John Clifton

40 Years Ago This Week – Open Tennis Begins!

It was 40 years ago this week that tennis moved into what is known as the “Open Era” – where professionals, once shunned from major tournaments, would join the amateurs and compete side-by-side against each other in tournaments around the world. It was on April 22, 1968 in the British town of Bournemouth, where the first “Open” tournament was held. It was called The British Hard Court Championships (hard court, at the time, being the reference for clay court since it was “hard” in comparison to the surface of choice at the time – grass). The following is an excerpt from the new book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS ($34.95, New Chapter Press, available at www.newchapterpressmedia.com) where the author describes the introduction of the new era of tennis and the happenings during the historic first week of play in Bournemouth.

The dawning of “open” competition some 40 years after the issue was first raised, made 1968 truly a watershed year for tennis. The British “revolt” of December 1967 was reinforced by far-seeing U.S. Lawn Tennis Association President Bob Kelleher and his orchestration of the association’s vote in favor of open tennis at its annual meeting in February. That led to the emergency meeting of the International Lawn Tennis Federation in Paris and approval of 12 open tournaments for 1968.

Unfortunately, the hypocrisy and confusion of the “shamateur” period was not done away with quickly and cleanly. Rather than accept the British proposal that all competitors would be referred to simply as “players,” abolishing the distinction between amateur and professional, the ILTF bowed to heavy pressure from Eastern European countries and their voting allies and effected a compromise that called for four classifications:

  • Amateurs, who would not accept prize money.
  • Teaching professionals, who could compete with amateurs only in open events.
  • “Contract professionals,” who made their living playing tennis but did not accept the authority of their national associations affiliated to the ILTF, signing guaranteed contracts instead with independent promoters.
  • “Registered players,” who could accept prize money in open tournaments but still obeyed their national associations and retained eligibility for amateur events, including the Davis, Federation and Wightman Cups.

The prime example of this last strange and short-lived new breed was Dutchman Tom Okker, who won the Italian and South African Championships (not yet prize-money events) and was runner-up to Arthur Ashe in the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills. Okker pocketed $14,000 in first-prize money while Ashe, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team, had to remain an amateur to maintain his Cup eligibility. The USLTA had not adopted the “registered player” concept so he received only $20 per day expenses.

Other ludicrous examples abounded. Margaret Smith Court, for instance, won and accepted nearly $10,000 in open tournaments in Britain, then came to America and played in the U.S. Amateur in Boston for expenses only, beating old rival Maria Bueno in the final, 6-2, 6-2.

But despite such anomalies of the transition period, great progress had undeniably been made toward a more honest and prosperous international game.

The first open tournament, a month after the concept was approved at the conference table, was the $14,000 British Hard Court Championships. (In Europe, “hard court” refers to a clay surface, not concrete or similar hard surfaces as the term is used in the U.S.) Staged at the coastal resort of Bournemouth, it was the historic first chapter, and it began damply, coolly on a drizzly, raw Monday, April 22. The “open era” lurched into being with a minor young Briton, John Clifton, winning the first point but losing his match, 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6 against Australian pro Owen Davidson-then the British national coach-on the red shale courts of the West Hants Lawn Tennis Club.

The field at Bournemouth was not as distinguished as the historic nature of the occasion warranted. The “Handsome Eight” of World Championship Tennis were off playing their own tour, leaving the professional portion of the field largely to George MacCall’s National Tennis League, plus Davidson and former Chilean Davis Cupper Luis Ayala, then a coach in Puerto Rico, who paid his own way to take part. The top-line amateurs, wary of immediate confrontation with the pros, stayed away. None of the world top 10 amateurs entered, and Englishman Bobby Wilson was the only amateur seeded. On the women’s side, the only four pros at the time- Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals, Francoise Durr and Ann Haydon Jones, who had just signed contracts with MacCall-were otherwise engaged.

The male pros were expected to dominate the amateur field of Englishmen and a few second-line Australians. But many of the pros were jittery. They knew their reputations were on the line, and the most discerning realized they were ill prepared, given long absence from best-of-five-set matches and exposure to new faces and playing styles. Pancho Gonzalez particularly recognized the hazards posed by sudden emergence from a small circle of familiar opponents, with its well-established pecking order. It didn’t take long for his apprehension to prove justified. In the second round, Mark Cox, a Cambridge-educated, 24-year-old English left-hander ranked only No. 3 in Britain, outlasted Gonzalez, 0-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, becoming the first amateur to topple a pro.

Gonzalez, only a month from his 40th birthday, hadn’t played a five-set match in four years, but his defeat sent shock waves through the tennis world. Buoyed by his instant celebrity, Cox ousted a two-time Wimbledon champ, rookie pro Roy Emerson the next day, 6-0, 6-1, 7-5, to reach the semifinals. Obviously the pros were not invincible-a notion that would be reinforced convincingly throughout the year. But the best of their number, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, proved they still inhabited the top echelon. Laver canceled Cox’s extravagant run in the semis, 6-4, 6-1, 6-0, and Rosewall-a man for all seasons whose longevity at the top level of international competition is unsurpassed-beat Andres Gimeno, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, and then Laver, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0, 6-3, in the title match that, because of rain, stretched over two days. Ken, ruling the 32-man draw, collected the initial “open” paycheck, $2,400, while the loser settled for half.

Attracting almost 30,000 customers during a moist, chilly week at the small club, pioneering Bournemouth was deemed a grand success. The British LTA may have opened the new production out-of-town, (a New Haven pre-Broadway try-out?) so that had it bombed, Wimbledon could discreetly resume the old ways.

But there was no going back. Virginia Wade, the British No. 1 (No. 8 in the world), would be going forward as a pro, but not until later in the year. However, as wary as Cox was about abdicating amateur status at this mysterious time, she declined the female first prize ($720) for winning the title at Bournemouth over Winnie Shaw, 6-4, 6-1. Virginia and kindred cautious amateurs-“Suppose it doesn’t work, and we’re banned as amateurs, out in the cold?” was the common plaint-got $120 for expenses. Luis Ayala, the pro half of the first integrated heterosexual open team, with Californian Valerie Ziegenfuss as the amateur half, won all of $24 for their semifinal finish in the mixed. Since he got $96 as a second-round singles loser, Luis and Valerie came out even. But could they afford room and board? Welcome to the new land of milk and honey.