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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 final overhead smash on shamateur tennis came from the other side of the net -- the pros. In early January 1968, promoter Dave Dixon, who was bankrolled by oilman and American Football League founder Lamar Hunt, welcomed Australian amateurs Newcombe and Tony Roche to the pro ranks. They joined what Dixon called the "Handsome Eight," which included six other pros -- Roger Taylor, Nickki Pilic, Earl Buchholz, Dennis Ralston, Pierre Barthes and Cliff Drysdale. Dixon guaranteed Newcombe $135,000 annually and Roche, $125,000, a sum equal to the salary of Willie Mays in 1968 -- the highest then in Major League Baseball.

Starting in February, the eight began a tour involving 80 three-day tournaments, a major shift from small groups playing one-night stands around the United States. A competing group led by George McCall, the National Tennis League, signed existing pros Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, Fred Stolle and others; Roy Emerson turned pro to join them.

According to the late Bud Collins, Dixon's partner Bob Briner described the impact of these signings on shamateur tennis: "We had in one fell swoop taken all of the stars out of the game. If anyone was ever going to see them again at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, the ILTF had to make an accommodation. Open tennis came about so fast after that, it was pitiful."

The ILTF, feeling the pressure from the U.S., UK, and Sweden, convened a meeting of its executive committee in Paris in late March 1968. They authorized 12 open tournaments for the year, including the "Grand Slam" events in Australia, France, Great Britain, and the United States. In order to keep the smaller national associations comfortable, the ILTF also created a clumsy group of four categories of players, amateur and professional, that lasted only a few years.

The Australian Nationals had been held during the previous January, so the Aussies switched it to open tennis in 1969. So the first open tournament began on April 22 -- the British Hard Court Championship at the West Hants Lawn Tennis Club in Bournemouth, England. Rosewall beat Laver and won $2,400, while Virginia Wade won the women's title. But she declined the $720 prize money because she was unsure of her status in this embryonic stage of open tennis. Instead, she accepted $120 for expenses.

Collins offered a clipped and concise summary the major events of 1968, the first year of open tennis, in his book, "Bud Collins' Tennis Encyclopedia."

"Open tennis dawns. Prize money is out on the table. Commercialization blooms and tennis begins metamorphosis from sort-of-amateur sport to big-business game. But amateur Arthur Ashe stuns the tennis world by winning the first U.S. Open, leads U.S. to Davis Cup success and five-year-hold. Back from isolated life as outcast professionals, Rosewall at French, Laver at Wimbledon, win first major opens."

Virginia Wade won the first U.S. Open's women's singles in 1968, and, this time, accepted the winner's check for $6,000.

(Michael K. Bohn is the author, among other books, of "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.")

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