Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Port in a Storm
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A Port in a Storm 08/26/2009 - 6:28 PM

Rl I'm proud to say that the following story of mine, about tennis' transition to the Open era in 1968, which ran in the May 2008 issue of Tennis Magazine, won 1st prize in this year's U.S. Tennis Writer's Association awards, which will be handed out at the Open. Here it is, in case you need a little of the sport before you get a lot.

We’ve all seen the highlight reel. Blue-helmeted cops crack protesters’ skulls at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Martin Luther King’s entourage stands over their slain leader on a Memphis hotel balcony. Another group surrounds a dying Robert Kennedy on the floor of a Los Angeles hotel kitchen. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics. Students hurl stones outside the Sorbonne in Paris and stage a coup at Columbia in New York. Hippies twirl through an acid haze in California. Soviet tanks roll into Prague. Inner cities burn, Vietnam burns, the president quits, and by year’s end the first photo ever taken of our big, blue, turbulent planet is plastered across front pages everywhere.

That’s right, we’re back in 1968, the year when everything happened. The shadow those 12 months cast is so wide that the French have a nickname for the people who took part in them. It’s said that one “68er” (le soixante-huitard), no matter his or her country of origin, can instantly recognize another. But while there was upheaval everywhere, one image you don’t see from that year is a tennis court.

The sports figures who resonate from ’68 represented the revolutions in politics and style that were unfolding side-by-side. Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title the previous year for refusing to serve in Vietnam, was portrayed on the cover of the April issue of Esquire as a martyr pierced with arrows. A few months later, a long-haired Joe Namath led the upstart New York Jets toward Super Bowl III, which they would win two weeks into 1969. Over the ensuing decades, Ali and Namath would remain powerful symbols of the era.

By contrast, the winners of the French Open and Wimbledon in ’68 were Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, nobody’s idea of countercultural heroes. Aging Aussie pros who had conquered the game’s biggest amateur-era stages after years of banishment, they looked like clean-shaven anachronisms rather than the road-hardened rebels they were. The same went for the winner of the U.S. Open, Arthur Ashe. Tennis’ anti-Ali was a lieutenant in that most despised of ’60s institutions, the U.S. Army.

Seen from the distance of 40 years and free from the more extreme fads of the time—Ashe would become a social and political figure every bit as significant as Ali—it’s clear that the genteel pastime of tennis was an important, if unsung, part of the revolutionary fabric of ’68. Rebellions raged against all institutions that year, from the Pentagon to the Kremlin, but they had one common target: Whatever happened to be the Establishment in any given place. Nowhere was that more true than in tennis. In the spring of ’68 the sport’s long-ruling amateur establishment, the International Lawn Tennis Federation—it controlled the Grand Slams, Davis Cup, and Fed Cup, and issued player rankings—would, after decades of resistance, open its gates to professionals and begin paying players to compete. The move couldn’t have come in a more appropriate year. In fact, it couldn’t have come on a more appropriate day.


On March 30, 1968, the 106 members of the ILTF (now the ITF) gathered for a special session at the venerable Automobile Club in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. They were there to discuss the possibility of open tennis, and the location could hardly have been more symbolic. It was at the Place de la Concorde in 1789 that France’s Third Estate, the people’s representative body, had taken its own Oath of the Tennis Court. Locked out of its halls, members had met on a court-tennis court and pledged to stay together until the country had a constitution. The French Revolution was born.

The revolt that the ILTF set in motion 179 years later could hardly compare for drama—heads did not literally roll. But the unanimous vote on March 30 to allow professionals to play in a select number of ILTF tournaments was the most important change in tennis’ nine-decade history. Forty years later, we can trace the beginning of the Open era and the commercialized modern game to that day.

The process had begun with a call to action the previous winter from an unlikely place. As chairman of the All England Club, the longtime headquarters of amateur tennis, Herman David was hardly a flag-burning radical. But by 1968, he had been working for nearly 10 years to bring the pros to Wimbledon. He had proposed the change to Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association in 1959, and five years later had tried to get the LTA to unilaterally declare the tournament open. He’d been shot down both times.

By the end of 1967 David was ready to go nuclear. He would open British tennis at all costs, including withdrawal from the ILTF if necessary. What had driven him to the brink? It was, at least in part, that most universally subversive of forces, television. In the summer of ’67, the BBC had chosen its annual Wimbledon broadcast to be the first program of any sort shown in color. The experiment was a hit. A month later, the BBC sponsored the World Professional Lawn Tennis Championship, an invitational featuring eight pros that was played on Centre Court and again shown in color. A sold-out crowd watched Rod Laver beat Ken Rosewall in the final. One hundred years after the founding of the All England Club, the pros finally had a foot in its door. In December, David denounced amateur tennis as a “living lie,” and Britain’s LTA voted to make its events open to all players.

With those words ringing in their ears, the members of the ILTF gathered in Paris to craft the compromise that began the Open era. The organization, which functioned as a United Nations of tennis, needed to placate a variety of national federations. The British were ready to dissolve all distinctions between amateurs, who couldn’t accept prize money, and professionals, who happily did. But the Eastern bloc federations wanted to maintain control of their players and thus opposed professionalism. A complicated solution was brokered that divided the players into four designations—amateurs; teaching professionals; “registered players,” who could accept prize money but still obeyed their national federations; and “contract professionals,” who were associated with independent promoters like Lamar Hunt, who had begun his professional WCT Tour the previous year.

Confusion reigned, and it would be five years before the players took full control from the ILTF and dissolved all distinctions between pro and amateur. But the dam had been breached. The age of “shamateurism,” in which top amateurs were paid under the table, was over. After years of barnstorming through tiny gymnasiums in the pro-tour wilderness, the world’s best players were welcomed back. The revolution in Paris had only been a first step, but as Bob Kelleher, then-president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association and a strong proponent of open tennis, said, “You have to creep before you can crawl.”


While the announcement of tennis’ brave new era made headlines, it could hardly compare to the story that would break the next day. On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson shocked a national television audience by announcing that he wouldn’t run for another term in the fall.

Like tennis’ amateur era, Johnson’s doom had been sealed by the rising influence of television. 1968 marked the first year that events in Vietnam were widely broadcast by satellite on the nightly news. No longer able to control the flow of information about the war, the U.S. government could only watch as the Vietcong staged a surprise attack on January 30 that came to be known as the Tet Offensive. The maneuver was largely a military failure from the Vietcong’s perspective, but it was a public-relations disaster. What America saw on TV were U.S. soldiers being killed at its embassy in Saigon. Popular opinion would turn permanently against the war.

By the end of February, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, the mouthpiece of Middle America, would make a rare on-air editorial comment, voicing his opinion that Vietnam was lost. It was the straw that broke Johnson’s back. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war,” the president reportedly said.

The end of amateur tennis and the demise of the Johnson administration on consecutive days may seem like an accident of history. But the same anti-establishment forces, which had come to a head in 1968, brought each of them down.

Tennis had been resolutely amateur since its origins on the lawns of England in the 1870s. In its earliest incarnation it had been played at the nation’s public schools, where the sons of the upper class were educated in how to be “gentlemen.” A spirit of fair play, the love of friendly competition for its own sake, and a devotion to a well-rounded life were at the core of the gentlemanly—or amateur—ethos, which informed all walks of English life.

In the U.S., that ethos was imported by East Coast prep schools and Ivy League colleges and became a ruling principle of the cricket and tennis clubs built by the WASP elite. Over the decades, it proved to be a durable philosophy and spread far beyond England and the Ivy League. By the 1940s, Australian tennis coach Harry Hopman was instilling it in his young players, who would include Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, and Roy Emerson. Together they would dominate the last two decades of the amateur era. While they weren't all members of the upper class, the Aussie greats are recalled today as the epitome of sporting gentlemen—the last of a tennis breed. But one by one, even they left the amateur game for the pro tours. The code of the gentleman had given way to the law of the market.

Aristocratic rule proved equally durable in the U.S. government, starting with the turn of the century administration of Teddy Roosevelt, who built a tennis court at the White House, and peaking with the administration of his cousin Franklin 30 years later. Even as the ’60s brought challenges to all forms of traditional authority, President Johnson continued to rely on the establishment’s finest products to guide his foreign policy. These were “the best and the brightest” in journalist David Halberstam’s famously ironic formulation, men like Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and William Westmoreland. Despite their best intentions and impeccable résumés, they led Johnson straight into the quagmire of Vietnam.

The announcements by the ILTF and Johnson on March 30 and 31 opened two sets of Pandora’s boxes. Tennis’ would take years to empty, as it spent the next decade remaking itself into a mainstream professional sport. The effect of Johnson’s de facto resignation was immediate. Suddenly the most powerful position of authority in the world essentially stood vacant. The result was a months-long, worldwide frenzy of rebellion. On April 4, Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Inner cities across the country erupted in riots. On April 23, students at Columbia University in New York seized administration buildings and held them for a week, causing the school to be shut down. The standoff ended with a violent police raid. On May 2, student protests in Paris ended in violent clashes with police in which hundreds of people were wounded. This was the beginning of France’s now fabled “May ’68.” Workers joined the students and called nationwide strikes. A mass shutdown of the country lasted through the month and eventually led to a referendum on the rule of President Charles de Gaulle.

Riots and strikes aside, May ’68 is remembered fondly by those who were there as a brief window of liberation, when people of all backgrounds stopped to engage each other. It was in this setting that open tennis made its Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros.

Compared to other events of that spring, the Open era had gotten off to a slow and sleepy start. The first tournament in history to welcome amateurs and professionals had been played at the end of April in the drizzly English resort town of Bournemouth. While old pro Pancho Gonzalez took an early tumble, the cream wasted no time in rising to the top: Laver and Rosewall reached the final.

After that off-Broadway rehearsal, the pros took their act to the big stage at Roland Garros. What they found at the first French Open were standing-room-only crowds of Parisians looking for refuge from the battles on their streets. “Roland Garros was a port in a storm,” wrote Rex Bellamy of the London Times. “In a strife-torn city, the soaring center court blazed with color. People even perched on scoreboards. . . . The first major open was played in the environment nightmares are made of. But the tennis was often like a dream.” In the insurgent spirit of the moment, tennis’ old rebels, Laver and Rosewall, lived up to their legend and made the final, which Rosewall won. The professional game had arrived.

While tennis fans in Paris got a break from the realities of 1968, the rest of the world continued to implode. During the tournament, Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed in Los Angeles. He had been running for the Democratic nomination for president, and his death sent the party on a despairing path toward its convention in Chicago in August. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia was heading toward a confrontation with its communist patrons in Moscow. Czech party leader Alexander Dubcek had helped create Prague Spring, a brief period of liberation similar to Paris’ in May, by loosening state control over the citizenry—“socialism with a human face,” he called it.

As the American and European summers careened toward those twin disasters, tennis found a pleasant space between them, on the lawns of the All England Club. The two weeks of the first open Wimbledon were the sport’s grand reunion party. Gonzalez returned for the first time since 1949; Rosewall for the first time since ’57. In the end, Laver reclaimed his throne, easily winning the title after five years in exile. To former player and author Gordon Forbes, being at the event was akin to watching a film burst into color, “rife with images, crammed with humor and pathos.”


Mo One month later, it was clear that there was nowhere left for the 68ers to run, as the hammer of authority came down on both sides of the Atlantic. On August 21, the Soviet Union brought a swift and brutal end to the reforms of Prague Spring when it invaded Czechoslovakia, killing 72 people, and arrested Dubcek. Five days later, the Democratic Convention began in Chicago, with the events in Prague still echoing. After days of confrontation, demonstrators, chanting “the whole world is watching,” were beaten in the streets, on live television, by the Chicago police. Watching the footage, Cronkite said that America had become a “police state.”

It was at this moment that the first U.S. Open was getting started halfway across the country, at Forest Hills. Unlike the French Open and Wimbledon, this was a topsy-turvy event, with 13 pros ousted by amateurs. Laver was knocked out by Cliff Drysdale in the quarterfinals, paving the way for a final between Tom Okker and Ashe, who was still an amateur.

Before a packed and ecstatic audience, Ashe won a five-set thriller. His victory was both a breakthrough and a last hurrah for the amateur era. Just a few years after the height of the civil-rights movement and a few months after Martin Luther King’s assassination had sparked urban riots, Ashe, a black man from the south, had become the first African-American to win the men’s event at a Grand Slam.

The next month, two other black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, would make a different kind of statement at the world’s biggest amateur event, the summer Olympics in Mexico City. Taking the medal stand after winning the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter run, they raised gloved fists and bowed their heads in a black power salute as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played. Ashe, who had been schooled in tennis’ gentlemanly ethos by his father and his childhood coach, Dr. Walter Johnson, made no political gestures at Forest Hills. His win alone spoke volumes. A black man who had been molded by the ancient customs of an exclusive WASP sport had reached its summit, just as those customs were being left behind. As the Open era unfolded, tennis’ new international popularity would make him an icon of integrity and calm intelligence. It was a rise that could be traced to Forest Hills in 1968. Just as the other uprisings of that year had reached their ugly nadir, Ashe’s dignified excellence helped make tennis’ year of revolution a historic success.


Posted by maedal (Vamos Rafa and the Armada!) 08/26/2009 at 06:44 PM

Congratulations, Steve! Great to see you(r writing) getting the recognition it (you) deserve(s).

Posted by maedal (Vamos Rafa and the Armada!) 08/26/2009 at 06:45 PM

And yes, that was the year that was.

Posted by siggy 08/26/2009 at 07:07 PM

Congratulations, Steve. A richly-deserved honor, and TW is richer by your constant excellence. What a very fine mind you have....

Posted by ladyjulia 08/26/2009 at 07:20 PM

Congratulations Steve.

A very informative article and well written. I got to learn a lot about history of that era from your piece.

Posted by Voltaire 08/26/2009 at 08:20 PM

Marvellous Steve! As far as I could tell, you have a great ability to relate to the events in the past, segue them into the current powerful themes and then present a whole new perspective. I would open a pandora box and call you almost Chomskian in sports journalism. Congratulations again!

Posted by Andy C 08/26/2009 at 08:36 PM

Congratulations. I remember the piece well. It's amazing how evocative the characters and images from that time are.


Posted by awwo 08/26/2009 at 11:43 PM

congratulations. well-deserved

Posted by reckoner 08/27/2009 at 12:25 AM

tennis always gets a bad rap from bill simmons, the sports guy

Posted by JohnC 08/27/2009 at 03:48 AM

Being old enough to remember '68, I was genuinely thrilled to read this piece of excellent journalism. Your final focus on Ashe is utterly appropriate. The previous year Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released and the Supreme Court finally invalidated miscegenation laws in Loving v Virginia. The Olympics "black power" salute and Ashe's victory the following year were part of sports contribution to a great wave that was painfully washing away a great stain on the American soul -- a wave has that reached a fulfilment of sorts with the election of Obama.

A very different world, but one from which this world was born.

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President finally comes out of rehab and rejoices in Vamos Forever 08/27/2009 at 06:46 AM

Steve Congratulations and take a well deserved Bow!

Posted by embug 08/27/2009 at 06:52 AM

Congratulations, Steve. I always read your work and am always astonished at its depth and delivery. You're the best!

Posted by skip1515 08/27/2009 at 07:06 AM

Congratulations, Steve.

Pete recently wrote that if someone were to create the Federer story on paper no one would believe it. Regardless of whether that is true in that case or not, it is emphatically true of the history of 1968. Reading it all in one timeline, even for one who lived it, is simply overwhelming.

Posted by Emma (insertwittymantrahere) 08/27/2009 at 08:54 AM

Congrats Steve, very well deserved kudos for your always excellent work.

Posted by nica 08/27/2009 at 09:07 AM

Well deserved award.

Posted by Ro'ee 08/27/2009 at 10:12 AM

congrats, Steve
great piece

Posted by princepro110 08/27/2009 at 10:17 AM

Steve thanks for pointing out that Arthur Ashe served in the US Army during the Vietnam war. I think Stan Smith was a private in the US Army during that war also when he won a grand slam.

Now we are in our own Vietnam called Afghanistan and since 9/11 I can't think of one US ATP player who has served our country. We now let those not so high up on the food chain do the fighting along with our hired mercenaries.

Yes the 60's had deep problems that seemed to be shared by all segments of society.............yet today the ulitimate sacrifice is bore by so few.

Posted by susan 08/27/2009 at 10:43 AM

This coming at a time of kennedy's death....

watching all those TV clips, particularly the one of him delivering the eulogy at the memorial service for his assassinated brother Robert, with this voice cracking throughout,was heartbreaking. I was a kid but I can remember. My very thought today when i saw that was, wow, so so much happened during those years.

I love this sentence: That’s right, we’re back in 1968, the year when everything happened.

Posted by Arun 08/27/2009 at 10:45 AM

Congratulations, Steve. This article deserves that recognition. I hadn't read this one before - thanks for posting it.

Posted by susan 08/27/2009 at 10:48 AM

and yes, congratulations. first read for me

Posted by streams 08/27/2009 at 11:07 AM

Wow, Steve, congratulations, glad to hear you got an award for your writing. It thought you should have got an award for that piece you did on Rafa earlier in the year :) but maybe I was biased by the content as much as the writing :)

Posted by Well Left 08/27/2009 at 11:25 AM

Thanks for putting this up here, Steve.
Well-deserved recognition. I enjoyed the piece again, it blew me away in Tennis.

Posted by Andrew 08/27/2009 at 12:18 PM

Congratulations, Steve.

Sometimes I feel about watching you write a little bit like watching a top pro hit a shot - I sorta understand how it's done, but mostly enjoy it and admire what's gone into it.

Posted by M-life 08/27/2009 at 12:37 PM

Excellent work Steve. Congratulations to you, well earned, rightly rewarded.

Posted by Libby 08/27/2009 at 12:42 PM

Congratulations on the award, Steve -- very well deserved!

Posted by charles 08/27/2009 at 01:06 PM

lovely piece of writing

Posted by Mickey 08/27/2009 at 03:42 PM

Well written and informative--congratuations!

Posted by Sher 08/27/2009 at 04:32 PM

Congratulations on the award, Steve. You deserve it!

Posted by Heidi 08/27/2009 at 05:06 PM

Congrats, Steve. I remember this piece well. Great job! I hope there's a trophy you can put next to your squash memorabilia.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 08/27/2009 at 05:40 PM

Steve: Many congratulations. So thoroughly well deserved!

Posted by Pspace (Lestat Time!) 08/27/2009 at 07:13 PM

Congrats Steve. You da man. "soixante huitard"..nice! I always learn something new from your pieces.

Posted by Kenneth 08/28/2009 at 10:06 AM

Very well deserved accolades, Steve. The article is worthy.

Posted by Metro 08/28/2009 at 10:44 AM


Congratulations on your award, way to go. This is a well researched article and provides a good understanding of the history.

Posted by daylily 08/28/2009 at 09:49 PM

Steve, what a beautifully written exploration of the times i grew up in and, more specifically, the year i graduated from high school....ah yes, those were the days, my friend,.....

as usual, you've gone far toward capturing the moment in words. those were times so volatile and ever changing that one needs visuals to truly feel the disruption and eventual destruction of "normal everyday life" and everything customary and familiar about our lives. it was sort of a freefall into the unknown. it was an exhilarating and frightening time to be almost an adult -- no wonder drugs were so popular.....:)

i've always wondered just what transpired to change tennis forever in the open era, and now i know. thank you. the times they are a-changin',,,,,,,

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