It is hard to realize that only 20 years ago this spring professional tennis was about as widespread as personal computers.
Pros were not allowed to play in the bastions of the amateur game, like Wimbledon and Forest Hills, although the leading amateurs were taking illegal under-the-table-payments. You never saw the results in the newspaper from one-night stands played by pros like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle.
But in mid-1967 New Orleans businessman Dave Dix-on, seeking events to put in the new Louisiana Superdome, thought pro tennis would be a perfect enterprise if marketed and packaged right. He received the backing of Dallas businessmen Lamar Hunt and AIG. Hunt Jr.
World Championship Tennis was formed and Dixon set out to sign eight of the leading amateurs in the world – John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Dennis Ralston, Pierre Barthes, Nikki Pilic, Roger Taylor, Butch Buchholz and Cliff Drysdale. They were called “The Handsome Eight” but the key signings were that of Newcombe and Ralston. Newcombe was the defending Wimbledon and Forest Hills champ and Ralston the leading American player.
There is no doubt amongst those players that the WCT signings helped cause “open” tennis in 1968. The result of “open” tennis was the great tennis boom of the 1970s, the effects of which are still evident today.
“Without those signings Wimbledon would not have opened its gates to pros in 1968, the event that signaled the beginning of tennis’ open era,” said Drysdale.
“The fact that WCT came in and a person of Lamar’s reputation, what he did in football and what he meant to sports, I think gave the players and potential sponsors the confidence to keep investing in tennis. Open tennis came and Lamar was instrumental in that,” said Buchholz.
“It (WCT) was the start of open tennis,” said Ralston. “The involvement of WCT has been very important for the game of tennis.”
“I think because all of us turned pro at once, it forced them to make the decision to make tennis open,” Newcombe said. “But when I signed with WCT I had no idea open tennis would be coming.”
WCT held a taped-for-TV event on the final day of 1967 in the parking lot of a Sydney, Australia suburb. However, the first true WCT tournament was in late January, 1968 at Kansas City. A piece of Astroturf was stretched over the ice of a hockey rink.
The Astroturf left 20 feet of uncovered ice and several players, particularly, Ralston, hit the ice and went sliding. For the first time, tennis players wore colored clothes and used yellow balls. Frustrated after losing his first pro match, Roche flushed his blue shirt down the toilet, flooding the restrooms and lockers.
The going was rough for WCT organizers as well. The only time WCT made any money was in Shreveport where a moving company had to pay $500 for failing to celiver the court on time.
As WCT went through its growing pains and the George McCall tour (Laver, Rosewall, etc.) was struggling, the amateur administrators recognized they could no longer keep the pros out.
The first ’open” tournament was held in Bournemouth in April 1968 and Wimbledon became the first major event to let pros play a few months later.
“A lot of people made a lot of sacrifices,” said Buchholz. “None of us can be tod thankful for what WCT has done,” said Laver. Added his Aussie mate Ken Rosewall, “I give WCT a great deal of credit. They established what a pro circuit could be. . . nearly everything about pro tennis had its start in the WCT series.”
A few of WCT’s contributions to tennis are: the creation of the first doubles only championship tournament to showcase a seldom appreciated aspect of the sport; the introduction of tennis worldwide in cities which had never hosted a tennis event; the development of a slower indoor surface for better tennis; and even a major increase in prize money.
Mike Davies, former WCT Executive Director, sums up WCT’s contributions like this:
“Before WCT, the sport was doing nothing. Without it, the sport would never have gotten off the ground. The federations? What did they do with tennis for 70 years? If Lamar hadn’t come in, the ILTF and national associations would still be running things. What would it be like? I wonder. . .”