Wimbledon and the US Open shared an anniversary this summer. It was exactly 50 years ago that the two tournaments closed their doors to professionals for the last time.
They also shared a champion, with John Newcombe winning both finals in emphatic fashion. After crushing Wilhelm Bungert 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 at The Championships, Newcombe beat Clark Graebner 6-4, 6-4, 8-6 in the final of the US Nationals – the forerunner to the US Open - at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills.
Newcombe’s triumph in New York was the amateur game’s final fling. Many of the world’s best players had already turned professional, including Newcombe’s fellow Australians Rod Laver, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, and promoters were trying to tempt some of the best remaining amateurs to join them.
In the middle of the US Nationals Newcombe and his doubles partner, Tony Roche, were approached by a New Orleans promoter, David Dixon, who was working with the wealthy Texan oilman, Lamar Hunt.
Newcombe and Roche were offered $45,000 a year for a three-year deal to play for 20 weeks of the year on a professional circuit organised by World Championship Tennis. At the time they were receiving just $500 from the US authorities to cover the expenses they incurred by playing in New York, including their air fares and accommodation.
The two Australians signed up for WCT later in the year, but by then the writing was already on the wall for amateur tennis. The All England Club had been campaigning for years for tennis to go open and in August 1967 it staged the “Wimbledon World Lawn Tennis Professional Championships”. Eight of the world’s top professionals played as one of the world’s major tennis countries welcomed professional players into one of the sport’s historic venues.
Earlier in the summer Newcombe had been one of 20 Australians in the field for the gentlemen’s singles at The Championships. Seeded No 3, the 23-year-old from Sydney had never gone beyond the fourth round in six previous appearances at The Championships but came through some testing matches against the likes of Graebner, Stan Smith and Nikki Pilic to reach the final. Bungert emerged from a top half of the draw in which none of the four seeds made it to the quarter-finals.
In the final Bungert had three points to take a 3-1 lead but won only three more games as Newcombe coasted to victory in just 70 minutes in one of the most one-sided gentlemen’s singles finals in Wimbledon history.
“Newk” did not win as many Grand Slam titles as his compatriots Laver and Roy Emerson but was a fine player. “Newcombe’s shots are out of the textbook, hit with tremendous power,” Fred Tupper wrote in “The Fireside Book of Tennis”.
He added: “He is a net rusher and crowds it, probably too closely, but he is fit and fast enough to retreat for the smash or lob. His most effective weapon is that huge service, which he banged in game after game with brutal consistency.”
Tupper described Bungert as “one of the last true amateurs, a shy, humorous man who enjoys his tennis and plays about six weeks a year, mostly for the fun of it. Yet the rigid stance, the jerky movement, the stoical mien all portray the Prussian image.”
Although the gentlemen’s singles final was disappointing, the last Championships of the amateur era set an attendance record, with the 300,000 mark broken for the first time. The total attendance for the 12 days was 301,896 as The Championships recorded a surplus of £54,863.
By the following year tennis had gone open and The Championships welcomed professionals back into the fold, even if the prize money was modest by modern standards. The gentlemen’s singles champion in 1968 received £2,000 but the ladies’ champion earned only £750. First-round losers earned just £50 in the gentlemen’s singles and £25 in the ladies’ singles.
It is a far cry from the prize money levels of today. Roger Federer and Garbine Muguruza, the singles champions this summer, won £2.2m in prize money, while first-round losers in both the gentlemen’s and ladies’ singles left with cheques for £35,000.