Twenty five years ago a passionate Welshman called Herman David was the unlikely revolutionary; unlikely not because of his courage and vision, but because he was a pillar of the establishment. David was chairman of the All England Club. But here was a chairman who cared more for the game and the world's greatest lawn tennis championships than for all the outmoded ideals that had prevented professional tennis players from playing with amateurs.
Eight years before, in 1960, when the question of whether to open up the great citadels of the game to all categories of player had been discussed at a meeting of the International Tennis Federation in Paris, a mixture of stupidity and farce had caused a 'Yes' vote to fail by three - one delegate fell asleep, one was in the toilet and one was absent arranging the evening's entertainment. As a result, Pancho Gonzales and Ken Rosewall were denied the opportunity to win Wimbledon, something they would have been well capable of between 1961 and 1968.
'We were so close,' Tony Trabert recalled at the French Open last month. 'But after that everything slid backwards and we were in the dark ages again.' For Trabert, Wimbledon champion of 1955 who had been running Jack Kramer's famous pro tour from Paris, the dark ages meant playing in second-rate arenas in front of small crowds. By by the time the Texas millionaire Lamar Hunt had signed up a newer crop of players like John Newcombe and Dennis Ralston to pro contracts in 1967, the situation was becoming unten
able. Herman David realised this and acted.
In a statement that shook the amateur establishment to its foundations, David announced that Wimbledon 1968 would be open to all category of player with playing ability the sole criterion. It said much for the stature of Wimbledon that the ITF knew it dare not outlaw the championships. Kicking and screaming, the old reactionaries fell into line before staging one last attempt to maintain their unjustified hold over professional athletes.
In 1973, nine months after the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the Yugoslav Federation suspended Nikki Pilic for allegedly refusing to play in the Davis Cup. The ITF backed Belgrade and banned Pilic from Wimbledon. To a lot of people's astonishment, the players rose as one and threatened to boycott the tournament they wanted to play more than any other.
Suddenly and tragically, Herman David found himself on the other side of the fence. The ITF had chosen Wimbledon as the battleground because they were convinced that the players would buckle. They were wrong. Even though Stan Smith was desperate to retain his crown and Newcombe to regain it, both remained solid in support of a cause that the press tried to dub as money driven. It was not. It was about professionals trying to rid themselves of the shackles of anachronistic rules laid down by amateur officials desperate to retain control. Maybe some of today's track and field stars will recognise the syndrome.
In the end 90 ATP members out of 93 joined the boycott and the sporting world was stunned. But the revolution started by David had taken its second logical turn and the game was propelled into an era of popularity and riches that few could have foreseen. The creation of the ATP Tour, totally independent from the ITF, in 1990 was the third and possibly final act in this revolutionary saga that all began in that leafy, sleepy suburb called Wimbledon.
Richard Evans is the author of 'Open Tennis', published earlier this month by Bloomsbury, price 18.95 poundsReuse content