Breaking Down the Biggest Changes in Tennis That Define the Open Era

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2017

Serena Williams serves during a match at the 2017 Australian Open.
Serena Williams serves during a match at the 2017 Australian Open.Kin Cheung/Associated Press

As Serena Williams closes in on a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, tennis' Open era is gaining more attention.

On January 28, Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam trophy with a straight-set win over her sister, Venus Williams, at the 2017 Australian Open, setting the record for most major titles for any player in the history of tennis' Open era.

The Open era began in 1968, and Grand Slam titles won before that have been separated into a diminished category, similar to NFL championships before the AFL-NFL merger and the advent of the Super Bowl.

But besides 1968, what defines tennis pre-Open era? Why are Serena's 23 and Steffi Graf's 22 Slam titles considered more notable than Margaret Court's 24?

When asked about the difference in the eras, Court told the Herald Sun she thought today's players have it easier. "It's difficult to think how one would play against another...I think today everything is so much easier, the racquets, everything."

Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou disagrees with Court and told the New York Time's Christopher Clarey: "With all the respect to Margaret Court, it's another era. Of course the record is there, and we definitely want to beat it, but there is a professional era, and the record was Steffi Graf."

Like all sports, tennis has evolved over the years. Changes in equipment technology, surfaces, style of play and attire are apparent. However, the most significant differences between tennis before and after the Open era involve professional status, competition and money.


Professional Status

Tennis players Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall during the 1968 French Open.
Tennis players Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall during the 1968 French Open.Marqueton/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Before the Open era, prior to the establishment of the ATP World Tour and WTA Tour, top professional players traveled largely as a group putting on a show, similar to the circus coming to town. Grand Slams were only open to amateurs.

Not that these amateurs were second rate. They were compensated, but mostly under the table.

Tennis.com's Steve Tignor explained the pre-Open era distinction between professional and amateur status had more to do with class than accomplishment.

That division had been at the heart of tennis since the game was invented in Victorian England nearly a century earlier. "Amateur" was the athletic version of "gentleman," the man of inherited means who didn't need to play a sport for money—having the leisure time to hone his skills on court was a sign of his status. The professional, on the other hand, had to serve and volley for his living. For much of the 20th century, the two groups competed on separate but not equal tracks.

Billie Jean King was among the top players who pushed Grand Slam officials to open their tournaments to professionals and end what was called "shamatuer," tennis.


The Competition

Margaret Court during a match in 1970.
Margaret Court during a match in 1970.AFP/Getty Images

The level of competition changed after the Open era, especially after the ATP and WTA began organizing and regulating the sport.

The quantifiable ranking system didn't come into play until a few years into the Open era.

"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 that could help sell tickets for the event, and they would have priority over others in acceptance into tournaments," Bob Kramer, told the ATP World Tour's James Buddell in 2013 on the 40th anniversary of its ranking system.

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.

"The Open era has come to mean open to all, especially if they have someone who believes in them. ... It is no longer necessary to have a tennis tradition to be a tennis nation, and having a tennis tradition no longer guarantees prominence as a tennis nation," wrote Bonnie D. Ford for ESPN.

Countries such as Japan, China and Canada have experienced tennis "firsts" within the past 10 years. Li Na was the first Grand Slam winner from East Asia. Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese man ranked inside the top 10. Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic established firsts for Canadians at Wimbledon.

The Open era also ushered in a better class of athletes. In making an argument for Court, her compatriot Evonne Goolagong Cawley told the Australian Associated Press (h/t Sydney Morning Herald) the 24-time Grand Slam champion was one of the first women to hit the gym.

At 5'9", Court was considered a gifted athlete who intimidated opponents. She was also taller than most of the women on tour. She towered over contemporaries King, 5'4", and Goolagong Cawley, 5'6".

At this year's Australian Open, Williams, 5'9", was the shortest player in a quarterfinals that featured four women 6'0" or taller.

Court won 11 Australian Open singles titles, all but four before the Open era. Due to the cost of travel to Australia and the tournament's lack of prestige sometimes, many players skipped the Slam Down Under. Back then, the Australian Open was to Grand Slams what Andy Murray is to the ATP's Big Four—the weakest link.

Even after the Open era, the tournament struggled to gain equal footing with the other tournaments. Eleven-time Grand Slam winner Bjorn Borg played there once. Jimmy Connors only played there twice.


The Money

Roger Federer speaks with members of the media after winning the 2017 Australian Open.
Roger Federer speaks with members of the media after winning the 2017 Australian Open.WILLIAM WEST/Getty Images

Serena and Roger Federer each took home roughly $2.7 million for winning this year's Australian Open.

Before the Open era, Grand Slams offered no prize money. So making that trip seemed like a waste of time and money to some of the early professionals.

As the game grew, so did the payouts to players.

Serena has earned more prize money than any woman in the history of sports. Federer and Novak Djokovic have both eclipsed the $100 million prize-money mark. The biggest purses are distributed at Grand Slams.

Big money turned Grand Slams into world-class events. These days, players rarely skip Grand Slams for any reason other than injury or childbirth.

Of course, those who played before the Open era could only compete in the time period they were born into. Their accomplishments deserve recognition and honor. However, the Open era changed the game, and the line that separates tennis before and after is distinguishable.