Bygones: When Wimbledon opened its doors to a professional era

Champion: Australia's Rod Laver with the trophy after winning the men's singles final against countryman Tony Roche, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, at Wimbledon in 1968.  Picture: Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Champion: Australia's Rod Laver with the trophy after winning the men's singles final against countryman Tony Roche, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, at Wimbledon in 1968. Picture: Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images
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FIFTY years ago, Wimbledon defied the wishes of the International Lawn Tennis Federation and ushered in a lucrative new era of professional grand slam tennis – not that the sport’s chief protagonists would have recognised it at the time.

Rod Laver, returning to the All England Club after a five-year enforced absence, picked up £2,000 from a total tournament prize fund of £26,150 for winning his third men’s singles title, while women’s winner Billie-Jean King had to settle for just £750.

It is small change compared to the £2.25m each of the singles winners of Wimbledon 2018 will pocket, but it was the relatively low-key initiation of the open era in 1968 which paved the way for such an abundance of riches.

The ITF had resolutely refused to let professional players compete in grand slams, leading to an increasing number of top players pursuing their own rival tour, a situation which the Lawn Tennis Association among others recognised as unsustainable.

Announcing Wimbledon’s historic decision to allow professionals for the first time in 1968, the LTA’s Derek Penman said: “We must take action on our own account to make the game honest. For too long now we have been governed by a set of amateur rules that are quite unenforceable.”

Wimbledon 1968 thus became the second grand slam tournament, after the French Open that same year, to permit professionals, although the first few years of the open era would be hit by frequent boycotts by professionals who did not consider the prize money sufficient.

The change marked a major breakthrough for the sport but its top stars would still have to be patient. It took another six years before the men’s Wimbledon champion took home a five-figure sum.

Mark Staniforth

Laver beat Tony Roche in straight sets to underline his status as the world’s best player, having come through a different test in the fourth round against Britain’s Mark Cox, who took a set off the Australian before folding.

King won her third consecutive title with a victory over Judy Tegart. King had beaten British fourth seed Ann Jones in the quarter-finals, but young fifth seed Virginia Wade had suffered a shock first-round exit to Christina Sandberg.

The change marked a major breakthrough for the sport but its top stars would still have to be patient. It took another six years before the men’s Wimbledon champion took home a five-figure sum, while the women’s winner had to wait two further years.

This year, both will collect £2.25m out of a tournament prize fund of £34m. King and Laver will be this year’s ‘chairman’s special guests’ at Wimbledon, organisers have announced, as the tournament takes the opportunity to mark the significant anniversary.