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

Michael K. Bohn, Tribune News Service on

Published in Tennis

The social lions who summered in palatial "cottages" in Newport quickly adopted tennis in the 1880s. The game fit nicely in the activities of the gentlemen and their ladies, and the annual lawn tennis tournament -- the Nationals -- proved to be a seasonal highlight. Hundreds clogged the Newport Casino's verandas every August, all dressed in the finest Gilded Age fashions. Society's interest in tennis in its early days in America formed the underlying public perception that the game belonged to the country club set. Or at least that it catered to amateur sportsmen who couldn't play football or baseball.

The International Lawn Tennis Federation opened its doors in 1913, and, with its constituent national tennis associations, became the tennis world's governing body for amateur tennis. The United States was not included until after World War I.

The USLTA moved the Nationals in 1915 to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y., and, in the ensuing years, the American nationals simply were called "Forest Hills." This followed the location-model created by the All England Club in the Wimbledon neighborhood of London.

By the mid-1920s, American tennis had established a firm distinction between amateurs and professionals. This generally followed the pattern in golf that Americans inherited from the Brits -- amateurs were gentlemen and introduced as "Mr. So and So," while pros and caddies were seen as working-class men unworthy of a title.

American tennis amateur Bill Tilden made a substantial living in the 1920s receiving "expenses," with the sizable amount reflective of his immense drawing power among fans. Famed tennis writer Bud Collins wrote in the 1990s, "Tilden made more real income out of tennis as an amateur than some of the better pros today." He turned pro in late 1930.

Kramer wrote that from 1931 until 1968, "virtually every player who won both Wimbledon and Forest Hills turned pro." When they did, however, they were banned from all significant tennis tournaments worldwide. This firmed the chasm between amateur and professional tennis that had arisen earlier along social divisions.

One of the few early public voices speaking about the secrets of amateur players came from E. C. Potter, Jr., author of the 1936 book, "Kings of the Court." He blamed individual national tennis associations -- USLTA and the British LTA, for example -- for clinging to an overly idealistic vision of amateur sports.

"Their only asset is the player," Potter wrote, "and they do everything in their power to keep him in the amateur ranks." The associations "make appear that to earn money openly as a professional is no less than treason against the game itself." He concluded his book by stating that tennis will "enter its golden age" when the associations "admit that the true amateur and the true professional can walk hand in hand."

Nevertheless, the international pro-am distinction remained the status quo until the post-World War II years. The first initiative to crack the barriers came at the annual ILTF meeting in Paris in 1960. Several delegations proposed opening the major national championships to pros, but they needed a two-thirds majority approval -- 139 of 209 votes; the measure failed by a handful of votes. An oft-quoted story had the margin at three votes -- one voter was asleep, another in the restroom and a third seeking to arrange the evening's entertainment. Other versions suggest the measure failed by five votes.

In 1964, the All England Club, long-time host of the Wimbledon championships, urged the BLTA to open the tournament to all comers, despite the ILTF resistance. The association refused to do so.


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