The lords of tennis are at each other's throats again. The United States Lawn Tennis Association is threatening to bar the contract pros from playing at Forest Hills and the contract pros are saying they may not show up even if they are invited. The USLTA has been scurrying around holding a lot of meetings, trying to decide what to do with these greedy pro promoters who want to take so much out of the game and give so little back. It was bad enough when they insisted on management fees—expenses—at Forest Hills last year. Now they are hoping to promote several open tournaments of their own and they want the blessing of the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Talk about brass! Don't they realize who runs this game?
Let us digress for a moment and read from Article I of the USLTA Constitution: The USLTA is a nation-wide, noncommercial membership organization devoted to the development of tennis as a means of healthful recreation and physical fitness and to the maintenance of high standards of amateurism, fair play and sportsmanship.
Ah yes, those high standards of amateurism. The USLTA may have many things on its mind these days but amateurism is not one of them. The current bickering over management fees and tournament promotions is just a minor skirmish in the major battle for control of professional tennis. Not content with running the amateur game, the USLTA would like nothing better than to put World Championship Tennis and the National Tennis League, two pro organizations which between them have 32 of the world's top players, out of business. It is a battle that already has done much to retard the development of the game at a time when other sports are surging ahead in popularity, a battle that has cost tennis the respect of the sporting public. The pro promoters are not entirely blameless but the major share of the guilt must lie with the USLTA.
It is important to understand that the USLTA is very much in the business of promoting professional tennis. Those high standards of amateurism may have been brightly burning beacons in the days when R.D. (Dicky) Sears was beating everyone at Newport, but somewhere along the line the flame flickered and died. Amateur stars began showing up at tournaments and receiving envelopes with "expenses" inside, while USLTA officials (and those of the parent body, the International Lawn Tennis Federation) stood idly by. It was not merely a joke when a player would say: "I'd like to turn pro, but I can't afford to."
For years the payment of generous expenses, both in the U.S. and abroad, effectively subdued professional tennis. Sure, Jack Kramer had his little group of touring pros, and every so often he would steal into the amateurs' camp and pirate away a Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad or Tony Trabert, but usually only one at a time. That left the bulk of the leading tournament players still under USLTA (or ILTF) control.
Then along came World Championship Tennis and the National Tennis League, and suddenly everyone seemed to be signing up. Not just a Rod Laver but all the Roches, Newcombes and Drysdales, too. In short, everyone you would expect to see in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
Something had to be done and indeed something was. At the historic ILTF meeting in Paris in March of 1968 at which the federation decided to allow open tennis and thus let pros play at Wimbledon, Forest Hills and a few other tournaments, it also agreed to establish a new breed of player, the registered player, a person who was neither pro nor amateur. He would be able to pick up prize money in open tournaments just like a pro but he would still be eligible for the Davis Cup like an amateur. It was an obvious attempt to keep players under the control of the national associations.
The USLTA did not adopt the new category at first, but events at Forest Hills that September precipitated a change. Arthur Ashe won the first U.S. Open by beating Tom Okker. Ashe, as an amateur, got expenses, a lot of handshakes and a big trophy. Okker, as a registered player, walked off with $14,000, money that would have been Ashe's if the USLTA had approved the new category and if Ashe had opted to play under it. Now it was clear that unless the USLTA moved fast Ashe, along with his Davis Cup teammate Clark Graebner, would accept a pro contract. Thus, at the annual USLTA meeting in February 1969 that body so devoted to amateur ideals created the category of "player," someone who not only could play for prize money but could endorse products, teach tennis and anything else you want, Arthur. Just don't sign a pro contract with WCT or NTL.
To make certain that "players" would be sure of making enough money to keep from turning pro the USLTA also sanctioned a whole raft of tournaments offering nearly $300,000 in prize money and from which pros were barred—Dutch door opens, they are called. Ashe and the rest of the Davis Cup team were quick to realize that they had excellent bargaining power over the USLTA and they have exercised it. Just three weeks ago in Boston a simulated Davis Cup match was scheduled—Ashe, Cliff Richey, Stan Smith and Graebner against a team of Australian contract pros. A USLTA team against a contract pro team? You can't play, the USLTA told Ashe and the rest. Ashe said they would play anyway. And they did.
Once you realize that nearly every major decision in recent years has been geared to eliminating or at least combating the contract pros, then the minor disputes become easier to understand. Take the current one that promises to give us a Forest Hills without Rod Laver, the defending champion, and his fellow contract pros.