- Historic Sites
The Tennis Racket
How a Courtly Game Became Big Business
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The million-dollar tennis tournaments of today were still fifty years off, but it was Lenglen and Tilden who moved tennis from the society page to the sports section and eventually to the front page. Yet Tilden’s ascendancy also had a deleterious effect on the popularity of the game, which tennis authorities had with quiet desperation been hoping to avoid. After his retirement from active tournament play, Tilden was twice arrested and convicted of sex crimes involving boys, and he served time for both offenses. Tennis, which always had to contend with the image of being socially remote from the general public, was fixed in the minds of some spectators as a sissy sport as well.
Just as recently as twenty years ago, professional tennis could make little impression on the American sporting public. When they went to see tennis at all, it was to attend the major amateur events, such as the Newport Invitational and the championship matches at Forest Hills. In 1957 Mal Andersen beat Ashley Cooper at Forest Hills before a good crowd with the usual attendant coverage from newspapers and television. Hoping to cash in on the tennis interest being generated at the time, a troupe of professionals held a round-robin tournament a few weeks earlier. The tournament featured Pancho Gonzales, Frank Sedgman, Bill Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, and Pancho Segura. These men were demonstrably the best tennis players in the world at the time, and yet the tournament was a flop which lost money, playing to empty seats. Today, when a major tournament featuring Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Roscoe Tanner could fill the Rose Bowl, it is perhaps difficult to understand the public’s reluctance to show. The problem, essentially, was that the professional tennis players never played for anything except money. Professionals were banned from all amateur tournaments, and there never was a large supply of top-ranked professionals who were sufficiently well organized to establish their own meaningful tournaments. Their counterparts in professional golf shared an American tradition reaching back to 1895. Walter Hagen could reap headlines and a generous income from winning the British Open, the U.S. Open, the P.G. A., and dozens of lesser tournaments along the way. But the finest professional tennis player of the 1950’s could not be the champion of anything. All he could do was travel from one town to the next, staging exhibition matches. There was considerable suspicion that those matches were just that; exhibitions of no more significance than a wrestling card at a local fight arena. Although there is no evidence that any important matches were actually fixed, there was some justification for suspicion. The percentage each player was to receive was generally established by contract before the beginning of the season. While compiling a winning season might be useful in negotiating the following year’s arrangements, it was of little immediate importance. And there were times when “entertainment” values superseded considerations of competitive sport. After “Gorgeous Gussie” Moran made a splash at Wimbledon wearing lace panties under her tennis dress in 1951, she was immediately signed to join the Riggs-Kramer tour with a guarantee of $35,000 and a percentage of the gate. Pauline Betz, a former U.S. and Wimbledon champion, was brought out of a three-year retirement and paid a regular salary to play straight woman to Gorgeous Gussie. Unfortunately, Miss Betz was still a crackerjack player, and although she was under instructions from Riggs to “keep it close,” she gave a nightly thrashing to Miss Moran in a series of lopsided matches no one’s panties could have made interesting.
Up until the 1960’s, the United States Lawn Tennis Association had done a remarkably effective job of stemming the tide of professionalism by employing a particularly heavy-handed version of the carrot-and-stick approach to amateur tennis. The stick was a swift and arbitrary way of dealing with amateurs who might be straying from virtue’s thorny path. In 1947 Miss Betz, the strongest woman player of the immediate postwar period, was summarily dismissed from amateur tennis and banned from all tournament play when the USLTA heard she was even discussing the possibility of turning professional. The carrot was a practice known in tennis as “shamateurism,” the practice of paying amateurs under the table. The system was an old one, and Suzanne Lenglen was one of its earliest and most effective practitioners. Her system was to have a tournament promoter “bet” her a thousand pounds she would not show up. Suzanne would arrive for the tournament, pocket the wager, and go out and play. “Betting” became a popular method of paying amateurs. Sometimes the procedures were no more complicated than a player betting a promoter he could jump over his tennis racquet. Often the amateurs were rated much like the professionals and paid accordingly, with cash-filled envelopes left in their lockers marked “Expenses. ” The USLTA turned a blind eye to all of this. But the system became such an accepted procedure that in 1965, The New fork Times ran an article on Australia’s Roy Emerson, identifying him as the “best paid amateur” in tennis. The article, which pointed out that Emerson was living so nicely as an amateur that he turned down a professional contract of $85,000, caused hardly a stir. Everybody in tennis already knew about it.