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With the US Open underway, a look at end of 'shamateur' tennis

Michael K. Bohn, Tribune News Service on

Published in Tennis

The hoopla surrounding the annual American tennis championships, the U.S. Open, is a far cry from the public and private debate that accompanied the national tournament 50 years ago this month. In 1967, both the singles and doubles tournaments -- men and women -- were restricted to amateurs, the last U.S. national championships to do so. However, virtually everyone in international tennis knew that the entrants' non-professional status was a sham.

Jack Kramer, both a tennis great and pioneer promoter of the game, captured the state of international tennis in his 1979 book, "The Game," when he spoke of his time as an amateur player before turning pro in 1947. "In the shamateur days, we were only athletic gigolos ... and the system was immoral and evil."

Tennis writer Richard Evans wrote in his book, "Open Tennis," about the myth -- one that first arose in the 1920s -- that amateur tennis players received only a pittance for daily expenses in a tournament. Evans describes the elaborate facade behind which those in the "so-called amateur game were forced to put bread on the table by receiving money under it."

The mess on the world's tennis courts peaked during the period 1957-1967, which Kramer called the "Dark Decade." For example, Pancho Gonzales, one of the best players of his time, described the situation in a 1959 essay titled "The Lowdown on Amateur Tennis." "Today, a sought-after amateur can make from $8,000 to $10,000 yearly; yet in the eyes of the public he is pure as a virgin snow drift." ($10,000 in 1959 is the equivalent of $84,000 today.)

Other examples include Roy Emerson, the number one-ranked Australian amateur, demanded $1,500 to play in the 1966 German tennis championships. Similarly, the best South African amateur that same year, Cliff Drysdale, asked for but failed to get $1,500 to enter the Dutch national tournament. According to the London Sunday Times, Drysdale told J. Mulder, the organizer of the Dutch championships, "I'm sorry you can't afford it, but I can get that figure elsewhere."

Many have quoted Herman David, chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which has been the long-time host of the Wimbledon Championships, as denouncing "shamateurism" at that time as a "living lie."

While the late summer of 1967 marked a major milestone in U.S. and international tennis, there were many other landmarks in the game's amateur-professional relationship before that date.

THE BIRTH AND GROWTH OF LAWN TENNIS

The term "lawn tennis" came into popular usage in 1874 when British Maj. Walter C. Wingfield patented a tennis game for playing on grass. To help make his game unique enough for a British patent, he added the term "lawn" to distinguish it from indoor tennis. The older game gradually became known as "real" or "royal" tennis. In America, the indoor variety lives on as "court" tennis.

American, upper-class sportsmen in the Northeast championed the new sport. In May 1881, representatives from 19 tennis clubs met in New York to create the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association. The new organization hosted its first national championships -- amateurs only -- at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island.

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