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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.

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.

BREAKTHROUGH

At the annual ILTF meeting in July 1967, delegations from the U.S., UK, and Australia pushed for open tennis. But the smaller nations, fearing their players would be squeezed out by the pros, led the nay voters and defeated the proposal. The New York Times reported that Australia delegate John Young captured the silliness of the status quo: "We all know there are three kinds of tennis players -- amateurs, sham-amateurs and professionals."

Also during that summer, Austrian officials complained to the BLTA that British amateur player, Roger Taylor, didn't fulfill his "contract" to play in an Austrian tournament. BLTA members took that to mean Taylor had bolted in favor of a larger under-the-table payment elsewhere. That made it difficult for them to judge an "amateur" player, a feeling that prompted the Brits to take unilateral action.

Herman David decided to approach promoter Kramer for help in creating open tennis. Donald Dell, a pioneer in the business of sports marketing and a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, described David's action in a recent interview.

"David told Kramer that the All England Club would schedule a three-day pro tournament at its Wimbledon facility in August 1967 if Kramer supplied eight players." According to Dell, the event would occur three weeks after the 1967 Wimbledon Championships. "If your pros draw big crowds," Dell credits Davis saying to Kramer, "we'll open Wimbledon in 1968 regardless of what ILTF says. We'll just do it." Dell said that David was concerned that the best players in the world were not playing at Wimbledon.

"It was an absolute smash," Kramer wrote of the August Wimbledon event. "The BBC agreed to put up the singles purse of $35,000 ... and Wimbledon sprang for the doubles money of $10,000. This total made the tournament the largest purse-money event in history."

The matches sold out every day, a big step up from the regular amateur championship, which, according to Kramer, had been suffering declining TV ratings.

The last amateur-only, U.S. national championships occurred in August and September 1967 at two locations -- doubles at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, MA, and singles at West Side in Forest Hills. Australian John Newcombe won the men's singles, and Billy Jean King, women's singles. Newcombe later told author Richard Evans that he "was clearing about $15,000 a year as the No. 1 amateur in the world at the time." He soon turned pro for far more money.

On Dec. 14, 1967, the British LTA voted to "open" the British Hard Court Championships in April 1968, as well as Wimbledon. (In the U.S. "hard court" refers to concrete or similar surfaces, but, in much of Europe, it was a clay court.) Richard Evans wrote that BLTA official Derek Penman said at the meeting the UK needed an open Wimbledon to "remove the sham and hypocrisy from the game." He added that the players "should be able to earn openly and honestly the rewards to which their skill entitles them."

The USLTA, at its annual meeting in February 1968, voted to follow the British lead and support open tennis. The association president, Robert Kelleher, spoke forcefully for the proposal, according to Evans, and criticized the ILTF: "You have failed to promulgate and enforce realistic and practical amateur rules."

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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