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1967: With the Wimbledon Pro event, professional tennis finally comes to the amateur game’s most hallowed lawn
A final between Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall leaves the sellout crowd ready for more, after an eight-man pros-only exhibition event invades the last bastion of amateurism: Centre Court.
Published Jun 17, 2022
Centre Court turns 100 this year. During that time, this bastion of propriety and tradition has also borne witness to a century’s worth of progress and tennis democratization.
For its centennial, we look back at 10 of its most historic and sport-changing matches.
Rod Laver d. Ken Rosewall 6-2, 6-2, 12-10
1967 Wimbledon Pro
By the mid-1960s, Wimbledon, tennis’s oldest and putatively most prestigious event, was showing its age.
For more than a decade, the sport’s best male players had, one by one, left the amateur-only Grand Slam events behind to join the barnstorming pro tours. Only the ghosts of Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, and Rod Laver, among other fan favorites, were left to haunt Centre Court. Even the game’s famously hidebound amateur officials could see that their product was suffering.
So during the 1966 edition of Wimbledon, All England chief Herman David and others on the governing committee paid a visit to the BBC tent on the grounds. There they met with longtime pro-tour proselytizer Jack Kramer and Bryan Cowgill, the executive at the network in charge of tennis broadcasts. David told the duo that Wimbledon didn’t want to continue as a second-class event with only amateurs; but he wasn’t sure how the public would react to professionals invading the last bastion of amateurism, Centre Court.
Kramer said he thought the public would love to see the pros there. After some back and forth, Cowgill proposed a compromise: Start by holding a pros-only exhibition at Wimbledon and see how it goes.
The eight-man Wimbledon World Lawn Tennis Professional Championships—known more concisely as the Wimbledon Pro—was scheduled for the following August. With $35,000 in prize money, it was the most lucrative event in tennis history to that point.
“We couldn’t wait to get back,” Laver said. Five years earlier, when the Rocket announced that he was turning pro, the All England Club had stripped the two-time champion of his honorary membership, and asked him to please refrain from wearing the green-and-mauve tie that the club had awarded him—in lieu of prize money—after his victories.
Herman David needn’t have worried about public reaction. After a slow start on opening day due to a lack of pre-tournament publicity, fans streamed into Centre Court to get a glimpse of these legendary figures from the sport’s past; 30,000 spectators came over three days, the final two of which were sold out. The BBC, which had broadcast in color for the first time at Wimbledon earlier that summer, did the same for its pro counterpart.
The three-round singles draw kicked into high gear with an epic opening-day contest between the 39-year-old Gonzalez and the 32-year-old Hoad, which the Australian won 3-6, 11-9, 8-6. The tournament ended, appropriately, with the world’s two best players, Laver and Rosewall, facing off in the final. Laver won in relatively one-sided fashion, 6-2, 6-2, 12-10, but the match still far outshone John Newcombe’s easy win over Wilhelm Bungert in the Wimbledon men’s final from earlier that summer.
After spending the better part of a century in the wilderness, the pros had stormed tennis’s amateur fortress, Centre Court. The following summer, they would be back for Wimbledon itself.
“The temple didn’t crumble, or even jiggle, when the heathens entered,” Bud Collins wrote. “It only shuddered romantically, especially for the Laver-Rosewall final, a grateful response to the pros’ rapturous brand of tennis so long absent.”