AS THE NEW CENTURY DAWNED IN AMERICA, the game of tennis, then only 26 years old, was embodied by a young Harvard tennis star named Dwight Davis–Anglo-Saxon, upper-class, amateur and male–who gave birth to the concept of a tournament between nations (the Davis Cup). But by century’s end, tennis has become one of the most diverse and well-compensated sports, crowning champions of both genders and from scores of countries.
The sport crossed its Rubicon in 1968 when “open” prize-money tennis was approved and the game’s players became pros who would eventually earn millions. Prior to that, the international tournament circuit was essentially an amateur odyssey, with “expense” money going to leading players. But opens allowed a handful of barnstorming pros to crash tournaments formerly forbidden them, principally the four major championships–Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S.
America’s first tennis great was Bill Tilden, who dominated in the 1920s. He was No. 1 for six straight years (a record Pete Sampras tied in 1998) and led the United States to a record seven successive Davis Cup tides. Those feats made Tilden an American icon of the time, alongside Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Man o’ War. While Helen Wills Moody helped put women’s tennis on the American map, a daring Frenchwoman and contemporary named Suzanne Lenglen became the women’s game’s biggest draw. With Parisian chic and graceful technique, she raised hemlines and public interest, drawing overflow Wimbledon crowds as she won six times between 1919 and 1925.
In 1938, American Don Budge became the first to achieve tennis’ most impressive feat, the Grand Slam, winning all four major championships within a calendar year. Since then, merely three women and one man have won Slams: American Maureen Connolly (1953), Australian Margaret Court (1970), German Steffi Graf (1988) and the double Slammer, Aussie Rod Laver (amateur in 1962, pro in 1969).
Laver was the centerpiece of 25 years of Aussie male reign to the mid-’70s–16 Davis Cups, 61 major singles titles–that featured many Hall of Famers, including Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe. Effervescent Billie Jean King and steely Chris Evert kept American women out front in the ’70s and ’80s, only to be eclipsed by a naturalized citizen, Czech defector Martina Navratilova, possibly the greatest of them all. A Swede, Bjorn Borg, muscled in on the men in the ’70s and was joined by American lefties Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in a three-way rivalry that lit up the game.
More recently, youth has ruled. Pete Sampras, at age 19, was the youngest male to win the U.S. Open (1990) and has since added three more to go with his five Wimbledon crowns. Martina Hingis, at age 16 in 1997, became the greenest Wimbledon winner of the 20th century while ascending to No. 1. And today the Williams sisters–Venus and Serena–teenagers still, are poised to ascend to the top. All will continue to be factors as tennis moves into the 21st century.