Exploring the Open Era

From the moment I could walk, my parents had placed a tennis racquet in my hands. I don’t recall any strong feelings toward the sport one way or the other as a young child, but after a brief stint of disliking it in middle school (combine middle school angst with the fact that my best friend hated it and you get a kid who also hated it), I came to love tennis.

I played on synthetic clay courts at Chatham, New Jersey’s Center Court Tennis Club, which later became Centercourt Athletic Club. My family belonged there long before I was born and we still hold a family membership today.

Learning to play on clay allowed me to feel like something of a super human; being taught how to slide on the clay into a shot is a lot like being taught to steer into the skid when your car slips on ice. When you get it right, you feel like you’re floating.

Because I learned to play on clay, the rise in my interest level in tennis coincided with the dawn of Rafael Nadal’s reign. The lefty and King of Clay won his first Grand Slam tournament at the 2005 French Open, and has continued to dominate both on clay and off for the last 10 years, winning 67 titles since he turned pro in 2001. Fourteen of those are Grand Slams, which includes nine at the French Open, where the surface is clay.

As a lefty who plays primarily on clay, watching Nadal was pivotal to my fandom.

His success, along with Roger Federer’s, pushed me to work harder on the court, but it also fueled a deep interest about the sport’s history. My parents had taken me to the US Open almost every year, but what did I really know about the Open Era? As it turns out, not much.

I had no idea that before the Open Era, tennis players played for no profit. I didn’t know that, when the Open Era began in 1968, it was actually because players were looking to be paid to play the sport they loved. After all, it had never occurred to me that, at one point in time, people had to fight to be allowed the chance to make a living on the court. Nor did it dawn on me that, in tennis’ early years, people only played if they were well-off enough to afford it.

But once those looking for prize money were allowed the opportunity, the Open Era brought in floods of players passionate enough about the sport to travel the world just to play in the hopes of someday being a champion.

For me, what separates tennis from other sports is the very thing that deters many others: its focus on individuality. Players who participate in the Open Era can essentially decide exactly how they’d like to pursue their dreams and execute their careers.

In team sports like baseball, football, and basketball, entire franchises are involved in the hiring of one player. Contracts, deals, and trades are all taken into account, and this goes for the coaches, too. In tennis, a player chooses when to go professional, who to hire as their coach, and even what their schedule of play looks like year to year.

For instance, diehard fans of the sport know that Serena Williams is likely to steer clear of smaller tournaments in order to train and save her energy for the Slams. When she does play smaller tournaments, she’s choosing them quite selectively and wisely.

Even with her selectivity, Williams has won 69 career titles since she turned pro in 1995 at the age of 14. She has won five tournaments this year alone, three of which were Grand Slams. She headed into the US Open last Monday as the number one seed, and is currently the number one singles player on the global women’s tour.

What Williams displays is a longevity unknown to many, even in a sport where players seemingly stay on tour longer and longer as the years go by. She’s been a force with which to reckon year in and year out, having won at least one Grand Slam in 12 of the last 16 years. She has 21 Grand Slam titles under her belt, just one behind Steffi Graf, the player who holds the women’s record of 22.

While some may say that Williams is too old at 33 to expect to surpass Graf’s record, she’s likely on her way to both meeting it and achieving the coveted four Slams in a year. Only a handful of players have done this since the Open Era began in 1968. She shows no signs of slowing down and has thus far had one of her most dominant years yet.

For this, Williams and Federer are two players still very much in their prime, though they are in their thirties.

Tennis historians might say that the secret to the longevity seen nowadays is linked to the improvement of equipment technology. If this assessment has any weight, we have to wonder how much more the tour can change in the next 50 years. If players can expect to succeed well into their thirties thanks to graphite racquets and, in some cases, into their mid-forties, what’s the hurry to turn professional at age 14?

Tennis may have changed since Arthur Ashe won the first US Open, back when it was held in Forest Hills, NY, but it’s still growing. In fact, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is currently undergoing a makeover to accommodate more fans.

So, as the 2015 US Open reaches its midpoint, this fan is rooting now more than ever for Serena Williams to make Open Era history.

Feature photo courtesy of Edwin Martinez.