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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

(continued from page 1)

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."

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