Open tennis began to smoke last October, when Britain first announced that in 1968 she would be going it alone. It slowly smoldered until the International Lawn Tennis Federation said "yes" in March, and it finally burst into flame at 3:53 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, when Mark Cox attempted a passing shot down Pancho Gonzalez' backhand sideline.
Already Cox had surprised his firmest supporter, his wife Alison, by reaching match point. Surprise rose to sheer disbelief when a tired Gonzalez volleyed the ball beyond the sideline to establish Cox as the first amateur ever to beat a professional in championship tennis.
For over 30 years tennis fans had been fed the nonstop story of professional superiority. From Vines through Budge, Riggs, Kramer, Gonzalez, Rosewall and Laver, the constant cry had been, "He's the world champion," and, so persuasive was the advocacy, most believed the claim to be true. Cox proved there are loopholes.
Fate and not a little devious British guile decreed that Bournemouth should provide this first open test. A smart, successful holiday resort nestling on England's sunny southwestern coast its 150,000 inhabitants include a goodly measure of retired and aged service personnel. High among their delights rank the annual British Hard Court Tennis Championships at the treelined, gracious West Hants club. There, since 1926, legendary giants like Ren� Lacoste, Frederick Perry and Jaroslav Drobny have established traditions in keeping with worldwide amateur tennis conservatism. Would the colonels and their ladies accept the "open" revolution or simply snort and stay at home?
The answer quickly came. Two stick-assisted septuagenarians, who hobbled their way to the ticket office at 8 a.m. one Sunday weeks before the meeting, began setting a pattern that ended with advance bookings totaling $15,600. This was $1,200 more than the highest total sale at any previous Bournemouth hard court championships. By the time gates were shut on finals day gross gate receipts had reached $28,872, or twice as much as the previous record and almost three times the 10-year average of $11,270.40.
Such interest should have merited a pompous opening—perhaps an avenue of trumpeters from clubhouse to center court. Instead, open tennis almost crept in unnoticed. While a galaxy of columnists, with millions of readers spread from Australia to the U.S. and back again to Italy, Germany, France, Turkey and all points North and West, awaited the appearance of Australia's Fred Stolle and his amateur adversary, Peter Curtis of England, Owen Davidson, coach of Britain's Davis Cup team, and one of his star pupils, John Clifton, began play on the secondary court spread before the wooden Edwardian clubhouse. At precisely 1:43 p.m. Clifton served to Davidson's backhand, raced for the net and ended a five-shot rally with a kill well beyond Davidson's reach. The first line of "open" history had been written.
Twice on that first day it seemed a professional giant would tumble—Stolle to Curtis and Andres Gimeno to Stanley Matthews, son of Sir Stanley Matthews of world soccer fame. Neither professional enjoyed the experience. "I was under such heavy pressure all the time because he had nothing to lose," wailed Stolle. "If I'd been beaten I would have been blasted all the way from London to Sydney. They would have taken it out not on me but on the whole professional game. I lost concentration a hundred times wondering what they would write in Sydney if I lost."
Somehow the pros survived this and the second day, too, so that starting the third day they were slightly bloodied but still unbowed. Then into the picture stepped a blond, crinkly-haired, economics graduate from Cambridge University, who is nearing the end of the two-year tennis trial he has set himself. Suddenly the first open was something more than an experiment.
Born in Leicester, a thriving English industrial city, in 1943, Cox displayed an inherent ball sense and timing ability while he was still a child and he showed a far-above-average talent for soccer, cricket and badminton. However, Cox believes that heredity has an immense effect on human personality, and with good reason. His father, Leslie Cox, a personnel manager and night-school teacher, gave him his first tennis lessons. A stylist, Cox Sr. bordered on county class when younger. Marian Cox, Mark's mother, was less skilled on a tennis court, but the Cox dining-room sideboard is amply laden with prizes she won for running. So when Cox took up the game at 8 he had behind him the solid athletic background common among the Australians, who so often dominate the world tennis scene.
A glittering junior career pointed toward his becoming a tennis specialist, but Cox had other ideas. They included possession of a white Jaguar car, and he decided there were quicker and safer ways of acquiring one of these than through tennis. So, resisting great pressures to become a touring amateur, Cox showed that his equable exterior cloaked a strong determination. He crammed for and obtained a place at Downing College, Cambridge, from which he graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in June 1966. Marrying his only ever girl friend, Alison Stroud, on his 23rd birthday, Cox embarked on a "success in two years or quit" tennis program.