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What is the meaning of 'Open Era' in tennis?

Tennis' Open Era, which began in 1968, changed the face of tennis forever. It may be the single most important moment in tennis history.

Ken Rosewall playing in the first Open Era French Open in 1968

While watching tennis on TV, we often hear the term ‘Open Era’. Most of the regular tennis followers know that the Era commenced in 1968, and records held by tennis players in Open Era are held more significant in tennis history. Let us delve a little further into this whole ‘Open Era’ stuff and find out how tennis changed after this most significant event in tennis history.

Let us first however differentiate between amateur and professional players, as these are two terms we would hear very often when we talk about the ‘Open Era’.

Amateur vs Professional tennis players

Professional players are players who enter tournaments for prize money as well as ranking points. This term is used because it describes the fact that a player plays on a tour and travels between different tournaments.

The two main professional tours are the Association of Touring Professionals (ATP) Tour for men and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour for women. Players who are not yet ready for ATP Tour or WTA Tour status play smaller prize money tournaments, or in leagues with cash prizes.

Amateur players are very competitive, ranked players who do not take money to play.  Amateur standing can be lost if a player takes any type of prize for winning a tournament or accepts free equipment from a sponsor. This is especially true of federation-sponsored tournaments and high school and college play.

NCAA players must follow strict guidelines for maintaining their amateur status, including refraining from competing on professional teams, even without pay, or signing contracts for future play or pay.

Recreational players are also considered amateurs.

Tennis before the Open Era

For the first 90 years, since the advent of Grand Slams in 1877, most of the top tennis tournaments were reserved for amateurs. Players were given no prize money for competing in these tournaments and were only compensated for travel expenses.

These amateurs were affiliated to official tennis federations and could not play in any tournament for money.

However many top tennis players, were not happy to be amateur and wanted financial security. So, they started playing tournaments for money, run by private parties. These were called professionals. They were denied entry into most traditional tennis tournaments, including the prestigious Grand Slams.

This also resulted in top tennis tournaments like Grand Slams being devoid of many top tennis players on the planet, who played in the professional tournaments like U.S. Pro Tennis Championships and French Pro Championships.

This was the prevailing situation till 1968, when the world of tennis changed and ushered in a new age, now known as the Open Era.

Factors leading to the Open Era

The All England Club was the first club to usher in the Open Era, when it allowed professional players to compete for the Wimbledon Championships in 1968. This was a move which was ratified by International Tennis Federation too, the major governing body for tennis in the world at that time. This was followed by other Grand Slams too.

So what brought about this change?

The main driver behind this change was economic. Prior to the Open Era, most of the prestigious tennis tournaments did not pay any prize money to the players. Most of the players were paid very low by their associations. This meant most tennis players could not depend upon tennis for a living, and many even left tennis early to earn a living.

This was also responsible for many top players opting out of this, and playing for money outside. This was bad for the health of the sport, which needed top talent to attract more public attention and sponsorships, a realisation that dawned on professional tennis leagues in the 1960s.

The last major factor which led to the authorities bringing in the Open Era was in 1967, when two American promoters signed in all the remaining top amateur players to professional tennis, including the then Wimbledon champion John Newcombe. This was like the last nail in the coffin and propelled ITF to usher in the ‘Open Era’.

“The move is made because the English are tired of the hypocrisy in the sport, the shamateurism that plagues high-class tennis. It is well known that amateurs bargain for -- and receive -- exorbitant expenses to compete at many tournaments. We must take action on our own account to make the game honest," said Derek Penmam of the British Tennis association.

"For too long now we have been governed by a set of amateur rules that are quite unenforceable,” he further commented.

Positive changes brought about by the Open Era

The Era established prize money for the tournaments and enabled players to have a long term career in tennis. This also meant that all top players could play in these premier tournaments.

This led to an improvement in the quality of tennis played in these tournaments. This led to a greater public interest and more sponsor interest to cover these. All these brought about more money into tennis and also brought about more professionalism into tennis.

More money meant players could focus entirely on their tennis. Fitness standards of tennis players also improved a lot in the 70s, and made tennis a more competitive sport. Racket technology also changed significantly. All these were massive changes which changed the face of tennis.

The global fame and status tennis enjoys now, it has a lot to thank the Open Era for ushering in this change. It was truly a watershed moment in the history of global tennis, and changed the sport forever. 

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