The Forgotten Home of Tennis’s Open Era

The Forgotten Home of Tennis’s Open Era

BOURNEMOUTH, England — The original and atmospheric clubhouse where Fred Perry and Rod Laver once turned heads is long gone. So is the annual professional event, and the shale playing surface that went with it.

The word “tennis” is no longer even part of the official name of the West Hants Club here, which was under threat at one stage of being shuttered and sold off to developers.

But 50 years ago this week, it was the epicenter of the game: the soggy and unlikely site of the first open tournament in tennis.

“How is it in Bournemouth? Still cold and wet?” Ken Rosewall, the meticulous and accurate man who won that tournament, said in a telephone interview from Australia on Thursday.

In April 1968, for the first time, professionals were allowed to join amateurs in a major tournament, the British Hard Court Championships, ushering in what is known as the open era. Rosewall, Laver, Pancho Gonzales, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Andrés Gimeno were among the competitors that year, chasing a first prize in singles of 1,000 pounds (about $23,000 today).

“It was a unique place in time, one where you realized very clearly that the sport would never be the same again,” said Laver, who won the doubles with Emerson and lost a rain-interrupted singles final to Rosewall in four sets.

Laver, one of tennis’s greatest champions, had won at West Hants as an amateur. But after turning professional in 1962, when he completed his first Grand Slam, he was no longer eligible to compete in the game’s signature events: the four Grand Slam tournaments and the Davis Cup.

Some leading players who had technically remained amateurs continued to make living wages (or better) through payments — both under the table and openly — from tournament directors and their own federations that included significant sums ostensibly for expenses.

It was called “shamateurism.”

The idea of open tennis tournaments of professionals and amateurs had been discussed for decades and had nearly become reality in 1960, when the International Lawn Tennis Federation, known as the I.L.T.F., narrowly rejected a proposal to approve it. It took eight more years for reason and economics to prevail, and in late March 1968, with Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships already set to become open, the executive committee of the I.L.T.F. voted to authorize a number of open tournaments, including all four Grand Slam events.

It was not quite a full embrace of the concept: the I.L.T.F. still kept in place certain restrictions that dissuaded some amateurs from turning professional. But the pros — or at least most of them — were now welcome.

The British Hard Court Championships, obscure today but significant in that era, happened to be the first stop on the pros’ hastily revised itinerary.

Players like the reigning Wimbledon champion John Newcombe, who had signed with World Championship Tennis, the new circuit backed by the American oil baron Lamar Hunt, did not make the journey. But Rosewall’s and Laver’s group of six players, who were under contract with the promoter George MacCall’s National Tennis League, were eager to take part.

“It was the first, and there was no way I was missing it,” Laver said. “I wanted to be not the headliner by any means, but I wanted to be there. It was in England, and when you start saying England, you also are saying Wimbledon.”

That said, Bournemouth was a long way from Wimbledon in spirit and surface. The British Hard Court Championships were not played on grass or even on what are now considered hard courts. They were played on gritty shale similar to red clay and known by its brand name, En-Tout-Cas.

Unfamiliarity bred some contempt.

“In Britain at that time the winter courts were predominantly shale, so we played on that surface most of the time actually,” said Mark Cox, the British left-hander, who is now 74. “It has slightly larger gravel than European clay so the ball came through just a little bit quicker.”

Cox, a modest Cambridge graduate who would later reach No. 13 in the ATP rankings, did not squander the opportunity. In the second round of the 32-man event, he made headlines by becoming the first amateur to defeat a professional: upsetting the 39-year-old Gonzales, 0-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, after a very shaky start.

“I think the amateurs had everything to gain,” Cox said, while the pros “had everything to lose.” He added, “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Gonzales, a prickly and intimidating figure who turned pro early after winning the U.S. Championships in 1948 and 1949, kept his cool until he reached the locker room, where he struggled with the coin-operated shower.

“Not only did he have the frustration of having got this bloody Brit he couldn’t put away; he couldn’t even get the shower to work, which was the ultimate in frustration,” Cox said.

Cox went on to reach the semifinals after upsetting Emerson, 31, who had only just turned pro but struggled with his footing and timing. Cox then lost quickly to Laver, dropping the last 11 games as the top professionals — as expected — took control.

Owen Davidson, an Australian pro who was beaten in the quarterfinals by Rosewall, earned the distinction of winning the first match in open tennis history by defeating the British amateur John Clifton, 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6, in the first round. The match was 50 years ago Sunday.

Davidson, hired by the All England Club the previous year to be the British national coach, was in the awkward position of playing one of his pupils, and the men only made history because Stolle’s match versus another amateur, Peter Curtis, was delayed.

“As usual, it rained in Bournemouth,” Davidson said in a telephone interview from his home in Houston. “I was scheduled to play John Clifton on what they called the clubhouse court in those days, and it drained and got dry way quicker than the center court. So that’s how we got on first, and to be honest, at the time we didn’t place any significance on it.”

Cox, who had chosen to remain amateur in order to be certain to remain eligible to play Davis Cup, received 50 pounds in expenses and a token four pounds in amateur-approved prize money for his remarkable run.

“If you take into consideration that the bed-and-breakfast just down the road was 10 shillings and six pence a night, that wasn’t bad, and we got a full-cooked English breakfast, too,” Cox said. “I had enough left over to get home.”

The women’s prize money went all but unclaimed. The four women’s stars who had recently signed professional contracts with MacCall’s group — Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Ann Haydon-Jones and Françoise Dürr — all stayed away from Bournemouth, in part because the women’s prize money (300 pounds to the winner) was far inferior to the men’s.

Of the leading women who did take part, only one played as a professional: the semifinalist Fay Toyne Moore, an Australian based in Britain.

Still, the door to a new paradigm and a tennis boom was definitively ajar. Last year’s United States Open singles champions, Rafael Nadal and Sloane Stephens, each made $3.7 million.

“It’s the last thing you would have thought would happen 50 years ago,” Rosewall said. “But I guess that’s what happens with better marketing, better TV exposure, and tennis going back to the Olympics also helped a lot of nations develop players. But I never thought the players would be getting so much income.”

The open era has helped broaden the player base globally and foster long-running rivalries like Nadal-Federer in the highest-profile events. That is particularly true in the men’s game, where the biggest stars often turned professional before 1968, snuffing out marquee duels or shifting them to more dimly lit settings suitable for barnstorming.

But the West Hants Club will remain the place where the new era began even if the women’s open event here was halted in 1977 and the men’s open event in 1984, before a revival in the late 1990s ran out of steam and sponsorship. On April 29, the club will mark the anniversary of the first open with an exhibition match featuring the former British star Tim Henman.

And after some lean years, the club is back to being a vibrant gathering place, with a new clubhouse, 3,500 members, a busy gym, four indoor hard courts and outdoor courts of green clay, hard and artificial grass. There are also squash and racquetball courts, a pool and a recently completed padel court. Tennis remains a strong presence but is no longer its raison d’être.

“The club wouldn’t survive without the gym,” said Peter Elviss, its ebullient chief executive.

Published at Sun, 22 Apr 2018 06:00:09 +0000

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