Howard: The tennis boom of the early open years
It was a long time coming, but finally in 1968 the powers to be overthrew the old regime of a separated amateur and professional tour of tennis players and let tennis come alive with both competing against one another for men and women.
Pandora ’s Box was now open to see what would occur in the new breath of open tennis.
It was like the Wild West with a world of opportunity, to be organized, tamed, developed and created into a total public interest like never before.
New sponsors, player organization, television, rules to be tweaked, new technology and evolution of equipment - training and strokes, personalities - rivalries, tours and tournaments to expand, and a change from only the “county club” set paying attention to the game to the general public - not to mention “money to be made.”
The early years were filled with confusion as tennis progressed and yet by 1969 there were 30 open tournaments around the world with the purse of all totaling about $1.3 million. Rod Laver was the leading money winner with $124,000 which at that time was like a million bucks in today’s currency.
Rod Laver won his 2nd “Grand Slam” as a professional in 69 and his first as an amateur in 1962, while Margaret Smith Court won 3 of the 4 slams which created a stir among new and old tennis fans.
In 1970 Margaret won her own “Grand Slam” the 2nd women to achieve this worthy feat to start off the new decade.
It was also 1970 when 9 women formed their own tour due to the fact they were not getting a fair share of prize money when combined with the men, led by Gladys Heldman who founded World Tennis magazine in 1953.
Prize money world-wide was up to $5 million by 1972 with Ilie Nastase raking in $176,000 and Billie Jean King becoming the first women to make over $100,000 and winning 3 of the 4 majors.
The year 1973 was quite the unusual tennis year with a tennis event taking place that had more attention than any other match in tennis history with 55 year-old Bobby Riggs taking on 29 year-old Billie Jean King in what became known as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
Beating the #1 ranked women in the world Margaret Smith Court on Mother’s Day, Rigg’s had set the stage for the match held at the Astrodome in Houston against King. There was a paying crown of over 30,000 people there and some 50 million watching the match on prime-time television. King prevailed and the game of tennis had more people taking up the game than ever.
Tennis personalities were now becoming household names - Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Nastase, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and the prize money continued to grow as the game began its 100th year in 1974. Both Connors and Evert made over $250,000 in tournament winnings.
The year 1976 had the general public talking about tennis once again with 41 year-old ophthalmologist transsexual Dr. Renee Richards who in her past played at Wimbledon and Forest Hills as Richard Raskind, now admitted by court order to play on the women’s tour.
A new “Code of Conduct” was enacted by the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council, mainly due to gamesmanship and outbursts by players Nastase, Connors and later John McEnroe. They served the game in their own way because even the most naive tennis fan wanted to see what they might do next and paid to find out.
New racquets were being manufactured out of wood, metal, fiberglass, alloys and composites, times were continuing to improve and change.
It was a crazy time as the 70’s were coming to an end with the great match play of Evert, Navratilova, Borg, Connors and McEnroe, as youngster Tracy Austin became the new kid on the block and Bjorn Borg became the first million dollar earner.
Those early years set the stage for what we have today with the likes of Federer, Nadal, the Williams sisters, Bryans and many other great players in the world of tennis. Its history is rich and hopefully the game of tennis will continue with interesting personalities and rivalries, solid organization, grassroots growth, smart rule changes and solid sponsorship around the world.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.