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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."


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