Before the Open Era
Sometimes referred to as the Amateur Era, let’s start by looking at what the sport of tennis looked like before the Open Era began in 1968.
The Early Years of Tennis
Although historians can trace the origin of tennis back to the 12th century, the closest relative to the sport as we know it today kicked off in 1873 when Major Walter Wingfield invented lawn tennis.
Not long after, the All England Club in Wimbledon, London, held their first edition of The Championships in 1877, roughly a year after adding the sport as one of the club’s activities.
A few years later, in 1881, the US National Championships held their first tournament. Then in 1891, the French Championships held their inaugural event, followed by the Australian Championships in 1905.
Players competing in these tournaments were amateurs, i.e., they didn’t compete for money. They were merely playing as talented club members who enjoyed the pastime and competing.
As the sport matured, tennis players competed full time, but they still weren’t earning any money. However, the clubs hosting the tournaments were profiting by charging attendance fees.
The Pro Tours Begin
Until 1926, there were few professional tennis athletes. If you were serious about the sport, you had to be an amateur to compete at the most prestigious events, and the rules didn’t allow those individuals to earn money playing; even teaching wasn’t allowed.
However, that began to change in 1926, when promoter Charles Pyle signed a handful of players as professionals he paid to compete during a four-month circuit in North America. Players included legendary French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen alongside American Mary Browne, Vincent Richards, Harvey Snodgrass, and Howard Kinsey.
Instead of tournaments that were typical for amateurs, professionals were more likely to compete on tours that showcased head-to-head competition where the same players would face each other at different locations because that’s where they received the best pay.
With that said, tournaments did exist, including the US Pro Tennis Championships, Wembley Championships, and French Pro Championships, but players earned significantly less.
It’s worth noting that professional players were rarely independent. Instead, most were under contract with promoters who ran the tours they were participating in at various locations.
Also, once a player became a professional, they could no longer compete at the game’s most prestigious Grand Slam tournaments.
Tennis is Divided
From 1926 forward, tennis was split. Amateurs continued to compete, vying for titles at the most prestigious Grand Slam events. At the same time, the pro tours expanded and slowly attracted more talented players who were abandoning the amateurs to earn a living.
The following are a few prominent examples of top players who started as amateurs and transitioned to professionals.
- Rod Laver
- Ken Rosewall
- Pancho Gonzales
- Roy Emerson
- John Newcomb
- Tony Roche
- Cliff Drysdale
- Suzanne Lenglen
- Mary Browne
- Alice Marble
- Mary Hardwich
- Pauline Betz
- Sarah Cooke
- Billie Jean King
It’s worth noting that although Suzanne Lenglen helped usher in professional tennis for men and women, the sports adoption of women on the pro tours significantly lagged compared to the men because the tours didn’t place a significant emphasis on them.
Furthermore, women were paid significantly less in the early days of professional tennis. In many cases, they weren’t paid unless they reached a later round in a tournament, i.e., the quarterfinals.