By long-accepted tradition, the annual contest at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon is the world's top tennis tournament. Up to 1918, in fact, Wimbledon was officially acknowledged as the world championships, and it is still referred to simply as "the championships." Last week, however, the most significant fact about the championships was that the man with the best right to be called champion—Richard (Pancho) Gonzales, the supple, seasoned athlete at left—was not playing in them. He wasn't allowed to because of the brassy fact that he takes money for playing tennis and admits it.
To the casual observer the prestige of Wimbledon and its famed Centre Court seemed relatively undamaged as the 75th championships got under way. Wimbledon is a social obligation to most Britons and even if one doesn't care to watch tennis, one hardly dares miss the chance of watching dukes and duchesses watching tennis. They always are there, just as they were last week.
But for those to whom tennis is the game, rather than gawking, what mattered was not the people who were at Wimbledon but the people who weren't: the dozen or more professionals under contract to Professional Promoter Jack Kramer. Since they include most of the finest tennis players in the world, a tournament without them—even "the championship"—could at best be only second-best. At all the top amateur tournaments, the quality of play has diminished steadily with each passing year as Kramer has dropped in—some say on a broomstick—to sign up the most promising of the amateurs for his troupe of barnstorming professionals.
July 9, 1961
Even the players at Wimbledon last week seemed to have only a lackluster concern with the amateur game. After a long and presumably profitable career as the top amateur, Defending Champion Neale Fraser, contemplating retirement, was eliminated in the fourth round by England's unseeded Bobby Wilson. Among the women, U.S. champion Darlene Hard thought so little of Wimbledon that she preferred to remain behind in Paris nursing last year's Wimbledon winner, Maria Bueno, through a bout of jaundice. Roy Emerson and Rod Laver definitely want to turn pro, and many lesser players on the male side were competing less for amateur acclaim than for a possible, though unlikely, nod from the pro promoter. But since Kramer already has 19 pros, mostly from the top level, under contract, he seemed far from anxious to buy any more from the lower shelves. Moreover, some of his own pros are now complaining that they made more money as amateurs. The sad fact is that while Jack Kramer's raids onthe larder have made amateur tennis thin, they have made professional tennis no fatter, and both sides are suffering from serious malnutrition.
To many the clear answer to this dilemma lies in open competition between amateurs and professionals. Chairman Herman David and the rest of the tough-minded men who run Wimbledon consider open play inevitable and they are willing and even anxious to throw their own prestigious tournament open to the pros without further delay. The British already have sent a formal request to the International Federation for permission to make next year's Wimbledon championships an open tournament "as an experiment."
But not all tennis officials are so quick to reach this solution to the problem as those in England. Next week, after the finals are over in Wimbledon, International Lawn Tennis Federation delegates from all over the world will leave London and journey to Stockholm to face—or to turn their faces away from—the crisis that most admit is confronting their game.
The little voters
The tragedy is that many already have decided to avert their faces. A year ago, a worldwide decision to vote against open tennis was assumed to be impossible. At the 1960 meeting of the International Federation in Paris, general approval of the open tournament seemed a foregone conclusion before the vote was taken. The big powers of international tennis—the U.S., Australia, France and Britain—were all in favor of open play and each had 12 votes plus a handful of proxies. But their motion was defeated, by a mere five votes out of a total 209, and the defeat was such a shock that all kinds of rumors sprang up instantly. The most preposterous was that Jack Kramer, who was by implication the villainous keeper of a vast central intelligence agency, had sabotaged the world of tennis through secret agents because he feared loss of control over most of the world's topflight players.
The proposal was in fact defeated by the heretofore unnoticed votes of a host of small nations which saw no advantage to themselves in open tennis and feared that open tournaments would detract from their own amateur shows. With no compelling reason to vote in favor of open tennis, they voted against it. The Irish, for example, abhorred the thought of an open Wimbledon for purely parochial reasons. Each year after Wimbledon it has been the Irish custom to stage a local tournament, to which they have been able to entice some of the Wimbledon stars. They can afford the mediocre amateurs, even with under-the-table payments, but the pros would be beyond Ireland's financial reach, and at the same time they would overshadow the little Irish tournament and make it much less attractive. So Ireland's five votes are still firmly against open tennis. Much the same thing is true of Norway, also a five-vote nation, which has difficulty training tournament players up to internationalcaliber even in today's depressed amateur game. Norway is convinced that open tennis would make the job harder.
Denmark (seven votes) may be similarly motivated, but the honest Danes are also genuinely shocked at the blatant hypocrisy of present-day amateurism—in which the Italian star, Nicola Pietrangeli, can boast unpunished that he never plays for less than $400 a week. "As long as we have amateur rules we must keep them," proclaims Einar Ulrich, secretary-general of the Danish Lawn Tennis Federation.
On the same grounds—objection to hypocrisy—Sweden, with five votes, wants to take an opposite stand and "abolish all distinctions between amateurs and professionals."
The big freeze-out
For the last two weeks before Wimbledon, representatives of all these and other points of view sought out their fellows to talk things over in advance of Stockholm. Jean Borotra, the Bounding Basque of the '20s, who at 63 can still bound with the best of them, flew in from Paris to huddle with England's J. Eaton Griffith, his predecessor as President of the International Federation. George Barnes, the president of the USLTA, abandoned his Chicago investment brokerage for two weeks of consultation in Paris, London and Stockholm. Jack Kramer, silently fuming at quite obvious efforts to exclude him from any semblance of a voice in the eventual world of open tennis, settled down pessimistically to mark time as a BBC-TV commentator at Wimbledon.
Picturing Kramer as the villain solely responsible for the crisis in tennis is a favorite way out for those who refuse to face the facts. Kramer is, by nature, no diplomat and his headlong honesty in saying what he believes has made him more than one enemy, not only in Australia, where he is hated most, but in other lands as well. "We must stop wasting time on 'negotiations' with parasitical professional promoters," wrote one diehard defender of amateurism in a letter to the USLTA only two weeks ago. "If you stop messing around with Kramer and his troupe, you will quickly get back on a sound basis."
Kramer's strongest defense, however, lies in his own self-interest. He knows better than most that what will eventually benefit him as a promoter must first benefit the game he is promoting. One measure of his practical interest in the open is his expressed willingness to let his contract players play for free, if they choose, in some of the proposed open tournaments. This is a notion much favored by the officials at Wimbledon. Kramer's contracts with his players are so tight that he could prevent such an arrangement by fiat if he liked, but, he says, he will do whatever the players want. Naturally the top professionals are not anxious to play for nothing, but the men who run Wimbledon are guessing that many of them will do so for the prestige and eventual profit of winning a major title.
This idea is one of the many that will be presented at Stockholm next week when the game's rulers meet and vote. Open play will be the central question on the ballot, but the U.S., Britain and France will each suggest a slightly different way of approaching it. The Americans favor a sort of "local option" under which each nation could hold as many open tournaments as it liked or none at all. The British would put open play on an experimental basis for one year and restrict it to the eight major tournaments recognized by the ILTF. The French would permit open competition in the eight official areas but would not necessarily throw the area championships themselves open to the pros.
But these differences of approach are mere gnats to be strained at compared to the hulking camel of intransigence represented by Australia under the leadership of its new association president, Norman Strange, a sworn Kramer foe. Since the last federation meeting, Australia (12 votes) has flipped 180° from its permissive position of 1960. Now it is flatly opposed to open tennis in any form. Thus the champions of the open game will be confronted with the problem of making up not a mere five votes, as was the case last year, but a deficit of at least 29; and Australia will doubtless prove a potent bellwether in leading even more votes out of the fold.
Strange, a hardheaded, combative sort of businessman, puts his stand for amateurism on what he believes is a strictly commercial basis. Pointing to the sold-out stands at Wimbledon last week, he asked: "If one had a business producing such a handsome profit as this, would one take in a partner who makes no contribution?" In any open tournament, Strange insists, the top 12 men would all be pros, "and every one of them would owe his success to the training and efforts made on his behalf by the amateur organizations."
Australia has—or thinks it has—a further cogent argument against the open in the fact that it has won the Davis Cup in nine of the last 11 years. The prestige inherent in the cup and the gate receipts that follow it would promptly shrink, so the argument runs, if the cup remained amateur while Wimbledon and Forest Hills went pro. But last year the stands at White City in Sydney stood half empty during the cup matches anyway.
What is amateur?
Australia's Strange makes no claim that tennis is simon-pure. He concedes that "some chaps are going around the world taking money under the table," and even that some of his own Davis Cup stars are among them. "Everybody knows that," he says as if it made no real difference at all. "That kind of thing has been going on for years, but they don't make fortunes out of it. They don't make the $30,000 or $40,000 that Kramer pays. They probably come back to Australia with only a couple of hundred pounds." They also come back to salaries, not precisely earned, which have been accumulating during their absence from nominal jobs with Australia's sporting goods firms. Strange does not consider that pertinent.
With no hope of persuading Australia to change its mind and vote in favor of the open, the U.S.-French-British troika has dared at least to hope that it might persuade Strange to abstain from voting altogether and thus give the rest of the world a chance to experiment. But Strange made it clear last week that he wants no part of such shilly-shallying. The game as far as he is concerned will remain just as it is—strictly amateur.
But what is strictly amateur?
A special committee of the ILTF has already been appointed to study and delineate the essential nature of amateurism as it applies to tennis. It will make its report in 1962. Meanwhile the most devoted advocate of pure amateurism in the tennis world is fighting hardest for the open game. ILTF President Jean Borotra, now a prosperous manufacturer of gasoline pumps, has spent his time and substance touring the world as a missionary in behalf of what he feels is true amateurism as against what he calls "damn sham" amateurism.
It takes hours for the voluble Borotra to expound the doctrine behind his special solution to the problem in tennis. But, in brief, he would establish three classes of players: 1) the professionals, who would remain outside the amateur associations and govern themselves; 2) what he now calls "nonamateurs," who would be authorized to accept money openly for playing and would continue to be governed by the amateur associations; and 3) true amateurs, who would get only bare expenses and enjoy the satisfaction of having the world know it.
As a solution to the ills of tennis, this idea has not been widely welcomed, but Borotra is still fighting for it and even its opponents concede that it would inject an element of honesty into the present shameful situation. It is the moral harm that sham amateurism has inflicted on tennis that most worries Borotra. A member of the Comité de Coubertin, dedicated to the ideals of the Frenchman who revived the Olympic Games, Borotra and his friend Avery Brundage share the same ideals of amateurism. But unlike Brundage, Borotra 10 years ago reluctantly arrived at the conviction that unadulterated amateurism is no longer possible in big-time sport, not even in the Olympics. He believes that if his proposal were to be adopted by the ruling federations of tennis, it could then lead the way to other sports.
"There must be open tournaments, not only in tennis but in every sport in general," he said recently over a luncheon table in Paris, where he also debated the morality of pouring an excellent red Bordeaux over a dish of superbly flavored wild strawberries. He finally decided that this would be immoral on the ground that the Bordeaux detracted from the strawberries and the strawberries from the Bordeaux, "a pagan thing to do, my wine-grower friends would say." But then he poured the wine on the berries anyway, after scrupulously removing all bruised fruit from his plate.
"The real amateur," he went on, "should be something clean, something pure, not something watered down. Voila!"
Sandlots and champs
Actually pure amateur tennis—tennis on the participant level where people are playing each other for the fun of it—has never been healthier. In the U.S. alone there are now, for the first time in history, more tennis players than golfers, according to estimates of the Athletic Institute. All told, there were 6,714,000 U.S. tennis players in 1959 (latest available figures) as against 4,700,000 in 1946. The reasons behind this have little to do with the state of tournament tennis. For one thing, land values have risen so much that it is extremely costly to acquire land for golf courses. For another, new high schools have been installing tennis courts to such an extent that tennis now ranks eighth among 25 high school sports. It is played in 4,376 schools, and its 48,708 players on inter-scholastic teams rank just behind the number of football players. A survey of college students showed that 12% of male students and 28% of females preferred tennis to all other games. There iseven a sudden spurt of "bath and tennis" clubs on the U.S. West Coast to supplant the more expensive golf clubs. Many bitter opponents of open tennis cite these facts as sound arguments for leaving tournament tennis alone, but the two have little connection. The existence of Mickey Mantle and his paycheck have not, according to any known records, done much to discourage sandlot baseball. It can even be argued that Mickey has helped the amateur game.
"To inspire the amateur to full development in any sport," says Jean Borotra, "there must be a champion. And in today's world none but the very rich or those who are subsidized—by the state, as in Russia; by colleges, as in America; by commercial houses, as in Australia—can give themselves to the year-round training and competition necessary to achieve a champion's excellence.
"Conditions have changed since 1900," he says. "We are no longer in Newport or in Southampton. We are in the hard world of 1961." In his concern for all sport, not just tennis, Borotra believes the men who lead tennis have "a duty to tell the truth to the world and say that it is impossible to be a champion and an amateur too." Tennis, he holds, is in a fortunate position in this regard because it is not an Olympic sport and can therefore take a stand on its own.
"So, you see," he said, "it is a year of crisis for tennis, but it is also a year of crisis for all sport. If we succeed in saving tennis, it would show the example to the rest of the sports."