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Sunday, 22 April 2018 11:00 AM BST
Remembering Herman David
On the 50th anniversary of the Open era, remembers Herman David, the former AELTC chairman and open tennis pioneer... READ MORE

"The only way is unconstitutional action!" That may not sound like the kind of statement to be uttered by a chairman of the All England Club, but in 1967 it was.

The chairman in question was Herman David, who held the position from 1959 to 1974, and the full quote reads: "It seems we have come to the end of the road constitutionally and that the only way to make the game honest is by unconstitutional action." It was the signal that David had finally lost patience with those seeking to keep tennis ‘amateur’, and that he was prepared to act – even if the consequences proved to be turbulent.

Born in 1905, David played in the Davis Cup for Great Britain in 1932 as the Fred Perry era blossomed, and went on to be captain in the 1950s.

His passion for tennis gave him a sense of disgust at the hypocrisy he witnessed in the era of split amateur and professional tennis circuits, in which players were persuaded to remain amateurs via under-the-table payments. When he became Wimbledon chairman in 1959, it was with a firm intention of bringing the top professional players back into the fold in some form.

Indeed, as early as December 1959, David presided over an emergency general meeting of the Club at which it asked the Lawn Tennis Association to submit a motion to the International Lawn Tennis Association’s (ILTF) annual meeting proposing that tennis should end the amateur/professional distinction. The motion fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed under ILTF rules.

In 1964 David tried again to host a professional tournament, but failed to get the LTA to approve a ‘go it alone’ strategy, as it risked being expelled from the ILTF. But the tide began to turn during some quiet conversations he had at the Queen’s Club tournament in 1966.

Chatting to the BBC’s Head of Sport, Bryan Cowgill, David bemoaned the fact that he presided over the world’s most prestigious tournament yet couldn’t call his champion the world’s best player. Cowgill was about to launch colour television, and was looking for a flagship sporting event to show it off. Between them the two hatched a plan that led to Cowgill writing to Wimbledon in March 1967 proposing an eight-man professional tournament on Centre Court.

Cowgill knew he was knocking at a door already ajar, but he had to wait until after the ILTF meeting that followed the 1967 Wimbledon championships. At David’s instigation, the LTA proposed a limited number of open tournaments for 1968, but the idea was heavily defeated. That prompted David to make his ‘unconstitutional’ remark and give the go-ahead to the ‘Wimbledon World Professional Lawn Tennis Championships’, to be played 25-28 August 1967 on Centre Court.

The event proved an outstanding success. The eight invited to take part – and be paid for the privilege – were Butch Buchholz, Andres Gimeno, Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, Dennis Ralston, Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle. Laver beat Rosewall in a quality, competitive and highly entertaining final – in stark contrast to that year’s official final, in which John Newcombe had beaten Wilhelm Bungert in a drab affair.

But the battle was far from won, in fact David needed to stick his neck out further. In September he announced to the press Wimbledon’s "unilateral and non-negotiable" decision to make the 1968 Championships open to all-comers, amateur or professional, describing amateur tennis as "a living lie." His only condition for Wimbledon going open in 1968 was that the LTA agreed. At its annual meeting in December 1967, the LTA overwhelmingly backed the All England Club’s stance.

It’s easy with hindsight to see David’s actions as inevitable, but they were anything but. The ILTF reacted by calling on the LTA to ban Wimbledon. Then on 8 January 1968, the ILTF president Giorgio di Stefani announced Great Britain would be suspended from the ILTF with effect from 22 April. "It’s difficult to understand the hatred – and I use that term advisedly – that the amateur officials of tennis had for the professionals at that time," says Richard Evans, whose book Open Tennis came out in 1988.

But as well as being brave, David also had his share of luck. The Australians were strongly against open tennis, but the strictly amateur January 1968 Australian championships were particularly dull. And then the Texan oil millionaire Lamar Hunt announced that, with his nephew Al Hill Jr, he had created World Championship Tennis and signed up eight players (marketed as ‘the handsome eight’) for a professional circuit; five of them were amateur, including three of the four Wimbledon semi-finalists from 1967. Losing the odd Grand Slam champion to the professional ranks might be considered a misfortune; losing five in one go was looking like carelessness.

The result was that an extraordinary general meeting of the ILTF, tabled by Sweden, was convened on 30 March in Paris with one item on the agenda: the vote on open tennis. It was passed unanimously, without even a show of hands for those against it. It had taken nearly a decade, but David had ended the hypocrisy.

"There is no doubt that Herman David was the man who forced through open tennis," says the player, writer and broadcaster John Barrett. "He was determined to end the hypocrisy of the amateur officials who wanted to control the lives of the players even though they themselves were paying them under the table to play in major events. Herman had been my Davis Cup captain and had become a close friend. His motives were impeccable."

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