The Last Amateur Grand Slam
Australian Open 2008
by Joel Drucker|
The 2008 Australian Open marks the 40th anniversary of the last amateur Grand Slam. Melbourne's historic Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club hosted the last Slam that banned professionals from competing. The Australian Open - which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary at Melbourne Park - has changed immensely during that time, as has the sport of tennis.
Only in retrospect, there are days when the world seems firmly set in place. Ponder such dates as December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001. And then the world changes forever.
Tennis has such a date, too. January 28, 1968 was the last day of that year's Australian Championships. It was the last day of what proved to be the final Grand Slam event played prior to the onset of tennis' Open era. By the time of the next Slam, at Roland Garros, full-fledged professionalism was underway, tennis rapidly shedding its prevailing spirit - and pretense - of amateurism.
But even in Australia that January, there was a sense that the sport was on the brink of change. Ever since Bill Tilden had turned pro in the '20s, the sport had been split in two. Amateurs competed at Grand Slam events and tournaments all over the world, often earning wages with under-the-table payments or jobs that permitted excessive time for traveling the tennis circuit. Asked how he financed his adventures, an exemplary "tennis bum" of that time, Whitney Reed, responded, "I have a paper route." Reed, by the way, was ranked number one in America in 1961.
A select few amateurs that reached the pinnacle - such as Tony Trabert after earning three Slams in 1955, Ken Rosewall after winning the U.S. Championships in 1956, Lew Hoad following Wimbledon '57, Rod Laver after taking all four in '62 - were given the chance to join the barnstorming pro tour and compete for money. But pros were banned from Slams and tournaments. With the world's best players unable to compete at the showcase events, tennis' growth prospects were perpetually still-born.
But in August 1967, Wimbledon hosted an eight-man pro tournament starring Laver, Rosewall, Hoad and Pancho Gonzales. Inspired by the high quality of tennis, eager to jettison what he called the "living lie" of amateurism, Herman David, chairman of the All England Club, made a revolutionary announcement that fall. In 1968, come hell or high water, Wimbledon would be open to all tennis players. If the sport's bastion of prestige and tradition would pursue change, others surely would follow.
Yet even as the likes of USLTA president Bob Kelleher and French honcho Philippe Chatrier joined arms with David and sought to make their Grand Slam events open, a great many nations remained resistant. "Officials like to control the game," says Roy Emerson, the world's best amateur for much of the '60s. "They didn't want any change. They wanted to be the ones controlling things rather than looking ahead for the game."
By the fall of 1967, though, the amateur world was growing rapidly depleted. Emerson and his fellow Aussie, John Newcombe, had won all of that year's Grand Slam singles events and were each turning pro. A flock of other top amateurs also signed contracts, including future ATP president Cliff Drysdale, Australian Tony Roche and British star Roger Taylor. "Everyone was wanting Open tennis to happen, but we had no idea when it would come," says Emerson. "I didn't have a lot of time left, so I thought I'd turn pro while I was playing half-decently."
So it was that in January 1968, the Australian Championships kicked off with one of the most shallow fields in its history. Of the previous year's quarterfinalists, only one was even entered in the tournament. Gone was Emerson, who'd won it every year from 1963-'67. Gone was finalist Arthur Ashe, at the time enlisted in the U.S. Army. Gone were Newcombe and Roche, now members of the fledgling "Handsome Eight" pro tour. Gone was Australian stalwart Owen Davidson, who in the fall of '67 had accepted a job as head coach for the British LTA. Forty-seven of the 64-main draw spots were filled by Australians, the vast majority of whom likely never competed at any other Grand Slams.
The setting was far different from today's sprawling Melbourne Park. Melbourne's Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club was similar to such old-school venues as the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, a cozy place known for its unpredictable grass courts and first-rate showers. Kooyong, an aboriginal term for "the Haunt of the Wild Fowl," took its place in a four-city rotation that saw the event played in different spots each year - Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
The top seed was the only remaining quarterfinalist from '67, native son Bill Bowrey. "He was a very hard worker and a tough competitor," says Davidson, a longstanding doubles partner with whom Bowrey reached the Wimbledon, U.S. and Australian finals. Like most Aussies, he was known by a playful nickname - "Tex," dubbed by Newcombe after Bowrey fell off a horse the only time he ever got on one. And also like many Aussies, Bowrey was technically in the employ of a sporting goods company. He'd begun work for Dunlop in his late teens, stringing racquets, making $20 a week, granted time to travel the globe on a single round-the-world airplane ticket.
The way it worked in the amateur era was that a player could continue to collect meager money for expenses, garner a bit more under-the-table if he was a top-ranked star and, most important of all, enjoy free housing at various club members' homes so long as he was still active in the tournament. "So we'd play singles, doubles, mixed - 53 weeks a year if we could have," says Aussie Ray Ruffels, the second seed in Kooyong in '68.
This was also the high point of Australian dominance. From 1950 to '67, Australian won the Davis Cup all but three years. With three of the Slams played on grass, tennis' ruling nation's unofficial motto was "first to the net, first to the bar." As Bowrey recalls, "If you didn't get to net within two shots, our Davis Cup captain, Harry Hopman, would go nuts."
Ruffels had hoped to be the one facing Bowrey in the finals. Just prior to Kooyong, he'd won an event in Hobart. "With all those great players out, it was a great opportunity for us all," says Ruffels, who currently works as a USTA coach.
But after disposing the only American in the tournament, a little-known player named David Smith, and then winning a five-set quarterfinal over Phil Dent (father of current pro Taylor Dent), Ruffels was tripped up in the semis by Spaniard Juan Gisbert. "He served hard and high to my forehand," says Ruffels. "Most of us then were using a Continental grip, which was great on low balls and volleys but not so good against a big kick serve like Juan's, particularly when he could hit it that well up to my forehand."
Fortunately for Bowrey, though, Gisbert's kick serve fed into his strength: a backhand return he could hit early and get in on. On a windy day, a nervous Bowrey won the first 7-5, but then lost his first set of the tournament, 6-2. The third was exquisitely tight. With trademark Aussie understatement, Bowrey says he "got through" the third 9-7 and the fourth 6-4. It was the high point of his career. As was the tradition in those days, when leaving the court he tucked all of his belongings - wristbands, watch, little else - into a racquet cover and collected his prize: a silver coffee urn and an ornament about the size of a doorstop.
By March, the news was official: All Grand Slam events would be open to pros and amateurs alike. "I was on the cusp of the wave," says Bowrey. "It was a real explosion." A year later, he'd lose in the quarterfinals to none other than Ruffels. But the big boys were back in force. Laver won the first Australian Open, kicking off his incredible second calendar year sweep of the Slams. For Bowrey, though, earning that victory sandwiched between Emerson and Laver - 48 Slams between them - was a sweet moment. A month after his '68 win he married future Hall of Famer Lesley Turner. The two reside in Sydney, but each year "Tex" ambles his way to Melbourne as a world feed television commentator.
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