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Tennis, Everyone?

It's Been Three Decades Since a Few Far-Sighted Officials Rocked the Staid Amateur Tennis Establishment and Jolted the Game into the Modern Era
Bruce Goldman
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

When Arthur Ashe hoisted the champion's trophy in the first U.S. Open in 1968, who could imagine that the fledgling tennis tournament would one day be transformed into one of the sporting world's most successful commercial enterprises. Once played on grass strictly under sunlight at a private club, the Open has metamorphosed into a game of big bucks that today's stars such as Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis take for granted. Big corporate dollars, big TV coverage, big attendance, big paychecks--you name it, the Open has it.

This year there's even a big, new stadium, a 23,500-seat venue that will provide New York's often-raucous fans with their best view of the action yet at Flushing Meadow. When the 30th edition of the Open is over, the men's and women's singles winners will each pocket $650,000--almost $93,000 a match--and a record $11.8 million will be awarded overall.

It wasn't always that way. Prior to the emergence of open tennis in 1968, the sport was almost exclusively an amateur game in the United States--and everywhere else. Far from being a multimillion dollar business, tennis originally served as a refined pastime for the well-to-do. From the time Major Walter Wingfield developed lawn tennis in Britain in 1874, the game was viewed as a social event for gentlemen and ladies, and country clubs such as the Newport Casino in Rhode Island, Southampton on Long Island and the Longwood Cricket Club outside of Boston hosted tournaments to coincide with the summer social season. Even when the game opened up to the middle class in the decades between the two world wars, the major tournaments remained the province of the private tennis clubs. Indeed, the U.S. championships (the precursor to the Open) were contested at private clubs until 1978, primarily at Newport, the Philadelphia Cricket Club and the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. Before the advent of open tennis, with its anything goes attitude, spectators generally were drawn from the highest levels of society. A genteel atmosphere prevailed at tournaments: men and women dressed formally, and splendid shots were rewarded with polite applause. Tank tops and shorts? Booing? Player tantrums? Not a chance. Civility would reign until the 1970s, when stars like Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe shattered all notions of propriety.

While we take the commercialism and professionalism of today's game for granted, the idea was anathema to most of the amateur officials who governed the sport in America, England, Australia and other major tennis-playing nations from the 1920s to the 1960s. To them, tennis was never intended to be a livelihood; players were expected to play for only a few months of the year and then return to their profession or business. Professional competitors had no place in this world of amateur tennis, and the handful who gamely made a go of it beginning after the First World War were treated as pariahs by the tennis establishment. Pros could not play in the long-standing amateur tournaments, including the four Grand Slam events--Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian championships--and the Davis Cup.

Of course, the amateur players had to eat while they played the circuit at the various private clubs, and in the absence of any prize money, they subsisted on under-the-table payments dished out by tournament officials, a system that came to be known as "shamateurism." Any player who wanted to make a living from tennis had to sever his ties with the amateur establishment, which over the years would mean depriving the public of the chance to see the best players going head-to-head. But for many, from Big Bill Tilden to Suzanne Lenglen, Jack Kramer to Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver to Ken Rosewall and many others, the professional ranks offered an alternative--albeit not often a very attractive one--to the country-club traditions of amateur tennis.

"The people that controlled the game--the United States Lawn Tennis Association, the British Lawn Tennis Association, the Australian, the French and all the international lawn tennis associations--they feared that by letting the people that turned professional stay in the game, eventually they would lose control," says Kramer, who turned pro after successfully defending his U.S. championship in 1947 and who organized the pro tours that toiled in obscurity in the 1950s and early '60s. "They always pointed to golf as an example. At one time, golf was really for amateurs, and professionals were allowed to play in a few open tournaments. Then the game changed, opens became the norm and the amateurs took a back seat. The people that controlled [tennis] in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s thought it was better for the game and the development to keep it separated, but that didn't allow the real, true players, the guys who turned professional, a chance to earn an honest living and use their great skills and charisma to go out and help sell the game."

As far back as the 1920s, amateur tennis officials in the United States couldn't stomach the possibility of a player sullying the sport by making a buck off of it (officially, anyway). In 1924, when the USLTA discovered that Bill Tilden, the greatest player of the era (who would wind up with seven U.S. championships), had the audacity to accept money for newspaper articles he had written, the association banned the practice. Affronted, Tilden threatened to resign from the U.S. Davis Cup team and said he would give up tennis altogether if necessary. In the end, a compromise was reached, but the details were never disclosed. Four years later, the writing issue resurfaced, and this time Tilden was barred by the USLTA from tournament and Davis Cup play; it took pressure from no less an authority than the State Department to get him reinstated.

Ironically, as early as 1929 the USLTA advocated a world-wide open tournament, since by that time such stars as France's Suzanne Lenglen and America's Vinnie Richards had decided to turn pro. The British LTA seconded the proposal, but in 1930 the International Lawn Tennis Association, foreshadowing its behavior for decades to come, ruled that amateurs and pros had no business doing business together. In his book Forest Hills: An Illustrated History, Robert Minton wrote: "How prophetic were Tilden's words: 'There will be a growing recognition of the necessity of revising the modern amateur code to meet the present conditions of a commercial age.' "

That recognition, however, would be slow in coming, and for nearly four decades the wall that separated amateur and professional tennis players remained virtually impenetrable. While the amateur players made the rounds of the private tennis clubs, competing in tournaments, the pros tried to arrange exhibitions and head-to-head barnstorming tours in whatever cities would have them, sometimes having to drag their own court with them. Even though some of the pros were pulling in $50,000 or more a year when they played on Kramer's tours in the late '50s, the amateurs were the ones who always commanded the public's attention and respect, in spite of the under-the-table payments that could amount to hundreds of dollars a week for the better players. By 1967, the last year of the shamateur era, the top amateurs were receiving $1,000 or more a week.

Because the amateurs were expected to approach tennis as an avocation rather than a vocation, the USLTA allowed them to play only eight tournaments a year, in addition to the U.S. championships such as the Indoor Clay Courts and Forest Hills. This, of course, only served to perpetuate the hypocrisy of the amateur game, as the best players had no intention of finding other occupations. "The real players beat the system," says Kramer, "by getting as much as they could under the table in the tournaments and living the weeks they didn't play practicing, but living off of the tournament money that they made. And I was involved in that. Some of us, the real top guys, were able to have sporting goods arrangements where we did things for sporting goods companies. We were on sort of a weekly stipend, which helped us raise our families and keep us in the game. It was a phony system. The amateur [associations] didn't want to change it because they thought they'd lose control if they let the players get off on their own."

Thinking they could make some decent (and honest) money from the sport, many of the top amateurs from the 1930s to the 1960s opted to sign professional contracts. Nearly every male player who won Wimbledon and Forest Hills during that period, as Kramer points out, became a professional and was accorded less respect than those with lesser ability. For some reason, perhaps because of the power and influence the amateur officials wielded, the American public seemed unable to accept the pro game as legitimate.

As a result, the pros were largely confined to waging one-on-one battles night after night. Tilden started his pro career, in 1931, by dominating Czech Karel Kozeluh, beginning with a straight-sets victory in Madison Square Garden (which drew an unusually large crowd of 13,000), and continuing with 16 straight wins over Kozeluh on the road. That same year, Tilden prevailed among a field of 44 at the U.S. Pro Championships at the West Side Tennis Club. Tournaments proved to be the exception, not the rule, in ensuing decades, however. Other great pro rivalries over the years included battles between Tilden and Ellsworth Vines, Vines and Donald Budge, Budge and Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs and Kramer, and Pancho Gonzalez against a number of opponents -- Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad among them. With the exception of Hoad, a U.S. singles finalist in 1956, all won the U.S. championship at least twice.

Except for a bold attempt in 1937 to stage an open tennis tournament at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia--Vines, Tilden and Perry were no-shows, and the few amateur players who dared to appear were suspended by the USLTA--open tennis continued to be a pipe dream. From time to time, enlightened American officials, notably association presidents Louis Carruthers, in the early '30s, and Renville McMann, in the late '50s, who were both with the West Side Tennis Club, endorsed the idea of open tournaments, but their proposals went unheeded by the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Bill Talbert, a two-time U.S. singles finalist in the mid-1940s and a veteran of the amateur circuit who went on to captain the Davis Cup squad, was also an advocate of open tennis. In his 1958 autobiography, Playing for Life, he even outlined how the new game could be structured: "The number of open tournaments could be limited at first, while the scheme gets its shakedown test. Amateurs would still be required to abide by USLTA regulations, even while competing against the pros. Prize money would be limited to the professionals; the amateur's stake would be a trophy and the challenge of proving himself against topnotch competition in the headline event."

Talbert's vision of open tennis would prove remarkably accurate when it finally arrived a decade later. In the meantime, however, the status quo dominated, with the only real threat being posed in early 1960, when the international federation came within five votes of approving a series of eight to 13 tournaments that would be open to amateurs and professionals.

It wasn't until seven years later that a series of events finally caused the dam to break. In July 1967, longtime open tennis supporter Herman David of the All England Club, where the Wimbledon championships are played, proposed a limited number of open tournaments for 1968. But the international federation once again slammed the idea. Frustrated, David led a revolt that October, vowing that the British LTA would open all of its events in 1968 and eliminate the distinction between amateurs and professionals. Two months earlier, the campaign for open tennis had gotten another shot in the arm when Wimbledon played host to a trial professional tournament that drew high ratings for BBC television. Rod Laver bested an eight-man field, beating Ken Rosewall in straight sets in the final to collect $8,400.

Meanwhile, two new pro circuits were being formed, and many of the best amateur players were being snatched up. George MacCall, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, assumed control of the old pro tour, which included Gonzalez, Laver, Rosewall and Andres Gimeno, and signed Australian amateur stars Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, among others. Dave Dixon, in conjunction with Lamar Hunt, launched World Championship Tennis, targeting reigning Wimbledon and U.S. champion John Newcombe along with fellow Aussie Tony Roche, Cliff Drysdale of South Africa, Roger Taylor of Great Britain and Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia. Dixon also corralled three pros--Dennis Ralston, Butch Bucholz and Pierre Barthes--into his stable, and the gang was collectively christened "The Handsome Eight." Both circuits were set to begin play in early 1968.

Still, the ILTF wasn't about to roll over and play dead. Britain's bold decision to open its tournaments had left it isolated, at least for the moment, and unless the United States, Australia and other tennis powers extended their support, the international federation was bound to have the final say. The USLTA was a conservative group in the mid-'60s, and it took the strong leadership of its president, Bob Kelleher, to persuade the membership to support Britain. In a February 1968 vote, the association threatened to leave the ILTF if open tennis wasn't approved. However, unlike Britain, the members of the U.S group wanted to retain the amateur and pro distinctions. Australia followed the Americans' call for open tennis, forcing the ILTF to act on the issue. Jean Borotra, the president of the French federation, urged a compromise in which the player distinctions would be retained in some form. At an emergency meeting held in late March, the international body agreed to sanction 12 open tournaments for 1968, including the four Grand Slam events, but refused to abolish the differentiations between pros and amateurs. Instead, it created an additional designation, the "authorized," or "registered," player, who could accept prize money in open tournaments but would remain under the aegis of his national association and still be eligible for the Davis Cup and other amateur events. This led to an unusual situation at the 1968 U.S. Open where the runner-up, Tom Okker, a registered player from Holland, took home the $14,000 first-place prize money, while the winner, amateur Arthur Ashe, had to settle for $28 per day expenses. Virginia Wade, the women's winner and also a registered player, won $6,000.

Although tennis had finally been swept into the modern era, problems remained. The U.S. Open wasn't immune to growing pains. For starters, there were two national championships in 1968 and 1969: the new Open tournament, which was contested at Forest Hills, and an amateur championship, which preceded it at the Longwood Cricket Club. Ashe won both events, defeating Bob Lutz at Longwood before stopping Okker to become the first black man to win a Grand Slam title. Meanwhile, the American public was far from being enamored of tennis; only 62,000 paid out of a possible 168,000 to watch 12 days of play at the 1968 Open. (Last year, 506,012 paid their way at Flushing Meadow, a U.S. Open record.) Organizational problems dogged the tournament in 1968; a Sports Illustrated article noted, among other things, that only one amateur European male player, Okker, competed and that top-seeded Laver didn't play his first match until day 4. To top it off, the tournament finished two days late, even though there had been only one day of rain. And, of course, because tennis had never been considered a major sport in America, there was little corporate enthusiasm for the inaugural Open.

Bent on making the 1969 Open run more smoothly, the USLTA called upon a friend and benefactor of the game, Joseph F. Cullman III, to serve as tournament chairman. Cullman, then the chairman of Philip Morris, proceeded to recruit a flamboyant, cigar-smoking South African, Owen Williams, to become the event's first full-time tournament director. Their appointments were symbolic of the transition tennis was making to a commercial age. Cullman had used his influence as a tobacco executive to negotiate the first television contract for the U.S. Open, in 1968, and later he would help the Virginia Slims women's tour get off the ground. As early as 1962 he had lent financial support to his friend Gladys Heldman, the influential publisher of World Tennis magazine, when she arranged to fly 85 European players to the 1962 U.S. championships. Williams, a middling tournament player in the 1950s, had made a name for himself in the '60s running both professional and amateur tournaments. In 1966, Williams took over South Africa's amateur championships, boosting total attendance from 4,000 to 62,000 that year and to 126,000 the next. Only Wimbledon, with some 250,000 spectators, attracted more fans, while the U.S. championships drew a paltry 25,000 and the French and Australian national tournaments even fewer.

Overcoming some initial resistance from the conservative USLTA, Cullman used his corporate connections and Williams his promotional skills to try to sweep the Open into the twentieth century. Through his friendship with then-CBS chairman William Paley, Cullman negotiated a new, five-year, $100,000 contract with CBS to televise the Open. "The U.S. Open wasn't on TV at all in those days," recalls Cullman, whose brother Edgar M. Cullman Sr. and nephew Edgar M. Cullman Jr. run Culbro Corp., the parent company of General Cigar Co. "The opportunity of changing the world of tennis from a country-club, white-shoe sport to something that would appeal to the public appealed to me, and I convinced the company that it was good and I convinced their advertising agency, Leo Burnett, and everything came up roses. It was a very good move for tennis, it was a good move for Forest Hills, and it turned out to be a good move for Marlboro."

To boost corporate patronage, Cullman would cajole business acquaintances into buying courtside boxes. It wasn't an easy task. One day he was at the Century Country Club in Westchester County, New York, when he ran into a friend, Gus Levy of the Goldman, Sachs investment firm. "I said, 'Gus, you've got to buy a box at the U.S. Open.' He said, 'What does it cost?' I said, 'It wouldn't cost you much.' It didn't in those days. Now they're getting huge amounts of money for these boxes. But in those days, there wasn't a widespread interest in it." In 1969, the priciest box went for $900. Today, Open boxes cost as much as $48,750 and suites, new this year, range from $85,000 to $100,000.

Williams recalls his role in the box sales. "Joe would play golf at Sleepy Hollow, Century Country Club, wherever, and he'd call me on Sunday night and he'd say, 'I played golf today with Harry, Dick and Joe.' And they'd each want a box. I'd be in my office, or I'd go to my office at 11 o'clock Sunday night, I'd parcel up the box package personally and have it delivered with a hand-signed letter from Joe--we lived side by side [in Manhattan] on 69th, he on Madison, me on Fifth--and by 9 o'clock when they reached their offices Monday morning, they would have the entire package. And the word got around: 'These guys are serious.'"

Williams' primary objective was to increase the number of warm bodies in the seats. Until then, tickets for the Open were printed not by one but by three entities: the USLTA, the West Side Tennis Club and Madison Square Garden Attractions Inc. Williams took control of the operation, and by early August 1969 advance sales were running three times ahead of those for 1968. He also created the U.S. Open Club, a private facility overlooking the stadium court, and added rest rooms and other amenities. "What we did in simple terms is we turned the U.S. Open on its head," says Williams, who today owns Masters International, a sports management firm whose clientele includes chess champion Garry Kasparov. "It's for the record that we made a greater net profit than the gross income of the year before. We signed the CBS contract, which 30 years later is still in place; we built 261 boxes; we created all sorts of promotions. We brought in a professional, the Wimbledon referee [Mike Gibson]. We did everything that gave the tournament stature, importance and a reason for being."

While the Open, which was won by Grand Slam conqueror Rod Laver and Margaret Court, was the most visible U.S. tournament in need of a push in 1969, it wasn't the only one. At the time, Forest Hills was one of only five open U.S. tournaments sanctioned by the international tennis federation, and those five were the only ones for which the USLTA wanted to award prize money. Davis Cup captain Donald Dell and his players--Ashe (who had turned pro the preceding year), Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and Charlie Pasarell--took a stand, refusing to play in any tournament that offered expenses and guarantees instead of prize money. Dell organized the $25,000 Washington Star International, effectively paving the way for a full-scale prize-money circuit in the United States. The tournament was commercially sponsored and played in a public facility, and prize money was offered in place of appearance fees. Fifteen U.S. tournaments with prize money emerged that summer, with the Open's $137,000 pot the top purse.

Dell, who ranked among the top 10 American tennis players in the early 1960s, went on to become one of the most influential--and controversial--figures of the open era. He founded ProServ, one of the first sports-management agencies, and has represented some of the biggest tennis stars of the day, including Ashe, Smith, Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah. He also served as legal counsel to the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which was formed in 1972 to give the men's players more say in the game.

The rise of sports agents and the formation of player organizations were among the sea changes that roiled the tennis landscape in the open era. In 1970, Jack Kramer initiated the men's Grand Prix, a system of points and cash bonuses awarded at tournaments that led to a season-ending championship for the eight players with the most points. That same year, World Championship Tennis merged with George MacCall's struggling league. In 1971, thanks to the backing of Joe Cullman and Philip Morris, the Virginia Slims tour kicked off. The ATP was formed in 1972 and the Women's Tennis Association followed in 1974, giving the players a stronger voice in the game. Team tennis surfaced briefly in the mid-'70s, with occasional revivals thereafter.

At Forest Hills, Bill Talbert became the U.S. Open tournament director in the 1970s, ushering in a period of rising tennis popularity as new stars such as Connors and Chris Evert came along. Talbert instituted the tie-breaker in 1970 and introduced qualifying matches for lesser players. As the '70s progressed, any remaining ties to the amateur era were gradually severed. The grass courts were replaced with clay after the 1974 Open tournament. Night play made its debut in 1975, and after the 1977 tournament, the final link to the past was eradicated when the Open packed its bags and left the private West Side Tennis Club for the public grounds of Flushing Meadow just a few miles away. The architect of the relocation was William E. "Slew" Hester, a cigar-chomping oilman from Mississippi who became president of the USTA in 1977.

The tennis association had been hoping to make certain improvements at Forest Hills, because the players, Hester had told the club, felt the facilities were somewhat cramped. According to Moira Saucer's account in her book, US Open at the USTA National Tennis Center, after the 1976 Open the USTA offered to finance certain improvements at the club. West Side later countered with a plan to renovate the clubhouse, build new locker rooms and a new indoor tennis facility, renovate and enlarge the stadium, and come up with other improvements and amenities. The club hoped to cover the $5 million to $7 million estimated costs out of the revenues from the championships. When club and USTA officials met in January 1977, a West Side representative made it clear that if the club didn't get what it proposed, it didn't want the tournament. Its last wish was quickly fulfilled.

"I personally thought we'd probably try to work something out, but I think it became too polarized," recalls Michael Burns, the association's executive secretary, who was part of the USTA party at the final talks with West Side. "The sides weren't willing to give a little here, give a little there. There were all sorts of stories as to who said what to whom, whatever it was. My general feeling was nobody was going to blink."

Hester, who died in 1993, had 19 months to prepare a new home for the U.S. Open. On a flight over Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in January 1977, he spotted the old Singer Bowl (later renamed Louis Armstrong Stadium), which had been constructed for the 1964-65 World's Fair. Within four months, the personable Hester had presented a plan to New York City officials for a national tennis center, secured an architect and garnered final approval. Burns, who oversaw the tennis competition at the Atlanta Olympics last year, credits Hester's folksy ways with getting the project off the ground: "He was a Southerner, he was a down-home boy. I remember when we originally went to the parks department--Marty Lang was the parks commissioner--and we were talking about the plan. The commissioner had come from down South, and they got to talking about catfishing in the Pearl River [in Mississippi]. We'd gone for five or 10 minutes, and I kept saying to myself, 'Well, that's good, but we're not at the Pearl River, we're not catfishing, when are we going to get going on this property if we need it?' Then they got going, and they sort of excused the rest of us. They kept on talking and, boom, some sort of initial deal had been struck. This was Slew's way--he was a great people person."

The historic undertaking cost New York City virtually nothing, since the USTA consented to pay all construction, financing, maintenance and operating costs. The association also agreed to allow the public to use the courts for all but 60 days a year, as well as promising free tennis clinics and programs. Work began on the project in October 1977, and somehow a job that should have taken four years was completed in time for the 1978 Open. When Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors raised their winner's trophies, some 20,000 spectators looked on--6,000 more than would have been present at Forest Hills.

Now, as the Open celebrates its 30th extravaganza, a new stadium once again figures in the thick of things. The continuing growth of the sport has necessitated various improvements at Flushing Meadow (which tax-exempt bonds and USTA and National Tennis Center funds will cover), and the entire site will more than double in size, from 21.6 to 46.5 acres. Louis Armstrong Stadium will eventually be downsized to 10,000 seats, while the new stadium, with 89 luxury suites, will seat 23,500. And, in a move that honors one of the finest gentlemen ever to play the game but also recalls when the amateur era collided with the open era, the new stadium will be named Arthur Ashe Stadium. From Ashe to Sampras: U.S. Open Highlights

1968--Arthur Ashe defeats Tom Okker, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, to become the first American to win the U.S. men's singles title since 1955.

1969--Rod Laver beats fellow Australian Tony Roche, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, to capture his second Grand Slam.

1970--Margaret Court duplicates her countryman's feat, defeating Rosie Casals, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1, to complete the Grand Slam, becoming the first woman to do so since Maureen Connolly in 1953. Court also wins the women's doubles and mixed doubles competition.


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