- Historic Sites
The Tennis Racket
How a Courtly Game Became Big Business
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The gifted Australian tennis champion, Mervyn Rose, was not much in favor of vigorous training regimens, but he did once admit that during the 1950’s he enjoyed running along the bridle paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. In addition to helping him to get in shape for the French title matches, the exercise provided Rose with a rare opportunity actually to earn some money from his chosen sport.
“We found there was plenty of small change lying about on the riding tracks where we used to run,” Rose recalled. “Apparently it used to get jolted out of pockets when people were galloping on horseback. We used to spend a lot of time picking up money.’
If ever there was a symbol for the manner in which lawn tennis was conducted for the first one hundred years of its existence, it would be a world-class player picking through road apples looking for a few centimes. But that was the way of tennis. The game’s principal matches may have been played in the most fashionable settings imaginable and have attracted athletes who were the equal of any in sport. But, in general, tennis was supported almost entirely from the loose change of a few rich people, who, as often as not, had their minds on something else.
Conceived as a recreation for ladies and gentlemen, lawn tennis first made its appearance in England in 1874, at a time when it was considered vulgar to talk about money and, indeed, when it was considered bad form to be seen working very hard in order to earn any. Money was something your parents left you when they died. More than any other major sport, tennis was a Utopian endeavor in which thoughts of material gain were to be perpetually banished. In 1910 one tournament player was almost suspended when it was discovered he had turned in his prize vouchers to get something to eat. Bill Tilden, by common consent the greatest player until the present day, had almost a horror of making money out of the game. “I will have nothing to do with professional tennis,” he said in 1927. “I hope everybody knows me better than that.” Later, in 1931, at the age of thirty-eight and with his best playing days behind him, Tilden did retire into professionalism, which in six years of exhibition matches brought him more than $500,000. It was a not insignificant sum in the 1930’s, but insufficient for Tilden’s profligate ways. When he died in 1953, America’s finest tennis player left an estate that consisted of a collection of silver cups, $142.11 in cash, and a $6.00 refund due him from the Automobile Club of America. Jack Kramer, whose big-serve-and-volley style ushered in the post-World War II power game, was the first major player-promoter in American tennis. He turned professional in 1947 and went on a barnstorming tour playing against Bobby Riggs. Kramer earned $89,000 during the tour, but they were difficult, wearying dollars. There was no professional tournament circuit then. The Kramer-Riggs troupe, accompanied by Pancho Segura and Dinny Pails, would set up a portable indoor tennis court in whatever exhibition hall would have them, put on an evening of tennis, and then pack their equipment into a pair of station wagons and drive through the night to another town a few hundred miles away and start all over again. Although Kramer profited from the tour, there was little left over for anyone else. Riggs’s take was half Kramer’s, and Segura and Pails, who were then among the top ten players in the world, labored for $300 a week, out of which they had to pay their own expenses.