Reform to an Open status altered the course of tennis history

Rod Laver manhandled amateurs and professionals alike, winning all four Grand Slams in 1969. Evening Standard/Getty Images

Baby boomers fueled the tennis expansion that came shortly after the Open era began in 1968, so the fact that modern tennis has reached the milestone age of 40 should have the same significance it had for that generation. Forty means mature, but not old; established, but still open to change.

The pre-Open era concept of "real'' tennis as a non-commercial enterprise, and players as its gallant unpaid performers, is almost unimaginable now that athletes work on building their brands as much as their games and the infrastructure of the game is worth billions. But back in the '60s and '70s, when so many social norms were under fire, the purported prestige of amateurism in tennis and other sports was one of the last to fall.

Profits and fear drove those who wanted to retain the barbed-wire fence between amateurs and professionals -- fear that money would corrupt sports, and a desire to control the purse strings so athletes didn't share in whatever hay there was to be made. The proudest and most astute of those athletes realized that while it was a privilege to play, it was unfair to be denied the ability to make a living by playing, and they pushed for reform.

Those who feared the influence of money had a point. Money has led tennis players and executives down some dubious paths in the last four decades, and gamblers can use it to try to corrode competition. But so it is in every other walk of life. Endeavoring to protect tennis, or any other sport, from worldly risks and rewards was an artificial construct.

"Open'' sport really means individual choice -- choosing how to conduct your career, how to develop your talent, how long you want to play, and what you do with the spoils of victory. The pressures of that free market have created a fabulously diverse cast of characters in tennis. On the first night of this year's U.S. Open, 24 of the 40 former U.S. Open champions paraded onto center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, named for the pioneer who won the first Open era Grand Slam event. They represented every background and lifestyle under the sun: entrepreneurs and rebels, pop-culture icons and parents, humanitarians and hell-raisers. Yes, the game made them rich, but their belly-flops and successes have made the game far richer than it would have been if tennis had been limited to those who could afford to play it for nothing.

It was breathtaking to behold the cultural distance traveled between Virginia Wade and Maria Sharapova, two elegant women who might as well have come from different galaxies. Or Rod Laver and Roger Federer, whose dominance, class and finesse will forever link them across a technological abyss with a wood racket on one side and graphite on the other.

The Open era has largely encouraged greater longevity in the game and enabled continuity in the rivalries that are the lifeblood of tennis. But things can still get out of whack, as Laver pointed out on the night of the 40-year anniversary gala. "If your pockets are full, you're gonna say, 'See you later, I don't want to play any more,''' said Laver, one of the players punished under the old regulations who more than vindicated himself after pros were accepted, and made his last Wimbledon appearance at age 38. "I don't know if that's the best criteria for playing and enjoying the sport,'' he added. Perhaps fittingly, given the frequency with which Federer is compared to Laver, the Swiss champion repeatedly vows to play into his 30s despite winnings of $43 million and counting.

Ashe probably would have enjoyed the human variety represented by the players who attended the celebration on that August night, although one of the former champions whose philanthropy he likely would have admired, Andre Agassi, was absent. Many other players are following in the generous footsteps of Ashe and Agassi in smaller ways. But interestingly enough, Ashe's exemplary push to bring the game to the disenfranchised is now being driven by a force much bigger than any one personality.

The Open era has come to mean open to all, especially if they have someone who believes in them. It also helps to have access to television, with its diffusion of the kinds of images that kindle young visions. It is no longer necessary to have a tennis tradition to be a tennis nation, and having a tennis tradition no longer guarantees prominence as a tennis nation. Hunger of all kinds puts future players in the hunt, from the Williams sisters of Compton, Calif., to the Russians and Eastern Europeans crowding the top ranks.

A little girl in Serbia sees Monica Seles play and demands a racket. Fifteen years later that girl, Ana Ivanovic, is her own tennis industry. A feisty red-headed boy from a family of artists and athletes in Latvia decides to take up the game in isolation, hitting with his grandmother. Fifteen years later, Ernests Gulbis is one of the brightest young lights of the men's tour.

Meanwhile, Great Britain struggles to produce champions in the sport it invented. A continent away, another country's leaders make a strategic budgetary decision, and presto -- China is a force in women's tennis. Open era tennis, in mid-life, has morphed from a members-only club to an international stock exchange where anyone can invest and take their chances.

Almost anyone, that is. "Keep going global,'' Martina Navratilova said on the red carpet at the Open gala. "It's great to see Asia becoming a big player, and I'm hoping Africa becomes a big player in the next 10 years. It's about giving kids an opportunity so they can get the same feeling we get, of hitting the perfect shot.''

This week, ESPN.com will take a telescopic look at the Open era -- not only for nostalgia's sake, but to try to get a grip on how far the sport might evolve in the next 40 years. It's hard to picture tennis changing as rapidly and wholly as it has since 1968 -- but as we all know, the fuzzy ball is prone to take some funny bounces, and it doesn't take much to alter its flight.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.