FROM UNDER-THE-TABLE PAYMENT TO OVER-THE-TOP JOY – Celebrating 50 Years of Open Tennis

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Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Back in the 1950s when a man of means was asked his profession, he might well reply, “Gentleman.” It was an era where Victorian amateur ethics still flourished and were celebrated as the end-all in many a sport. So tennis was a living lie.

Professionals were seen as pariahs and ethically impaired. OMG – you actually accepted significant payment for your work? And if tennis players did, they were banned from tournaments, while amateurs were paid paltry sums under the table.

Simply put, it was a corrupt and hypocritical scam. “All those terrific human traits,” notes the eminent tennis historian Richard Evans, “such as snobbism, power complexes and pure selfishness, had ensured that any player who signed a pro contract was automatically banned.”

Fortunately there was a move late in the 1950s to create, like golf, an open game in which both pros and amateurs could compete side by side. But, Evans recalls that at a critical 1960 meeting in Paris, when the vote was taken, one backer of Open tennis “was in the toilet, one fell asleep and, to complete the farce, a third was absent arranging the evening’s dinner entertainment on the bateaux mouches…[So] the game of tennis found itself anchored to the hypocrisy of amateurism for another eight years…We talk blithely of the good old days, but although they did indeed have redeeming features that the modern age has lost, they were also great for racists, snobs and blinkered buffoons. That tennis should have been afflicted by people of that kind…made the sport a kind of an anachronism…Had the vast, world-wide family been allowed to evolve naturally, the inevitable squabbles might have been kept under some sort of control and gradual growth could have been achieved with some sort of harmony.”

Finally in 1968, thanks to the heroic vision of Wimbledon’s Herman David and the advocacy of American Robert Kelleher and others, Open tennis was born. At first pros were categorized by a silly bunch of sub-categories. A Wild West, helter-skelter ethos ruled in an easy-entry sport. For every caring visionary there was a quick-rick huckster or a vain promoter intoxicated by the allure of a vastly appealing game filled with fabulous characters. Not surprisingly, tennis made one curious misstep after another. Non-stop squabbles and knockdown turf battles left many a festering wound. But eventually the waters calmed. Sages emerged. Yes, our game is still a bit crazy after all these years. Still, across the globe, millions now embrace a well-oiled, semi-sensible machine that replicates itself season after season and gives so many so much. Now, 50 years since the creation of Open tennis, the game has gone from under-the-table payments to over-the-top joy.  

NEW AND NOTABLE IN THE OPEN ERA: Prize money. Tennis on TV. Tie-breaks, Hawk-Eye, night tennis, colored gear, diverse players from a myriad of nations, massive roofed stadiums, equal prize money, yellow balls, high-tech strings, metal rackets, Olympic tennis, time clocks, power agents and huge endorsements, wide-reaching and often battling sneaker and gear companies, online shopping, on-court coaching, top players passing on playing Davis Cup, the US and Aussie Opens on hard courts…The USTA’s Lake Nona National Campus, the Tennis Channel, the Tennis Industry Association, three weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon, devastating topspin, the ATP’s Best of Eighteen Rule, guarantees, big Asian manufacturers and tourneys, Wimbledon without bows to royals, computerized rankings, pink gear, ‘tweeners, players as brands, French and Aussie Open Slams that aren’t afterthoughts, the Laver Cup, the Next Gen ATP Finals.

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