- 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.
All of this, however, was before 1968, a year that tennis fans fix in their memories the way schoolchildren master 1492. In that year, the old division between amateur and professional tennis was finally breached when Wimbledon permitted the first open tournament since its inception in 1877. Quite suddenly, tennis cast off its old elitist image and blossomed into a major spectator and participant sport. In the thirteen years since, tennis has become a booming sports industry that has created a whole new class of millionaires in its affluent wake. Consider, for a moment, the game’s reigning king, Bjorn Borg. A slim, twenty-five-year-old Swede, Borg is one of the richest men in the history of sport. Last year a major tennis magazine made a run at trying to estimate Borg’s tennis earnings. Exact financial figures for a young man who has moved to Monaco to escape the Draconian tax structure of his native land are not easy to come by, but the publication’s investigation into Borg’s income for 1979 may prove instructional. Borg won a neat $1,000,000 in tournament purse money, and another $500,000 playing in exhibition matches outside the regular professional tour. He was paid $1,000,000 for allowing himself to be billed as the “resident professional” at the Puente Romano Tennis Club in Marbella, Spain, and actually did play there for a few weeks. He earned another $200,000 as the “touring professional” for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Product endorsements make up a large part of a tennis star’s income, and Borg received $1,000,000 for playing with a Donnay racquet; $400,000 for wearing FiIa tennis clothes; and $200,000 for wearing Diadora tennis shoes. Endorsements for approximately fifty more goods and services earned him another $1,000,000. Borg was also able to make a good thing out of his marriage to Mariana Simionescu that year: he sold the exclusive rights to his wedding pictures for $125,000. The total comes to $5,425,000. It has been estimated that since then, Borg’s annual income may have doubled. Very little of this was eaten up with expenses such as those incurred by a heavyweight boxer who gives his manager some 30 per cent of his earnings and has to pay the enormous costs of training as well as supporting the retinue which inevitably follows a champion. In fact, Borg gets a few perks. He flies free on SAS Airlines, and there is always a complimentary Saab or two waiting for him at the airport.
The start of the journey tennis has made is lost in the mists of social history. References to a game somewhat like it are found in Homer, and some historians have traced the origins of the game as far back as the Persian Empire in 500 B.C. In any event, by the twelfth century, French ecclesiastical students had codified a much-enjoyed ball game designed to be played within the confines of a monastery courtyard. There were no racquets then, and the sphere was struck much as it is in handball today. The game was known as jeu de paume (“the game of the palm”) and is still called so in France today. As the monarchy moved in on the political prerogatives of the church, so did it expropriate their game. Tennis became a royal sport during the brief reign of Louis X. Louis, who well deserved his sobriquet of “The Quarrelsome,” died in 1316, according to legend, of a chill brought on by drinking cold water following a particularly spirited match. Although tennis was popular in most of the royal houses of Europe, it was a special favorite of the English kings. Henry V was a keen player, although he and other British monarchs forbade common people from engaging in the sport when it was discovered they were abandoning archery practice for tennis. Henry VIII cut a fine figure on the court, and was quite vain about his appearance. The Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustiniani, reported to his home office in 1519 that “it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture.”
The game that Henry VIII played with such zest lives on today as court tennis and is the progenitor of all our modern-day racquet games. The introduction of lawn tennis required a technological breakthrough and the touch of a Madison Avenue merchandiser. The breakthrough was the development of a simple rubber ball that replaced the wad of cloth used in court tennis and could bounce neatly on as soft a surface as grass. The merchandiser was one Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who could and did trace his lineage to an ancient English family that predated the arrival of William the Conqueror. The major cobbled together a new game from several existing ones.
Essentially his invention was to hit a handball with a tennis racquet over a badminton net. He gave his new creation the unwieldy name of “Sphairistiké” after an ancient Greek game with a similar title, and in 1874 he secured a patent for the manufacture and sale of Sphairistiké equipment to the gentry for their rustic amusement at five guineas per set. The following year Wingfield proudly announced his game had been purchased by no fewer than eleven princes and princesses, seven dukes, fourteen marquises, three marchionesses, fifty-four earls, six countesses, one hundred and five viscounts, forty-one barons, forty-four ladies, forty-four honourables, five right honourables, and fifty-five assorted baronets and knights. The major’s creation did not turn out to be quite the financial bonanza he was looking for. His patent only held for three years, and besides, players soon realized it was not necessary to give the major a royalty just for erecting a net on a piece of greensward and bouncing a ball over it. But the outlines of lawn tennis as we know it today had been laid out. The game quickly made its way to America. Sometime in 1874 Mary Ewing Outerbridge saw a match being played at the British garrison in Bermuda and brought home a set to be erected on the grounds of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. The British import caused some confusion at first. A court was established the same year at the home of William Appleton in Nahant, outside of Boston, and neighbors, seeing a match in progress, thought they were watching cricket. But Americans soon got the game sorted out, and just a century ago, in 1881, the first national championship was held on the manicured grounds of the Newport Casino.
For the next forty years, lawn tennis existed in the rarefied atmosphere of club sport. It was rattling good exercise for gentlemen and a pleasant outdoor diversion for ladies.
The quiescence of tennis was dramatically shattered in the years immediately following the Great War by the force of the personalities of two of the greatest figures in the history of the game.
Almost every still photograph of Suzanne K. Lenglen shows her to have been a women of surpassing ugliness. Almost every written contemporary account, however, rhapsodizes about her Gallic charm, her physical radiance, her ballerina-like grace. The apparent confusion may say something about the ability of some women to will themselves to be beautiful, but about Lenglen’s brilliance on the tennis court there is no question. She is routinely ranked with America’s Helen Wills Moody as one of the two finest women tennis players in history. Lenglen was the supreme shot maker. She learned the art of placement from her martinet father who laid out handkerchiefs on a court for her to aim at.
Lenglen burst upon the international scene at Wimbledon in 1919, a vivacious twenty-year-old from France who had never seen a grass court before. Nonetheless, she stormed through the tournament draw and routed the defending champion, Mrs. Lambert Chambers, 10–8, 4–6, 9–7, in a match that is still considered one of the epic contests in women’s tennis. Playing in a Parisian frock fetchingly cut below the knee, Lenglen was a sensation and made center court at Wimbledon her personal property. People who had never seen a world-class tennis match before jammed into the grandstands to watch the Incomparable Suzanne perform, and she rewarded them with a display of extended tennis perfection never known before. She won the Wimbledon title for the next four consecutive years, never losing a set in the finals, and only once losing as many as three games in any set. She withdrew from the 1924 competition but returned in 1925 to triumph once more, losing only five games in all five matches. A stormy and tempestuous performer, Miss Lenglen walked out of the 1926 Wimbledon tournament over a misunderstanding about her starting time and quit amateur tennis forever. She signed on with American sports promoter C. C. (“Cash and Carry”) Pyle, who had figured ways to make money out of everything from a six-day bicycle race to the then fledgling game of professional football. The details of the tour are sketchy, but apparently it was financially rewarding to Miss Lenglen. More important, the American sporting public got their first long look at a tennis star who could be recognized beyond the narrow confines of the current tennis world.
With the possible exception of John L. Sullivan in the late nineteeth century, no athlete had ever ruled over his sport as supremely as did Bill Tilden. He won the men’s singles at Wimbledon in 1920, and for the next six years, until a knee injury cost him a match against Rene LaCoste, Tilden did not lose a match of any importance anywhere in the world. His string included both Wimbledon championships he entered, six U.S. singles titles, and fifteen consecutive Davis Cup matches. In America the saying went, “Tilden and tennis,” and it was no mistake that Tilden’s name came first. If Yankee Stadium was the “House that Ruth built,” the grandstand at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills was the “House that Tilden built.” The stadium was erected in 1924 at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars specifically to hold the crowds who wanted to see Tilden play.
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.
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.
There were perhaps a dozen indoor tennis facilities in America in 1960. Now there are more than seventeen hundred. As late as 1910 there was exactly one known professional tennis coach in America. There are well over five thousand qualified instructors today. The USTA’s Education and Research Center is an indication of the enormous growth of American tennis and the new directions the organization has taken in recent years. The Center was started in 1972 with a voluntary chairman, a paid secretary, and a budget of $10,000 to help provide tennis information to interested organizations. Today the Center has a staff of twenty-one professionals and a budget of over $500,000. Perhaps the most dramatic area of growth, though, has been in women’s tennis, amateur and professional. With new interest in women’s sports at the college level, tennis has benefited mightily. In 1974 there were no known college scholarships awarded to women for tennis. Today there are more than a thousand. In 1974 the women professionals were playing for a total of $900,000 in prize money. By 1978 the take was up to $5,500,000, and this year it reached $9,000.000.
With sudden expansion and quick cash, there is, inevitably, dislocation. Tennis has long been known as the Balkans of sport, a turbulent area given to internecine warfare and whose inhabitants seem to enjoy nothing more than a bitter jurisdictional dispute in which everyone is accused of breaking faith. The increased money available has served to smarten the sting of discord. Some women professionals don’t think the USTA is responsive to their needs, and the USTA is often hurt that the women don’t appreciate all that has been done for them. And so it goes. Tennis is now awash with conflicting groups and associations, each producing its own tournaments, each with its own sense of territorial prerogative. Those of us who love tennis and yearned to see more of it on television now sometimes see too much. Matches from various tours are taped and rerun later. As a result, on a recent weekend, it was possible to see Roscoe Tanner playing in three separate tournaments in three different cities on the same day.
A few grace notes of tennis seem to have been irretrievably lost in the gold rush. Grass courts have been dug up for faster-drying composition courts to accommodate the needs of television. The Eastern Lawn Tennis Championship, an established tournament since 1926, changed its name in 1974 to become the Medi-Quik Tennis Open, the better to promote a medicinal spray. Winners never jump over the net anymore, because at these prices no one can afford to run the risk of twisting an ankle.
If tennis was once artificially genteel, it now sometimes lapses into the gratuitously vulgar. Hie Nastase’s hysterical outbursts have become commonplace. The tradition of performers who misbehave in public is an old one. Suetonius reveals that the Emperor Augustus once banished an actor named Pylades from Rome for making to a Roman audience the same obscene gesture Jimmy Connors favors. But tennis players are notoriously difficult to rebuke. Nastase was fined $1,000 and suspended for twenty-one days as a result of his outburst in the 1976 U.S. Open. He served his time playing round-robin tournaments in Venezuela and Hilton Head, South Carolina, from which he earned a total of $57,000.
But saying that tennis is a sport with problems is like complaining that Dodge City was noisy at night when the cattle herds arrived. These are tumultuous times in tennis. There may be time to restore some of tennis’s lost gentility when the boom levels off. For the moment there is a crop of superb young athletes playing world-class tennis at skill levels Major Wingf ield could never have dreamed of when he set up his first Sphairistiké set. Doubtless he would be surprised at the ferocity with which his game is played today. That was not what he had in mind at all. But he would have dearly loved the royalties.