Tennis Turns Pro – the Move towards the Open Era
Prior to 1968 only amateur tennis players were allowed to compete in the mainstream national and international tennis tournaments, including the grand slams. This meant the players who were good enough to make their living out of the sport were severely hampered as to their choice of event.
Rising stars like the French celebrity, Suzanne Lenglen and the man tipped as a ‘superlative volleyer’, Vincent Richards of the USA, were some of the first tennis pros who opted to contractually bind themselves to a tennis promoter.
Tennis Promoters move in for the Kill
The promoters, who did not always have the best interests of tennis in mind, soon hijacked the sport lured by the inordinate amounts of money they could make setting up head-to-head clashes between the current stars of the game. So, at this stage in tennis history, ongoing rivalries between two players were showcased to the max instead of players taking part in a circuit of tours as is common today!
The Australian great, Ken Rosewall, for instance played an unbelievable 76 matches against a single opponent, Pancho Gonzales, in his first 5 months as a pro, but only 9 matches in actual tournaments!
There were professional tournaments, dubbed Championship tournaments and the three biggest were the Wembley Professional Championship, the United States Professional Championship and the French Professional Championship. These events were not as popular as the traditional amateur circuit and events could be cancelled at a drop of a hat due to poor attendances.
NTL & WCT Ban Contracted Players from taking part in Grand Slams
By 1967 most consummate professionals were contracted to either the National Tennis League (NTL) run by George McCall or World Championship Tennis (WCT), Dave Dixon’s and later, Lamar Hunt’s baby. This caused problems in its own right, the promoters could effectively hold the tennis world to ransom by deciding whether their charges would play at a tournament or not, depending on the amount of money up for grabs.
Both professional bodies, the NTL and WCT, banned their contracted players from contesting the grand slams at some stage during their short tenure and this made the International Lawn Tennis Federation, the predecessor of the current ITF (International Tennis Federation), very nervous.
This was the catalyst that led to the abandonment of the distinction between amateur and professional tennis players and by 1968, the beginning of the Open Era, all tennis players could compete in all tennis tournaments!