If you are a fan of professional tennis, you have probably heard the phrase ‘Open Era in Tennis’ used by commentators and sportswriters.
To help you understand more about the origins of this important period in tennis history, we will go into details about it…
Explain what is meant the Open Era in tennis is referenced, what preceded it, and why the beginning of it was so important for the history of the sport.
What Does the Phrase Open Era Refer To?
The Open Era of Tennis began in 1968 when the Grand Slam tournaments agreed that professional players could compete with amateur tennis players.
Before 1968, only amateur tennis players were allowed to compete in the Grand Slam tournaments and other events officially sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation.
The Olympic Games were only open to amateur athletes at an earlier point in their history. Only athletes that did not profit from playing their sport could compete.
The most prestigious tennis tournaments were also only open to non-professional players.
Most amateur players who competed in these tennis tournaments were registered with a national sporting agency that paid for their travel expenses.
If a tennis player was paid directly through participation in paid exhibition matches, they could not compete in any of the Grand Slam tournaments under the jurisdiction of the International Tennis Federation.
Why Were Professionals Not Allowed to Compete Before 1968?
Wimbledon, the oldest Grand Slam tournament, began in 1877. After that came the US Open in 1881, the French Open in 1891, followed by the Australian Open in 1905. These tournaments had been operating for years before the start of the Open Era.
To make things fair, the original organizers decided these prestigious events were reserved for amateur tennis players.
Not only could the competitors not receive payment for playing tennis outside of the Grand Slam tournaments, but the winners of the Grand Slam tournaments also would not be given prize money.
The motivation for this decision was the belief that paid tennis players had an unfair advantage, as they could dedicate more time to practicing and playing tennis than non-professional players.
For historical context, remember that tennis culture has always been about preserving concepts like fair play and equality in competition.
Many of these core beliefs are still evident today in rules like coaching violations and the concept of a rally let.
While barring professional tennis players from the most prestigious tournaments was intended to ensure the competition remained fair on the courts, it had the unintended effect of preventing some of the world’s best players from competing.
This all changed in 1968 when the world of tennis allowed professional players to compete in Grand Slam tournaments!
What Led to the Open Era?
As mentioned above, the Open Era began in 1968 when the first professional tennis players were permitted to compete in the Grand Slam tournaments, but it is important to understand why this major shift in the sport’s history occurred.
Pressure from the Competitors
The pressure that motivated the decision to open the tournaments to professionals came from the players themselves.
Many of the amateur players who were winning Grand Slam tournaments were not happy remaining amateurs and wanted the financial security and rewards that would come from earning an income from their tennis skills.
There was also a belief that many of the so-called amateur players were receiving large sums of money under the guise of “travel expenses” from their particular country’s sporting agencies.
More specifically, amateur British tennis players felt they were competing against tennis players from other European nations secretly being paid to compete.
The Desires of the Fans
There was also pressure from tennis fans. They wanted to see the top talents compete on the largest stage.
Since many of the former amateur athletes turned professional by competing in non-ratified tournaments that awarded prize money to winners, the Grand Slams were losing some of the most talented tennis players.
In mid-1967, the reigning Wimbledon champion, John Newcombe, abandoned his amateur status and became a full-fledged professional tennis player by signing a paid contract to play tennis through an American tennis promotion company.
This acted as a sort of final straw for many tennis fans. A year later the Open Era in tennis began.
Dawn of a New Era
The All England Tennis Club was the first organization to open their tournament to professional players and usher in what later became known as the Open Era.
The organization opened the 1968 Wimbledon Championships to all players including professionals. Then, the decision was ratified by the International Tennis Federation, which then led the remaining Grand Slam tournaments to open their doors to professionals as well.
What Changed as a Result of the Introduction of the Open Era?
Aside from the fact that professional players could now compete in the prestigious Grand Slam tournaments, the tournaments also introduced generous amounts of cash to act as prizes for the tournament winners.
This influx of cash helped the best players turn tennis into a career rather than just a hobby.
This change led to an improvement in the overall quality of the tennis being played on the sport’s biggest stages.
With improvements in the quality of play, interest in tennis from the general public grew, as did the number of sponsors willing to support individual players and the tournaments themselves.
The Importance of the Open Era for the History of the Sport
The Open Era led to professionalism in the sport. Everything improved considerably during the 1970s, from the fitness levels of the players to the skills they brought to the tournaments.
Even the quality of the tennis equipment used by the players improved, as interest in tennis from sporting equipment manufacturers also grew. In 1976, the first graphite tennis racquet was introduced and used by professional Swedish tennis player Bjorn Borg at the Wimbledon Championships.
Professional tennis and the top tournaments currently enjoy global interest, and the sport is now played by tens of millions of people around the globe.
The current popularity of tennis has a lot to do with the introduction of the Open Era!