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Open Era in Tennis, 1968 | Meaning + Detailed History & Records

Open Era in Tennis, 1968

Meaning + Detailed History & Records

By Jon Crim
TennisCompanion

The Open Era in tennis, which began in 1968, allowed all players, amateur or professional, to compete at the four Grand Slam events.

The change ushered in the modern sport of tennis as we know it, but to understand why it happened, we need to dig through history to uncover the problems facing the sport prior and why it required a change.

This article discusses the meaning and significance behind the open era in tennis, shares what the sport looked like beforehand, and explores the game’s evolution after this significant moment unfolded.

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Open Era Meaning

We refer to tennis starting in 1968 as the Open Era because the Grand Slam tournaments agreed to allow professional players to compete alongside amateurs. Hence the events were “Open” to all players.

These tournaments were exclusive before 1968, meaning only amateurs were allowed to compete and could not earn prize money. On the other hand, professional tennis players competed in entirely different tournaments but were making a living doing it.

Following the rule change, three of the four majors changed their names to include the word ‘Open.’

  • 1968: French Championships
    • French Open, a.k.a, Roland Garros
  • 1968: US National Championships
    • US Open
  • 1969: Australian Championships
    • Australian Open

Wimbledon, more formally known as, The Championships, Wimbledon, opted not to change its name, despite becoming open to pros. It wasn’t a requirement to change tournament names along with the rules.

The Australian Championships’ name change came a year later because the Grand Slams agreed on the rule change after the 1968 event.

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.

Male

  • Rod Laver
  • Ken Rosewall
  • Pancho Gonzales
  • Roy Emerson
  • John Newcomb
  • Tony Roche
  • Cliff Drysdale

Female

  • 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.

Start of the Open Era

In early 1968, the four Grand Slam tournaments, including the US Open, French Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon, agreed to allow professionals to compete alongside amateurs, initiating the Open Era.

This juncture in tennis history is significant because it marked a defining moment when it was more broadly acceptable for tennis players to earn a living doing what they loved.

Furthermore, it brought the world’s most talented players from around the world, amateurs, and professionals, back together to compete, a massive step toward the modernization of the sport.

In April 1968, the first Open Era tournament was the British Hard Court Championships. It took place in England in April. Shortly after, in May, the first French Open signaled the first Open Era Grand Slam tournament. Both tournaments were won by Ken Rosewall, who had transitioned from amateur to professional in 1957.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition as the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ITLF), who organized the Grand Slam events, and the promoters who ran the prominent National Tennis League (NTL) and World Championships Tennis (WCT) were often at odds.

After the Open Era

Although the Open Era represents a significant moment for tennis, the change didn’t come without challenges.

Men and the ATP’s Formation

Competition and rivalries between the ITFL, NTL, and WCT reached a boiling point in the early 1970s. As a result, a group of players formed the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to insulate themselves from the various organizations responsible for competitive tennis.

By doing so, ATP players could jointly assert influence through boycotts and similar actions, thus protecting player interests. The ATP also developed and managed player rankings and eventually established the ATP Tour, a series of tournaments throughout a calendar year.

Today, the ATP remains, but players have challenged its efficacy. In 2019, Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil formed the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) to better serve all professional tennis players.

Women and the WTA’s Formation

After the Open Era began, women continued to take a back seat to men in pay and exposure for playing tennis. One noteworthy example is when Jack Kramer, the promoter for the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles, only offered women $7,500 in prize money. The sum was a mere 15% of the total $50,000 purse he was offering men.

In response, the publisher of World Tennis magazine, Gladys Heldman, partnered with eight female tennis players to form an entirely separate women’s tennis tour. Dubbed the ‘Original Nine,’ these women signed $1 contracts to play in a tournament in Houston, Texas.

Here’s a list of the women who signed to the tour:

  • Valerie Ziegenfuss
  • Billie Jean King
  • Nancy Richey
  • Peaches Bartkowicz
  • Judy Dalton
  • Kerry Melville
  • Rosie Casals
  • Kristy Pigeon
  • Julie Heldman

Criticized from the beginning, these women pushed forward with Gladys Heldman and Billie Jean King at the forefront, eventually garnering the financial backing from Heldman’s friend Joe Cullman III, then Philip Morris CEO, to launch the Virginia Slims circuit.

It was far from easy at the start, but these women hustled, promoted, and played their way to success.

Not long after, in 1973, Billie Jean King organized a meeting in London to form the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which has fought consistently since its inception for equality in tennis. Although things today are still far from perfect, the WTA has made massive strides.

ATP & WTA Collaboration

The ATP and WTA are two separate organizations that operate independently. However, in recent years they have begun collaborating strategically for the health and growth of the sport.

By doing so, they further exert their influence as a whole, rather than doing so single-handedly. Examples of this collaboration have come in the form of rule changes, anti-doping, joint statements on significant issues, and a unified app experience for fans.

As it stands, these organizations will likely remain separate for the foreseeable future. However, a growing call for simplifying the sport’s highly fragmented governance structure will undoubtedly keep the conversation at the forefront.

Open Era Records

These days, you’ll often hear records or significant events in tennis paired or prefaced with the phrase, Open Era, and for a good reason.

Tennis fundamentally shifted in 1968 and quickly matured in the years that followed. As a result, player accomplishments during the Open Era are viewed by the tennis community through a different lens.

Doing so is not intended to diminish the records or achievements of players or results before the Open Era. Instead, it helps distinguish them and, to a degree, helps make comparisons easier.

With that in mind, let’s look at some noteworthy Open Era records that many fans and players track closely.

Matches Won

A list of the top ten players with the most singles match wins.

MatchesPlayerCountry
1,274Jimmy ConnorsUnited States
1,251Roger FedererSwitzerland
1,068Ivan LendlCzechoslovakia
1,048Rafael NadalSpain
994Novak DjokovicSerbia
951Guillermo VilasArgentina
908Ilie NastaseRomania
883John McEnroeUnited States
870Andre AgassiUnited States
801Stefan EdbergSweden

Female

MatchesPlayerCountry
1,631Martina NavratilovaCzechoslovakia
1,370Chris EvertUnited States
1,065Steffi GrafGermany
1,062Serena WilliamsUnited States
1,057Venus WilliamsUnited States
1,017Virginia WadeGreat Britain
995Arantxa SanchezSpain
994Lindsay DavenportUnited States
940Conchita MartinezSpain
931Evonne GoolagongEvonne Goolagong

Titles

A list of the top 10 players with the most singles titles.

TitlesPlayerCountry
109Jimmy ConnorsUnited States
103Roger FedererSwitzerland
94Ivan LendlCzechoslovakia
91Rafael NadalSpain
86Novak DjokovicSerbia
77John McEnroeUnited States
72Rod LaverAustralia
66Bjorn BorgSweden
64Ilie NastaseRomania
64Pete SamprasUnited States

Female

TitlesPlayerCountry
167Martina NavratilovaCzechoslovakia
157Chris EvertUnited States
107Steffi GrafGermany
92Margaret CourtAustralia
73Serena WilliamsUnited States
68Evonne GoolagongAustralia
67Billie Jean KingUnited States
55Virginia WadeGreat Britain
55Lindsay DavenportUnited States
53Monica SelesUnited States

Grand Slams

A list of the top 10 players who have won the most singles Grand Slam titles.

Grand SlamsPlayerCountry
21Rafel NadalSpain
20Roger FedererSwitzerland
20Novak DjokovicSerbia
14Pete SamprasUnited States
11Bjorn BorgSweden
8Jimmy ConnorsUnited States
8Ivan LendlCzechoslovakia
8Andre AgassiUnited States
7John McEnroeUnited States
7Mats WilanderSweden

Female

Grand SlamsPlayerCountry
23Serena WilliamsUnited States
22Steffi GrafGermany
18Chris EvertUnited States
18Martina NavratilovaUnited States
11Margaret CourtAustralia
9Monica SelesUnited States
8Billie Jean KingUnited States
7Evonne GoolagongAustralia
7Justine HeninBelgium
7Venus WilliamsUnited States

Grand Slam

Players who have won all four Grand Slam tournaments in singles during a calendar year.

First & Last TournamentsPlayerCountry
1969 Australian Open – 1969 US OpenRod LaverAustralia

Female

First & Last TournamentsPlayerCountry
1970 Australian Open – 1970 US OpenMargaret CourtAustralia
1988 Australian Open – 1988 US OpenSteffi GrafGermany

Non-Calendar Year Grand Slam

Players who have won all four Grand Slam tournaments in singles consecutively, but not in a calendar year.

First & Last TournamentsPlayerCountry
2015 Wimbledon – 2016 French OpenNovak DjokovicSerbia

Female

First & Last TournamentsPlayerCountry
1983 Wimbledon – 1984 French OpenMartina NavratilovaUnited States
1993 French Open – 1994 Australian OpenSteffi GrafGermany
2002 French Open – 2003 Australian OpenSerena WilliamsUnited States
2014 US Open – 2015 WimbledonSerena WilliamsUnited States

Career Grand Slam

Players who have won all four Grand Slam tournaments in singles at least once.

Event CompletedPlayerCountry
1969 US OpenRod LaverAustralia
1999 French OpenAndre AgassiUnited States
2009 French OpenRoger FedererSwitzerland
2010 US OpenRafael NadalSpain
2016 French OpenNovak DjokovicSerbia
2021 French OpenNovak DjokovicSerbia
2022 Australian OpenRafael NadalSpain

Female

Event CompletedPlayerCountry
1970 WimbledonMargaret CourtAustralia
1972 French OpenBillie Jean KingUnited States
1982 Australian OpenChris EvertUnited States
1983 US OpenMartina NavratilovaUnited States
1984 US OpenMartina NavratilovaUnited States
1984 Australian OpenChris EvertUnited States
1988 US OpenSteffi GrafGermany
1989 US OpenSteffi GrafGermany
1993 US OpenSteffi GrafGermany
1995 US OpenSteffi GrafGermany
2003 Australian OpenSerena WilliamsUnited States
2012 French OpenMaria SharapovaRussia
2013 French OpenSerena WilliamsUnited States
2015 French OpenSerena WilliamsUnited States

Wrapping Up

If you’re a tennis fan, gaining at least a high-level understanding of the Open Era and its meaning to the sport can be eye-opening.

Doing so often helps those who follow and play the game gain a deeper appreciation for the sport while developing a better understanding of why professional tennis is organized as it is today.

Hopefully, you’ve found this article helpful in better understanding the Open Era’s significance. If you have any questions about the material I’ve covered, please don’t hesitate to comment below.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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