THE SPIRIT OF ’68

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Photo by JACQUES MARIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Bill Simons

“Amateur tennis,” complained Wimbledon boss Herman David, “has become a living lie.” Prior to the dawning of Open tennis in 1968, the sport was a transparent sham. The game’s stars attracted good crowds, but as amateurs, they were paid a pittance under the table.

“I am an amateur by profession,” noted Gordon Forbes. Arthur Ashe observed, “We all deserve Oscars for impersonating amateurs.” The whimsical Whitney Reed explained his modest income by saying, “I have a paper route.” To make a living, the Roger Federers of the day were forced to turn pro. But then they were promptly banned from tourneys, little or large.

Over the decades protests rang out. In the 1920s France’s Suzanne Lenglen complained about being in bondage – but nothing changed. The mighty lords of the International Lawn Tennis Association ruled with an unflinching fist. In the ‘40s Bill Tilden insisted something had to be done. In the ‘50s Aussie Lew Hoad complained, “I’m a slave.” Finally, in May 1968, after years of rancor and infighting, came tennis’ big breakthrough on a major stage. The French Open invited amateurs and pros alike to play side by side – imagine that!

All the while, just a few neighborhoods away, an inspiring call was heard – “All power to the imagination!” Sociology students, aircraft workers, cleaning ladies, artists and intellectuals agreed: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

The dawning of Open tennis at the 1968 French Open was the biggest splash in tennis history. But it was just a small ripple in the cataclysmic, American-inspired wave of rebellion some simply refer to as “68.” As war raged in Vietnam, and rock ’n’ roll pulsed, “Oh-the-times-they-are-a-changin’” firestorms exploded. From Mexico City to Chicago, from Prague to Harlem, from Turkey to Tokyo, idealists rose up to call for a new world.

Still, the May insurrection in Paris stood apart – a once-in-history happening when students, intellectuals and ten million workers envisioned an inspiring new universe of possibilities. Dreamers, lacking gasoline but fueled with hope, proclaimed, “Building a revolution is also breaking all the inner chains.” On Latin Quarter streets, and eventually throughout France, there were echoes of the American, French and Russian revolutions.

One worker said, “Since 1936 I have fought for wage increases. My father fought for wage increases. Now I have a TV, a fridge, and a Volkswagen. Yet my whole life I’ve been a chump.” In many ways the child of the civil rights, peace and student movements of the day, the insurrection countered France’s baked-in structures. From “the night of barricades” to days of strikes and sit-ins, here was Bob Dylan sporting a French beret, out in the streets and empowered by a sense of possibility.

While at Roland Garros finalist Rod Laver was stroking adept lobs, back on Boulevard Saint-Michel thousands were lobbing cobblestones. Tyranny was being fought with a tongue-in-cheek zeal and a visionary, at times self-righteous, idealism. A youthful, once-in-a-lifetime elation prevailed. William Wordsworth had written years before: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

So, too, the French Open was a heady heaven. In the past, every detail of players’ lives had been rigidly controlled by old-school, father-knows-best tennis czars. With the arrival of Open tennis, the beloved Barry MacKay sighed: “I feel clean for the first time. I don’t have to take dirty money anymore.”

Never before had our sport relished such an exhilarating transformation. Similarly, the ’68 upheaval was both a call for economic revolution and a free-form protest against the grinding nine-to-five tedium of modernity with all its ho-hum monotony. “Boredom is counterrevolutionary,” insisted freshly minted sages. Tennis players and insurgents alike insisted on greater control of their lives.

While the French Open was won by the conventionally proper Aussie Ken Rosewall, the walls of the 5th Arrondissement were sprayed with provocative slogans of rebellion. Some even applied to the game-changing triumph of Open tennis.

• “No replastering. The structure is rotten.”
• “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.”
• “Take your desires as realities.”

Amidst the battles and occupations, Paris’ tennis tourney drew huge crowds and proved to be a welcome calm in a chaotic storm. Savvy pros and fresh-faced amateurs, men and women, hugged and embraced – equalité, fraternité. After decades of agony, here, at last, was a moment of ecstasy. Their world had changed forever. Meanwhile, in much of Paris, a giddy, “make love, not war” sexuality had permeated. Self-appointed sages announced, “The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution. The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love.”

While the insurrection was all about dismantling the arthritic old school, tennis fans adored the return of the aging, long exiled 40-year-old Pancho Gonzales, a pro who hadn’t played a major in 19 years. As he pounded his glorious serve, insurgents – fury and flags on full display – were pounded by police batons.

Due to all the barricades and tear gas, players had to be creative just to get to Roland Garros. Cliff Richey took a four-hour taxi ride from Luxembourg. (Where’s Uber when you need it?) Rosewall landed at a military airbase. Torben Ulrich rode a bike.

France in the ‘60s was a prosperous but authoritarian domain. The government ruled TV news with an iron fist. To get a job, married women needed written permission from their husbands. Prime Minister Charles De Gaulle was worshiped as a paternal god.

Protestors railed against ancient traditions, soul-deadening careerism, prevailing status symbols, look-at-me consumerism and even art and elections. “I’ve had it and I won’t take it anymore!” Certainly, there were many naive excesses. Still, at the core of the uprising was a nonviolent call for vibrancy, compassion and justice in a world where, most of all, our daily lives would be in our own hands.

May ’68 touched much of life – even sports. For the first two weeks of the rebellion, government censors refused to provide any TV coverage. Virtually all the broadcast accounts came from a gutsy sports reporter for Radio Free Luxembourg. As the uprising continued, soccer players occupied their federation headquarters under the banner, “Soccer for the soccer players.”

Millions of primarily young workers joined students and staged wildcat strikes. Near Roland Garros, existentialist Jean Paul-Sartre stood on a box at a Renault factory and spoke of a student-worker-intellectual paradise.

Clearly a visionary moment had parachuted into a problematic world. “Just imagine,” seemed to be the message. Then the moment vanished. The short-lived oasis evaporated. After all, it’s one thing to come up with the sounds-good concept that “Forbidding is forbidden.” But how can you organize a society around that?

In fact it can be argued that tennis, more than society itself, has built on May ’68. Now our sport is a bountiful, non-stop global wonder that attracts millions of diverse people. “We knew Open tennis was going to be a success,” noted Brit Derek Hardwick. “But we didn’t know it would be a bonanza.”

Much in the world has shifted since ’68. The leader of the rebellion, the “dangerous” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was known as Danny the Red, is now a Green – a mainstream European politician. These days, unending low-intensity wars, climate change, terrorism, globalization, AIDS and a me-first ethos have emerged. May ’68 called for the end of borders and now more than twenty European nations have open borders. But Brexit passed, and calls for constructing walls draw explosive applause.

Yes, May ’68 was a political failure. There was a massive counterdemonstration. DeGaulle raised workers’ wages, called for a snap election, and he won big.

But May ’68 has proven to be far more than a naïve, idealistic expression of hope. The short-lived insurrection has been a long-lasting inspiration that’s prevailed culturally and spiritually. It transformed values. And it helped change the dynamic between men and women, parents and children, teachers and students, bosses and workers, straights and gays. It led to open borders and open thinking – and many an initiative for human rights. Now we take for granted a vastly different, far more tolerant and nuanced world where the slogan “All power to the imagination!” continues to resonate – not just as a nostalgic reminder, but also as a kind of poetic promise of what still can be.

Just imagine.

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