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.
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 on the 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 international caliber even in today's depressed amateur game. Norway is convinced that open tennis would make the job harder.