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1968 What a Year

by John R. Embree, USPTA Chief Executive Officer

We are just weeks away from going to New York for the TTC and our World Conference where we will celebrate 50 years of open tennis and the completion of the strategic transformation of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. This issue provides you with all the information that you need to entice you to join us at this year’s convention.

My intent in this space is to offer some historical perspective on what was taking place in the world in 1968 and what lead up to the creation of open tennis. So many of our members were not yet born nor do they have any recollection of the political and social upheaval that was captured in the news each day. While 2018 may be a milestone anniversary for the modern game of tennis, nothing compares to the tumultuous year that was 1968 (certainly the most difficult year in my lifetime) and the seismic shift occurring across the globe in terms of civil rights, political turmoil, the sexual revolution, a much-hated war, and cultural rebellion.

While I am by no means a US historian (although I was a history major in college), I think it is important that our members understand the backdrop of the global events that played out on TV screens daily with the dawning of the television age. There was global conflict in Czechoslovakia (that eventually lead to a Russian invasion and occupation), North Korea (the capture of the USS Pueblo and the incarceration of 83 US sailors) and of course, Vietnam, where the unpopular and dreaded war raged on. US troop casualties were on the rise with no end in sight to the conflict. Americans were split over its support of the war as heated student protests and urban unrest created a massive divide that cut a nerve in our society. Demonstrations at Columbia University (where students occupied several buildings) to riots in Paris with hundreds injured in May was a forbearer to the anti-war demonstrations that lead to bloody clashes between activists and police during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.

As if these events were not monumental enough, one cannot forget the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June that rocked the nation to its very core. And just prior to a hotly contested presidential election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, John Carlos and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in a recognized salute to the Black Power Movement during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner during their awards presentation at the Mexico City Olympic Games in October. The cumulative effect of this social strife had a huge impact on me, 15-years-old at the time, coupled with personal loss that I experienced during the summer of 1968 seeing my own mother succumb to cancer. While at home in her hospice bed watching all of this unfold on television in front of our eyes, she worried so much about the world in which we would be living after she was gone.

Meanwhile, the world of tennis was going through its own revolution, as wrote in July of 2009, “the amateur ideal was slowly corroding. Tournaments were paying large under-the-table fees to lure top players to play their events while the big-name players were leaving the amateur ranks” in droves to play where money was being offered. Professional players were unable to play the Grand Slams because those events were restricted to amateurs only, but pressure was building on the biggest tournaments to open their doors to all players. “A wide chasm existed between the games administrators, who wanted to retain control of the game, and the players/promoters who sought expanded freedoms.” What was happening in tennis was a microcosm of what was going on in the world itself. continued its article: “Calling the situation a ‘living lie’, The British Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club announced that starting in 1968, the championships would be open to amateurs and professionals alike.” Imagine the turmoil that enveloped the entire tennis bureaucracy at that time!

Roland Garros became the first grand slam to welcome both professionals and amateurs. Nancy Richey and Ken Rosewall won those titles, but most people do not recall that student riots were gripping Paris during the fortnight. In fact, many players felt that the tournament should not have even been played, telling of harrowing stories of how difficult it was just to get to the grounds from their respective hotels because of the mayhem on the streets of Paris. Four weeks later and across the English Channel, Billie Jean King and Rod Laver took home the Wimbledon crowns on the grass, historic victories as well.

As the summer wound down, the 88th staging of what was formerly the US National Championships was played at Forest Hills, New York, now known as the US Open. Arthur Ashe made a resounding statement beating Tom Okker in the finals but had to turn down the winner’s prize money of $14,000 because he wished to remain an amateur. On the women’s side, Britain’s Virginia Wade captured the crown and took home a whopping $6,000 for her efforts. My, how things have changed in 50 years!

For those of you who are history buffs like I am, I trust you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane. 1968 was unlike any year that I have experienced in my lifetime. Not only did the tennis landscape change forever (and may I say, for the better), but the whole world experienced mind-blowing social and political metamorphoses that I will never forget. Images from newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts during that gut wrenching year are indelibly inscribed in my mind. What a year...

So, let us celebrate the 50th anniversary of open tennis together in New York in late August at the Tennis Teachers Conference. Be one of the first spectators on the first day of the 2018 US Open to walk into the newly constructed Louis Armstrong Stadium with its iconic roof and watch the best players in the world test their skills on tennis’ grandest stage. Unless you are planning to live another 50 years to witness the 100th birthday, this celebration will only happen once- be there! *

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