History of the Open Era

Established in 1968, the open era was a milestone in tennis history

Arthur Ashe surveys the courts while cadets practice, New York, 1968.

Mike Lien / New York Times Co. / Getty Images

The open era of tennis began in 1968 when most world-class tournaments first allowed professional players as well as amateurs to enter. Prior to the open era, only amateurs could enter the world's most prestigious tennis tournaments, including the grand slams, leaving many of the top players of the day out of the competition.

Background of the Open Era

The distinction between professionals and amateurs had long been artificial and unfair because many amateurs were receiving substantial compensation under the table. "The beginning of the open era was a milestone in tennis history and led to much better conditions for professional tennis players," says the website, Online Tennis Instruction. "With the open era also began a surge in the popularity of Tennis and the prize money for all players."

Once the governing bodies of tennis allowed open competition, almost all of the top players became professionals. The quality of the major tournaments, the popularity of tennis, and the prize money for the players all surged in response to the new open era rules.

The Open Era Ranking System

The ranking system — now so notable and closely watched by fans, sports writers, and announcers—didn't really start in any meaningful way until the open era. Rankings did not mean as much before the open era because the best—i.e. professional—players couldn't participate in important major and minor tournaments.

Bleacher Report explains:

"The history leading up to the ranking system included a 'star system' as far as entries into the tournaments. Some players would be on a list as players (who) could help sell tickets for the event, and they would have priority over others in acceptance into tournaments." 

The current ranking system still took a few years to become established, but in 1973, Ilie Nastase became the first No.1-ranked player under the computerized points system.

"The Open era also expanded the game's reach and exposed tennis to athletes outside of Europe, the United States and Australia. This brought more depth to the Grand Slam fields," Bleacher Report adds.

Before and After the Open Era

The open era is of such importance to the professional game of tennis that tennis stars, writers, and fans literally talk of the sport in terms of before and after the start of the open era. As Bonnie D. Ford wrote for ESPN:

"The pre-Open era concept of 'real' tennis as a non-commercial enterprise, and players as its gallant unpaid performers, is almost unimaginable now that athletes work on building their brands as much as their games and the infrastructure of the game is worth billions.​ "

Current and past tennis stars are described as "Open Era" icons. For example, John McEnroe, one of tennis's most iconoclastic figures, certainly attracted his share of controversy and press attention during his tumultuous reign at the top of the sport. As the ​book jacket of McEnroe's most recent book, "But Seriously: An Autobiography" explains: "He is one of the most controversial sportsmen in history and a legend of Open Era tennis."

ESPN's Ford sums it up best: "The Open era has largely encouraged greater longevity in the game and enabled continuity in the rivalries that are the lifeblood of tennis."