but I had everything to gain as he was close to 40 and hadn’t played a best-of-five sets match for four years,” Cox told ATPWorldTour.com. “He was an incredibly charismatic, powerful individual. He was fearsome and his slightest utterance made everyone sit up and take notice." Gonzales said, at the time, “Somebody had to be the first to lose, so it might as well be me. This open tennis is a whole new world.”
Cox then got the better of Emerson, one of the fittest player on the circuit, 6-0, 6-1, 7-5 for a place in the semi-finals. Emerson had led 4-1 in the third set and had a set point at 5-4, but was broken as Cox won 11 points in a row. In reflecting on that match, Cox told ATPWorldTour.com, “When ‘Emmo’ opened his shoulders and hit the ball, he was awesome. His footwork was so fast, but he wasn’t used to the courts, so he slipped and slid around.” One day later, Laver paid Cox a compliment in competing at his uncompromising best in a 6-4, 6-1, 6-0 victory. It earned the Briton a £4 prize for reaching the semi-finals. “Laver was a different league,” said Cox. “I was really a journeyman player. He had a superb backhand and really the full deck of cards. He was, and remains, incredibly humble of his achievements.” If, at the start of the week, he had opted to play as a professional, Cox would have earned £250 in prize money (approximately £4,100 in 2018).
And so 33-year-old Rosewall, having beaten Gimeno 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 in the other Bournemouth semi-final, contested the first championship match of the Open Era against his long-time rival Laver. “Gonzales had been the pro king, then Rosewall had easily been the best,” recalls Barrett to ATPWorldTour.com. “When the group was dying in 1962, they all collectively raised money to assist Laver in turning pro. Within a few years, he was the pro tour leader, but Rosewall was still able to hit the heights of his considerable powers.” Laver, 29, won the first set of the final 6-3 in 30 minutes, in dull, blustery conditions, then Rosewall responded with the 28-minute second set 6-2 and was leading 3-0 in the third set when heavy rain began to fall. Heavy covers were placed on centre court, which seated approximately 3,000 spectators, but the Australians had to return the next day. Upon the resumption of play at 10 o'clock in the morning, Rosewall won nine of the next 12 games.”
Because of the weather the courts were wet and slippery and were difficult to get around,” Rosewall told ATPWorldTour.com. “Rod was always extremely difficult to beat and played with great variety. I don’t think he was at his best on the slippery clay.” Rosewall, a natural left-hander who played tennis right-handed, and the possessor of an immaculate backhand slice and a fine volley, received £1,000 in prize money (approximately £16,500 in 2018) to Laver’s £500. Virginia Wade won the women’s singles title, but due to the uncertainty of the times and not wanting to immediately forgo her amateur status in case ‘open’ tennis failed, she declined her prize money after beating Winnie Shaw 6-4, 6-1 in the final.
Hardwick told reporters at the time, "We expected open tennis to be a success, but it has turned out to be a bonanza... Officially we no longer recognise players as either amateurs or professionals in Great Britain. But we realise that the public still thinks of Gonzales and Emerson as professionals, and were thrilled to see one of our Davis Cup team [Cox] conquer them. I cannot honestly say I wanted to see this happen, because I still believe the professionals are the best players in the world. That is one reason why we wanted open tournaments. But these victories by Cox are proof that the gap between contracted players and the rest is not as big as a lot of people thought."
After the final reckoning of £12,030 in gate receipts (£206,000 in 2018), Bournemouth's surplus for the 1968 Hard Court Champions of Great Britain amounted to "a record-breaking £3,192 (£55,000 in 2018), £2,280 (£39,000) more than the 1967 [amateurs-only] tournament," according to Lawn Tennis magazine. But while the first 'open' tournament was deemed a great success, Barrett admitted to ATPWorldTour.com, ”Over the next 20 years, the sport would remain embroiled in political discord as the players continued their fight to free themselves from serfdom and govern themselves.”