- Historic Sites
The Tennis Racket
How a Courtly Game Became Big Business
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
By the late 1960’s shamateurism was a system primed for self-destruction. Tennis could no longer go on divided between amateur and professional. The professionals needed the major tournaments as showcases in which to display their enormous skills, and the tournaments needed the world’s best players to fill the stands. The situation was resolved with dramatic suddenness. In December, 1967, Wimbledon announced it would no longer distinguish between amateur and professional entrants. The International Lawn Tennis Federation threatened to banish any amateurs who played Wimbledon, but when the USLTA supported the English decision and said it would bolt from the International if necessary on the issue, the ILTF caved in and the following March voted to accept open tennis tournaments without a dissenting vote. The box office soon confirmed their wisdom. The first open tournament was held in Bournemouth, England, and gate receipts tripled from the year before. The 1968 U.S. Open drew 97,294 fans, an increase of more than 30,000 from 1967.
The great tennis boom was under way. At the time, no one realized how extensive it would become, but we can see now that the major elements were in place, waiting for the catalyst of open competition. The cutting edge was the reappearance of major professionals in the traditionally amateur tournaments. Television, with its increasingly voracious appetite for sporting events, was on hand to capture them, and a particularly felicitous group they turned out to be. Australians were the dominant force in international men’s tennis at the time, and “effete” was the last word anyone would have applied to them. Tony Roche had the look of an ironmonger, and Rod Laver resembled the sort of affable fellow you might see working the beer pulls at the local pub. Americans were delighted when Arthur Ashe, a hard-hitting black from Richmond, Virginia, won the 1968 U.S. Open. To affirm the old tradition, Ashe, serving in the Army as a lieutenant, was technically still an amateur. Thus he became the first, and is likely also to have been the last, amateur to win the U.S. Open.
The match which finally and irrevocably turned tennis into a big-time American sport was not a match at all really but a show-biz stunt: the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs set-to in the Houston Astrodome in September, 1973. Four months before, Riggs, a notorious sports hustler, had suckered Margaret Court Smith into a television match, and junk-balled her off the court, 6–2, 6–1. Now Billie Jean was coming back to exact a woman’s terrible revenge. She arrived for the match in a gold litter, held aloft by four muscular track and field athletes from Rice University, and Riggs showed up in a rickshaw pulled by six models known as “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” It was not a particularly hightoned affair. As a sporting event—Billie Jean wasted Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3—it had no more meaning than if Raquel Welch had beaten John Kenneth Galbraith playing one-on-one, but everyone got a kick out of it, and for a few days a single tennis match got the kind of saturation media coerage usually reserved for A major prize fights. Jimmy Connors feels that the Riggs-King stunt was “the biggest thing that ever happened to tennis. Riggs got the mainstream rolling and I was fortunate to follow him. … But Riggs started it off.”
Tennis was well established as a spectator sport, but then it took off as a participant sport as well. The USLTA initially may have stumbled slightly in its handling of the growth of professional tennis, but the ground work it did in developing a grass-roots amateur tennis program has been conducted with uncommon skill. Programs were developed to bring the word of tennis as a recreational sport and as a physical-conditioning system for adults. A new constituency for tennis emerged, and from 1973 to 1976 the number of Americans who played jumped 45 per cent. The game that used to rank somewhere near archery as a non-country-club activity is now the eighth most popular sport in America, with more than 32,000,000 players, according to a 1979 A. C. Nielsen survey. Swimming, bicycling, camping, and fishing are the most popular activities, but these may not be considered truly sports. As a game, where someone keeps score, tennis is second only to bowling. Baseball, the national pastime, ranks nineteenth.
Even the people closest to the game find it difficult to keep track of the extent of the current tennis explosion in America. Eve Kraft is head of the Education and Research Center for the USTA (the L for “Lawn” has been dropped as the use of grass as a competition surface receded into memory) and remembers that twenty years ago there were only two tennis camps in America. Today her office lists more than two hundred. They range from informal programs at traditional summer camps to such impressive establishments as the Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where, between September and June, some one hundred of the most promising junior players in America leave the courts only to attend classes at local schools.