Roland Garros It houses huge stories hidden within many editions. One of them was in 1968, a unique tournament framed in an absolutely unique professional and social context. Before the Nadal and even before the Björn Borg there were great players who, at that time, were entrenched in a single circuit, prisoners of a division and a gap that had not changed until that year: the amateurism against professionalism.
Until the end of the decade of the 60, the great promoters filled the professional circuit with great stars, tennis players who received financial remuneration for the activity they played and moved away from the stereotype of the “white sport” of tennis. They played in big tours, where there were not only tournaments but also frequent exhibitions between two opponents, while their contemporaries amateurs they only played for the glory and pride of winning at Roland Garros or Wimbledon. For the most part, the best tennis players of the moment began their careers being the best at the amateur level to take the leap of professionalism.
But that had to end, and 1968 it was the first step towards an egalitarian transition. “It was time for tennis to become open,” said Roy Emerson. While the first non-distinguishing tournament was played in April, at Bournemouth (the British hard court championships, won by Ken Rosewall), Roland Garros arrived with a mandate on the horizon: to be the first Grand Slam of the Open Era. It was, although the contracts that some tennis players had signed with promoters prevented the presence of illustrious names in the sport.
John Newcombe, Niki Pilic, Tony Roche, Cliff Drysdale or Roger Taylor disputed the World Championship Tennis, led by Lamar Hunt, and were unable to travel to Paris because of their contractual obligations. Manolo Santana stayed playing a tournament in Hamburg, as Pedro Hernández points out in La Vanguardia, but professional figures such as that of Rod Laver, Rosewall, Andrés Gimeno and Pancho Gonzales returned to Paris after years without visiting the Bois de Boulogne. They all joined the amateur players, led by the undaunted Ion Tiriac.
As Roland Garros prepared to welcome the pros, the streets of Paris they were continuous barricades. Remember, we are in May 68, in a social context in which a quasi-revolutionary revolt has just broken out, a student-born movement that enacted changes in society. The instigators were politicized sectors of a youth that rebelled against the consumer society, that even called for the end of the universities and that wanted, in short, to open up the social panorama of that time.
Charles de Gaulle came to fear for his government, but none of that prevented Roland Garros from going ahead. The players were looking for absolutely unimaginable ways with which to get to Paris. “We were in Brussels, getting to Paris was a problem, of course. We never rode a bike, but it came to mind. There was nothing: no planes, no trains, no buses … no way. I still remember make that trip, put in a Belgian car. A man left us 100 kilometers from Paris. Going from there to Paris was another problem, but we finally made it. I still remember the tear gas in the streets, there were no lockers … there was nothing. “
Despite the uncertain context of the tournament, the attraction was served. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall … nobody wanted to miss those great tennis players. There were 59 withdrawals without contesting the match in the first round of the men’s and women’s draws, and players like Nicola Pietrangeli or Lew Hoad were prevented by their own federations at the enormous risk they ran to travel to Paris. It was quite an odyssey to get to a place that had gone crazy, of course, where the means of transport were completely closed.
Well, the images were clear. Boys up on the markers to watch the games, incredibly crowded stands. It was a sign that tennis had to bet on change, that a transition to a new decade together was the best option. “People would go up on the roofs of the houses to watch the games,” exclaims Tiriac. “Yes, I think there were more people who came to watch our games,” said a Roy Emerson who was the spearhead of amateur tennis in the 1960s. “There was an air of change in Roland Garros: the Federation had a new president, Marcel Bernard, with Philippe Chatrier as vice president. Everything was changing: that was May ’68 in tennis. “
“I remember playing the first game of the tournament against Georges Denieau. He was a coach, so I couldn’t play Roland Garros before. I remember that my game against Laver (in the quarterfinals) held the record for the most attendance until the new stands were built. she lived another atmosphere, it was incomparable “, closes a nostalgic Tiriac.
That edition was won by Ken Rosewall: he defeated Laver in four sets in the first final of an Open Era Grand Slam. The important thing, really, was not who won: it was a victory for tennis over the division, a victory in a climate of revolts and the first step for the best players in the world to live together on the same circuit. Then came Jack Kramer and the Grand prix… But that is another story.