Commentary

Ashe, King propel tennis to new levels of awareness and popularity

In 1968, amateurs and pros unified, boosting tennis into a new, unequivocal frontier. Joel Drucker looks back at the first decade of Open era tennis, from the "Love Double" to the "Battle of the sexes."

Originally Published: October 14, 2008
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

Arthur AsheAP PhotoArthur Ashe's U.S. Open championship in 1968 was a watershed moment in many different ways.
Key moments of the Open era: Part I. Dawn (1968-77)

1. Open at last
For decades, tennis had been a sport divided into two realms. There was the prevailing amateur world, where players competed at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, Forest Hills and other disparate tournaments at the whim of organizers who would provide under-the-table payments and other nefarious forms of compensation. Then there were the pros, who earned legitimate money but were banned from all these prestigious events. The movement to make tennis an Open sport had been going on for decades, but not until the spring of 1968 did it finally happen. Though it would take some time to sort out the nuances, tennis had at last entered the modern era of sport -- and soon enough, television coverage and the ascent of America's fitness craze would trigger the tennis boom.

2. Women's lob
Though many of the powers that be felt there was no market for women's tennis -- including the likes of promoter Jack Kramer and players such as Arthur Ashe -- Billie Jean King, World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman and a troupe of ardent players believed otherwise. As fate had it, 1970 marked the last year cigarette companies could advertise on television. Heldman, a good friend of tennis-loving Philip Morris CEO Joe Cullman, convinced Cullman it would be a fine idea to have his Virginia Slims brand -- then trumpeting the phrase "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" at upwardly mobile women -- use that leftover money to sponsor a fledgling circuit. With King as the star and Heldman as the operator, they were off to the races. The rapid ascent of the Virginia Slims tour didn't just propel the women's game; it boosted the entire sport.

3. New kids on the block
One was the girl next door, the other a cantankerous kid born in East St. Louis, Ill. Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors would become the icons of the tennis boom. Evert's run to the semis of the 1971 U.S. Open made her the quintessential ingenue. She would rapidly turn into a leading lady, showcasing exceptional poise and sportsmanship. Connors burst on the scene as the man you loved to hate -- a highly driven competitor who turned the sport's acoustic garden party into an electric jungle. It was only fitting that, for a time, they were romantically involved. The Evert-Connors 1974 "Love Double" win at Wimbledon is one of the more unique achievements in the history of sports. But long after breaking up, Evert and Connors would remain joined at the hip as two prodigies who ushered in new levels of popularity -- and success.

40 years of the Open era

Since 1968, tennis has truly been open -- to pros and amateurs alike. In our weeklong series, we take a look at the key moments in each of the four decades of the Open era.

Monday
• Ford: The era changed tennis
• Bodo: The key figures
Tuesday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1968-77
• Watch: Bud on 1968-77 Wednesday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1978-87
• Watch: Debating 1978-87
Thursday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1988-97
• Watch: Debating 1988-97
Friday
• Drucker: Key moments, 1998-today
• Watch: Debating 1998-today
• The Open Book gallery
• Bodo: Forgotten moments

4. Speak softly and carry a big stick
Howard Head had already made a name for himself as the creator of a new brand of skis and, subsequently, a family of fine tennis rackets. But as he studied tennis, he figured that one way people could better enjoy the game was if they had an easier time hitting the ball. So why not make a bigger hitting zone? Introduced in 1976, the Prince Classic's green throat and 110-square-inch head at first seemed ridiculous, particularly when compared to the 65-inch standard. But the joke was on its many victims. Rapidly the Prince caught on with players of all levels, triggering new approaches to racket development and, as Head had envisioned, indeed making the game more accessible to far more aspiring players.

5. A fitting start
African-American Arthur Ashe had penetrated the lily-white sport with grace, understatement and, most of all, a superb tennis game. It was only fitting that his racket would speak exceptionally loudly in the summer of 1968 -- when he peaked at the very first U.S. Open. Ashe would later call it "a year when you could hardly breathe." But on the court he was the one suffocating opponents with his slashing backhand and powerful serve. The U.S. Open then was played at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, a club that had once denied membership to Ralph Bunche, an African-American Nobel laureate. In becoming the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam singles title, Ashe clearly showed that tennis was headed in new directions.

6. Rocket runs the table
Rod Laver had already earned all four Grand Slam singles titles in a calendar year back in 1962. But he was an amateur then, and even Laver would confess that there were others -- such as pros Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad -- better than he. Now that tennis was fully Open, Laver at last put his stamp on the sport as a dominator par excellence. His toughest battle came in the first Slam, a rough-and-tumble five-setter in the semis of the Australian Open versus his fellow lefty Aussie, Tony Roche. From there, Laver faced his share of challenges but continued to deliver the goods, beating a trio of Hall of Famers in each of the last three finals: Rosewall in Paris, John Newcombe at Wimbledon and Roche in the finals of Forest Hills. Since then, only three men have even won three Slams in a single year.

7. The battle of the sexes
By 1973, with pro tournaments airing on all three networks, prize money soaring and recreational play taking off, the tennis boom was nearing its zenith. So it was only fitting that the sport had grown large enough to stage an allegorical spectacle -- the "Battle of the Sexes" match pitting 55-year-old Bobby Riggs against 29-year-old Billie Jean King. To Riggs, a Wimbledon champion back in 1939, chauvinism was merely an expedient platform for getting himself back in the thick of a growing sport. To King, it was a deadly serious challenge to the women's circuit's quest for credibility. For all the talk among men and women both inside and outside the game, at heart no one really knew what would happen. In front of a national TV audience and record tennis crowd of 30,472 gathered inside the Astrodome, King earned a resounding straight-sets triumph. Years later, with Riggs on his deathbed, King would visit the rival who'd become a friend. Said Riggs, "We really made a difference, didn't we?" King cried and nodded.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Connors and Chris Evert
AP PhotoJimmy Connors and Chris Evert were more than tennis icons, sharing a well-documented romance as well.
8. Martina makes her move
She would later jokingly call it "The Lefthander Who Came in from The Cold," but 18-year-old Czechoslovakian Martina Navratilova wasn't laughing very much when she showed up at the Immigration and Naturalization Service on a Friday evening to seek political asylum in the United States. Earlier that day she'd lost in the semis of the U.S. Open to Chris Evert. As her star ascended, Czech authorities were leery of letting Navratilova keep her prize money and tour the world on her terms. By taking this bold step, Navratilova created a paradigm for tennis success that holds to this day: an ambitious East European coming to America to seek fame, fortune … and freedom.

9. King Arthur's masterpiece
Occasionally there comes a single encounter that alters the history of an entire sport. In football, it was Joe Namath's leading the AFL's New York Jets to an upset win over the NFL's Baltimore Colts. In boxing, it was Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle," in which he toppled George Foreman. Coming into the 1975 Wimbledon final, Ashe was nearly 32 years old and had surprised many by even advancing that far. His opponent was defending champion Connors, who sizzled with fiery intensity and aggressive counterpunching. But Ashe, normally a slash-and-burn player, went against his nature and authored a masterpiece -- a rope-a-dope-like mix of guile, finesse and occasional power that staggered Connors.

10. Captain America conquers corruption
In the Cold War years a trip to Eastern Europe was a risky proposition. America's Davis Cup team trekked to Bucharest, Romania, in the fall of 1972 for the Davis Cup final. The squad's hotel was a garrison, heavily guarded by a security force even more on its toes in the wake of the recent Munich Olympics slaying of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches (two of America's players were Jewish). It wasn't much better on the court, either. First there was the red clay -- by far the toughest surface for American players. The local officials made numerous calls favoring the Romanians. So it was that Stan Smith took charge. On Day 1, he earned a convincing straight-sets win over his toughest rival, Ilie Nastase, who'd extended Smith severely in that year's Wimbledon final and had just won the U.S. Open. On Day 2, Smith partnered with Erik van Dillen to secure a doubles triumph. On the final day, Smith took on the devious Ion Tiriac. On most occasions, Tiriac could only mildly trouble Smith. But in this instance, aided by the corrupt officials, Tiriac pulled out every trick possible to send the match into a fifth set. Smith rose to the occasion, opening the set with an ace to kick off a 6-0 win.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.