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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.

Matches Player Country
1,274 Jimmy Connors United States
1,251 Roger Federer Switzerland
1,068 Ivan Lendl Czechoslovakia
1,048 Rafael Nadal Spain
994 Novak Djokovic Serbia
951 Guillermo Vilas Argentina
908 Ilie Nastase Romania
883 John McEnroe United States
870 Andre Agassi United States
801 Stefan Edberg Sweden

Female

Matches Player Country
1,631 Martina Navratilova Czechoslovakia
1,370 Chris Evert United States
1,065 Steffi Graf Germany
1,062 Serena Williams United States
1,057 Venus Williams United States
1,017 Virginia Wade Great Britain
995 Arantxa Sanchez Spain
994 Lindsay Davenport United States
940 Conchita Martinez Spain
931 Evonne Goolagong Evonne Goolagong

Titles

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

Titles Player Country
109 Jimmy Connors United States
103 Roger Federer Switzerland
94 Ivan Lendl Czechoslovakia
91 Rafael Nadal Spain
86 Novak Djokovic Serbia
77 John McEnroe United States
72 Rod Laver Australia
66 Bjorn Borg Sweden
64 Ilie Nastase Romania
64 Pete Sampras United States

Female

Titles Player Country
167 Martina Navratilova Czechoslovakia
157 Chris Evert United States
107 Steffi Graf Germany
92 Margaret Court Australia
73 Serena Williams United States
68 Evonne Goolagong Australia
67 Billie Jean King United States
55 Virginia Wade Great Britain
55 Lindsay Davenport United States
53 Monica Seles United States

Grand Slams

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

Grand Slams Player Country
21 Rafel Nadal Spain
20 Roger Federer Switzerland
20 Novak Djokovic Serbia
14 Pete Sampras United States
11 Bjorn Borg Sweden
8 Jimmy Connors United States
8 Ivan Lendl Czechoslovakia
8 Andre Agassi United States
7 John McEnroe United States
7 Mats Wilander Sweden

Female

Grand Slams Player Country
23 Serena Williams United States
22 Steffi Graf Germany
18 Chris Evert United States
18 Martina Navratilova United States
11 Margaret Court Australia
9 Monica Seles United States
8 Billie Jean King United States
7 Evonne Goolagong Australia
7 Justine Henin Belgium
7 Venus Williams United States

Grand Slam

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

First & Last Tournaments Player Country
1969 Australian Open – 1969 US Open Rod Laver Australia

Female

First & Last Tournaments Player Country
1970 Australian Open – 1970 US Open Margaret Court Australia
1988 Australian Open – 1988 US Open Steffi Graf Germany

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 Tournaments Player Country
2015 Wimbledon – 2016 French Open Novak Djokovic Serbia

Female

First & Last Tournaments Player Country
1983 Wimbledon – 1984 French Open Martina Navratilova United States
1993 French Open – 1994 Australian Open Steffi Graf Germany
2002 French Open – 2003 Australian Open Serena Williams United States
2014 US Open – 2015 Wimbledon Serena Williams United States

Career Grand Slam

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

Event Completed Player Country
1969 US Open Rod Laver Australia
1999 French Open Andre Agassi United States
2009 French Open Roger Federer Switzerland
2010 US Open Rafael Nadal Spain
2016 French Open Novak Djokovic Serbia
2021 French Open Novak Djokovic Serbia
2022 Australian Open Rafael Nadal Spain

Female

Event Completed Player Country
1970 Wimbledon Margaret Court Australia
1972 French Open Billie Jean King United States
1982 Australian Open Chris Evert United States
1983 US Open Martina Navratilova United States
1984 US Open Martina Navratilova United States
1984 Australian Open Chris Evert United States
1988 US Open Steffi Graf Germany
1989 US Open Steffi Graf Germany
1993 US Open Steffi Graf Germany
1995 US Open Steffi Graf Germany
2003 Australian Open Serena Williams United States
2012 French Open Maria Sharapova Russia
2013 French Open Serena Williams United States
2015 French Open Serena Williams United 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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