Whatever else it may do, the sudden explosion of sociological wrath and righteousness that shook the sports world last week is regrettably certain to go on reverberating through the ranks of topflight tennis for months, if not years, to come. It has, in fact, already resulted in the stern demand by some newly identified champions of the game (including a brace of U.S. Senators and The New York Times) that tournament tennis be liberated forthwith from the suffocating confines of the private club—a demand which raises the question: Where then is it to go?
This is an article from the July 20, 1959 issue
It is no accident that tennis, of all our major sports, should find itself in this particular bind. Whether the sociologists like it or not, historians cannot help but recognize the fact that the game of lawn tennis as we know it was spawned on the grass of exclusive country clubs and has lived with them symbiotically for better or worse ever since. Even today, when most of the world's tennis champions are culled from the ranks of the poor, the underprivileged and the so-called minority groups, the grandstand court on which they win their laurels is more than likely to be the property of a private club which reserves the right (even if it does not always exercise the privilege) of excluding them from membership. The All England Tennis Club, which owns the grand stand and the famed "center court" at Wimbledon, is every bit as exclusive as the club that runs Forest Hills, yet neither England nor the U.S. could at this point provide a site better equipped than these clubs for the conduct of a major tournament—a fact which makes the cry for immediate liberation sound pretty ridiculous.
Beyond such futile fuss-budgetry, however, there is a very real need today to liberate the game of tennis from the narrow confines and prejudices of its background and ancestry, and this is a liberation that must be accomplished by the game itself. At the time of the bucolic scene pictured above, when Richard Sears successfully defended his national championship in a spirited match at the Casino in Newport in 1882, it is doubtful if the ancestors of Althea Gibson or Pancho Gonzales or Alex Olmedo were much concerned with who was allowed to play or who to watch. Tennis was a game for the rich only, and a seemingly sissy game at that, with its "love" and its "deuce" and its "sorry, partner." In succeeding years tennis devotees have advanced from the lawns of the privileged to the play streets of Harlem and the public courts of a thousand cities and towns all over the world, but on the championship level their game is still figuratively pinched by the tight flannel trousers and prudish manners of its gilded and circumscribed youth.
The United States Lawn Tennis Association and its kindred groups are certainly not to blame for the fury that broke over Forest Hills last week. But they are to blame for the atavistic stagnation that grips a game eager to grow with the rest of the world—a world which more and more turns to realization that sport is a truly great equalizer. Topflight amateur tennis today, largely because of the dictates of associations which govern it, is an anachronistic anomaly of talented and ambitious young men and young women of no great means who are required to ape the parasitic life of idle wastrels. In the endless rounds of country club life that comprise their tennis apprenticeship, everything exists of the life of privilege except the privilege itself. This absurdity reached some sort of climax at a meeting of the federation of international tennis organizations in Dublin last week, when the principal questions on the agenda became whether or not to raise the "amateur's" pay and increase his working hours.
Former Davis Cup Captain Bill Talbert propounded—and not for the first time either—the logical and sensible resolution of this kind of absurdity when he plumped for an open tennis tournament in this magazine only two weeks ago. At Dublin last week France's Jean Borotra, the Bounding Basque of tennis' bygone days of privilege and privacy, was revealed as the sponsor of an even broader plan to open up amateur tennis within its own ranks. Borotra's plan calls for a new class of "authorized" players in the amateur associations—i.e., amateurs authorized to make a living out of the game. This strikes us as a pretty labored way to avoid using the word professional, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. "For too long," said one official spokesman, "there has been too much hypocrisy in tennis."
We agree heartily. The game of tennis has grown too great for the kind of pettiness that plagued it last week. We are not pretending that open tennis is a sure cure for what happened at Forest Hills, but we do maintain that a greater willingness to face facts within the game would surely lead to a greater public understanding and sympathy with its aims, and a happier realization of its enormous possibilities. When championship tennis becomes appealing and popular enough through its own natural drawing power to fill Yankee Stadium, there will be little need to worry and rant on Page One over who may join a private club in the suburbs of Queens County.
A QUESTION OF PRIVACY
Two or three times a year, when its courts and grandstands are made available for the nation's top tennis tourneys, the West Side Tennis Club at New York's Forest Hills becomes as much a public property as the Yankee Stadium. It is doubtful if many of the tennis buffs who flock through its turnstiles on those occasions to witness tournaments sponsored by the United States Lawn Tennis Association or professional promoter Jack Kramer either remember or care that they are enjoying the temporary lease of facilities belonging to a private club—a private club as deliberately and designedly exclusive as any other.
Last week, however, the privacy of that club became a matter of public argument when the son of one of the nation's most distinguished citizens, Dr. Ralph Bunche of the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, was told that, being a Negro, he probably would not be accepted for membership in the West Side Tennis Club. Because of a tragic confusion in the public mind—a confusion deliberately fostered in some cases by third parties with no genuine concern in the matter—over the relationship of the West Side Club and national and international tennis, which it serves as an occasional landlord, the Bunche incident was promptly exploded into a Page One cause cél√®bre on civil liberties. This clamor, it seems to us, can benefit nobody and may do irreparable harm to tennis.
Any responsible concern for civil liberties should, we think, grant to a private club an inalienable right to the privacy for which it was organized and a corresponding freedom to choose the companions of that privacy whether the choice be good or not. It is not for any man to say whom his neighbor should invite to dinner. Public concern properly begins only when the disagreements of neighbors become noisy enough to threaten the peace of the community at large. For the sake of a fine sport, this magazine deeply deplores the fact that the parties involved in this dispute could not have found a way to settle their private differences in private.