The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) today celebrates an historic and landmark moment in the founding of professional tennis as global stars mark 50 years since the very first Open Era Tournament.
On April 22 1968, the British Hard Court Championships – held at West Hants Club in the English seaside town of Bournemouth – became the first of 12 Open tournaments for the year sanctioned by the then International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF). The tournament marked the birth of modern-day professional tennis and led to today’s multi-million dollar global industry defined by Grand Slam events and superstar athletes.
Fifty years ago, the first Open Era titles were won by Australia’s Ken Rosewall and Britain’s Virginia Wade, who took home the first ever prize money breakdowns recorded on a draw sheet – the men’s title with £1000 and the women’s £300.
Virginia Wade OBE, who won 55 singles titles including three grand slams singles titles, said: “Bournemouth and the West Hants Tennis Club have a very special place in my heart, being born there. The British Hard Courts (although the surface was shale) was the first of the early tournaments that all the players got excited about and it meant even more to me in 1968 to win the first event of the Open Era.
“It’s amazing when we think of the global phenomenon tennis has become over the last 50 years and we should be very proud that British Tennis had the courage to make it all happen.”
Wade went onto win the US Open, Australian and Wimbledon over the course of her 18-year career.
Ken Rosewall, who won 133 career titles including eight Grand Slams, added: “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. The British Hard Court Championships always had a lot of history there and we were all impressed with how big that event was and a lot of surprising results. I remember there were the top Brit players led by Mark Cox and the leading Pros from the National Tennis League of which I was one. It was very exciting to play there in April 1968, it was my first time and as it turned out the last. Rod [Laver] and I played off in the final, which was delayed by rain and I was glad to win in four sets.
“Nowadays the game has grown so much, and in all sports, the players are well compensated. It was great that Herman David from Wimbledon and the LTA in Britain had the vision to bring the amateurs and the pros together. The changes have been fantastic for tennis helping the sport become more international. The Olympics has also helped that a lot and the top players in the world are much more international not just the Aussies, the Americans and the Brits as it was back then.”
It was when the legendary Australian champion Rod Laver agreed to turn pro in 1962, with some of his fellow pros under contract to Jack Kramer, including Rosewall, helping to fund it, that the ILTF realised that a review of the current rules were inevitable. Those who did turn up were banned from playing in the four major tournaments (Australia, France, Wimbledon and the United States). Laver, who had won all four major championships in 1962, did not play in the majors again until 1968.
This historic seachange in tennis took place following an impassioned speech from the LTA’s Councillor for Kent, Derek Penman, at the Lawn Tennis Association’s AGM at The Queen’s Club on December 14, 1967. Tennis was traditionally an amateur sport with only a few turning professional – usually the best amateur of each year. Prompted by the protests by professionals against the many competitors, who pretended to be amateurs, while accepting under-the-table payments, in a process branded ‘shamaterusim’.
Penman’s speech resulted in unanimous AELTC support, which the then Chairman of Wimbledon, Herman David stated “it must be constitutional”. Once the LTA had passed a motion for an open Wimbledon in 1968 LTA Chairman Derek Hardwick then proposed that Britain should abolish the distinction between amateur and professional players at British tournaments.
With support from Herman David, Hardwick and Penman sought to gain international support over the next three months and travelled around the world garnering support from the US and other nations. After an emergency meeting of the ILTF member nations in Paris on March 30 1968, the Open tournaments were sanctioned, and the British Hard Court Championships was the first to be played in this era.
The LTA is celebrating their pioneering role and legacy in the forming of professional tennis by welcoming Tim Henman, players from the first Open Era tournament in 1968 including Sue Mappin, Frances McLennan, John Clifton and John Paish and future stars of British Tennis to an event on 29 April 2018. The event will commemorate the role the LTA and West Hants Club together played in paving the way for professional tennis across the globe. Former British No.1 Henman will play an exhibition doubles match with fellow former British professionals Miles Maclagan, John Feaver and John Paish, there will also be a match between the former British professionals and junior players from West Hants on the day.
This year also marks a number of other notable landmarks in the history of tennis, including the 130thanniversary of the founding of the LTA and the 40thanniversary of the first-ever BBC broadcast of the Eastbourne International – which saw Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert two weeks ahead of her maiden Wimbledon title. 2018 will also mark the 40thconsecutive year the BBC have televised the Queen’s Club Championships, which started in 1979.
To find out more about the Open Era and the evolution of tennis in the past 50 years, visit https://www.lta.org.uk/news/general-news/2018/april/open-era-british-tennis-celebrates-50th-anniversary-of-the-open-era