When the players began to call shots

John Roberts, in Key Biscayne for one of the richest tennis tournaments of the year, looks back on the dawn of professionalism and the 30th anniversary of prize money
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The Independent Online
WISE men traditionally arrive in threes, but don't count on it. There was the case of the three International Tennis Federation delegates in Paris in 1960 who expressed support for Wimbledon's proposal of open tennis and only had to raise their hands to advance its birth by eight years. When it came to the vote, however, one was in the toilet, one had fallen asleep and the third was arranging the evening's dinner entertainment.

As the sport marks the 30th anniversary of prize-money on the table, rather than under it, eradicating the "living lie" of the amateur game, the "Absent Three" are remembered along with the "Handsome Eight", with whom your correspondent had the pleasure of taking breakfast yesterday at the Lipton Championships here.

"Handsome" might have suited the promoters' billboards but was by no means the only appellation given to the group when they played back in the late 1960s. Opponents of open tennis would refer to them, in polite circles, as the "terrible professionals".

"Big Bill" Edwards, the president of the Australian Lawn Tennis Association, considered that open tennis would be "suicidal". So, in January 1968, as preparations for the Australian championships were being completed for the amateurs in Melbourne, John Newcombe, the reigning Wimbledon champion, alternatively made his professional debut in the Sydney suburb of Epping.

With Newcombe was Tony Roche, his doubles partner in the triumphant Australian Davis Cup team. The pair had joined the "Handsome Eight", managed by an American promoter, Dave Dixon, and appeared in coloured outfits for matches in which they played against the clock and were able to bet on points. Roche joked that in handsomeness he ranked 15th among the eight.

Britain's Roger Taylor, and another Wimbledon semi-finalist, the Yugoslav Niki Pilic, were also recruited along with the South African Cliff Drysdale and three established professionals, Pierre Barthes, of France, and the Americans Butch Buchholz (the founder of the Lipton Championships in 1985 with his brother, Cliff) and Dennis Ralston.

The preliminary event in Sydney was followed by a trip down to the stockyards of Kansas City in the snow of early February. The tournament was covered by two British journalists, Richard Evans and David Gray. Evans, in his excellent book, Open Tennis, writes that, "David and I were left to work out how best to explain to our readers back in England why their beautiful game was being played on a synthetic court laid on ice in an arena so near the slaughterhouses that the smell of cattle troubled the nostrils.

"The manner in which the game was being played was even more troubling for the purists. An abomination of a scoring system, devised by that restless New England aristocrat Jimmy Van Alen, had the players fighting over two sets of ping-pong scoring (the first to 31 points) and, if the sets were split, deciding the match with a nine-point tie-break.''

Although Dave Dixon left the tennis scene almost as quickly as he had arrived, his professional circuit, World Championship Tennis, was developed by Lamar Hunt, a Texas oil millionaire, and became a feature of the sport for the next 20 years. Primitive though some of its early settings were, the quality of the players was first class.

During the death throes of the amateur game at the 1968 Australian championships, a photograph in the Melbourne Herald showed Bill Bowrey, who was to win the men's singles title, and his fiancee, Lesley Turner, a semi-finalist in the women's singles, watching a match in the Kooyong stadium. Not another spectator was to be seen. The total attendance for the fortnight was only 7,000.

By swelling the professional ranks, which already numbered Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, the "Handsome Eight" strengthened the All England Club's resolve to open its courts to professionals and amateurs alike in 1968, whether the three other Grand Slam championships followed suit or not.

In March 1968, the International Tennis Federation capitulated. A month later Mark Cox, a Cambridge Blue, caused a sensation by defeating Pancho Gonzales in the second round of the first open tournament, the British Hard Court Championships, in Bournemouth. Cox went on to beat Emerson in the third round before losing to Laver.

"These fellows are under a lot of pressure this week," Cox said at the time. "It's as if they've got weights round their legs. They are frightened to lose and are therefore not doing themselves justice.''

Did the sport do itself justice? In retrospect, Cox said, "The greatest advantage, quite clearly, is that open tennis has spread the game internationally in the most complete sense. It is also far more competitive. Open tennis legitimised the game, cleaned it up, if you like. Expenses that were being paid were put into prize- money." On that historic occasion in Bournemouth, when a total of pounds 5,490 was on offer, Cox elected to play for expenses only.

The tournament was won by Rosewall, who went on to triumph at the French Open, the first professional Grand Slam championships. Laver cashed in at Wimbledon (pounds 2,000 went a lot farther in 1968) and Billie Jean King received pounds 750 for winning the women's singles title. In July last year, Pete Sampras was paid pounds 415,000 and the 16-year-old Martina Hingis pounds 373,500.

Those who broke bread together in Florida yesterday in the hospitality village at one of the sport's choice venues marvelled at the growth of the game while not forgetting the political problems along the way.

Pilic was the central figure in a controversy that led to a Wimbledon boycott by the men's Association of Tennis Professionals in 1973. That was in response to the International Tennis Federation's rejection of Pilic's appeal against a nine-months' suspension imposed on him by Yugoslavia for failing to play in their Davis Cup match against New Zealand in Zagreb.

"That was only one of the reasons," Pilic recounted. "There was a struggle between the ATP and the ITF. At that particular time, the ATP were getting a really bad deal. They were not in any way able to have a say in deciding their future.''

Even though an emergency committee reduced Pilic's suspension to one month, the ATP carried out its threat of a boycott when Wimbledon refused to allow Pilic to compete. With nearly 80 players absent (Roger Taylor and Ilie Nastase, who were among those who played, were later fined pounds 2,000 by the ATP) the men's singles title was won by the Czech Jan Kodes. Although few names in the draw were familiar to the public, the championships still attracted massive support. "I was sorry for Wimbledon," Pilic said, "but I think I played a part in getting a much better life for tennis players.''

Nobody achieved more for the players than Herman David, a determined advocate of open tennis during his 15 years as chairman of the All England Club, from 1959 to 1974, the year he died.

A former Davis Cup player alongside Fred Perry, David presented a professional exhibition event on Wimbledon's lawns in 1967 and declared that the championships would be open to professionals the following year.

David, the "Steadfast One", has been posthumously elected for enshrinement at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, Rhode Island, on Saturday 11 July.