PARIS — It would have been extraordinary enough if the first open Grand Slam tournament had been staged in routine conditions.
After all, it had taken tennis officials such a long time to allow professionals like Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales to compete with the amateurs, some of whom were paid under the table like professionals anyway.
But after nearly 80 years, the door to the French Championships was finally open to all of the game’s great talents in 1968 in Paris. The trouble was that barricades were up in other parts of the city as the protests and strikes that had been raging throughout May in France and beyond continued to cause upheaval with students and workers rallying against the established order.
Fifty years later, Nancy Richey, the tenacious American who won that first French Open women’s singles title, remembers it clearly.
“There were no airlines; the phones didn’t call out of the country; the garbage was piled sky high; the gasoline was basically being rationed,” Richey, now 75, said by phone from her home in San Angelo, Tex. “Everything was basically shut down, and the tournament had official cars and they were having a hard time getting gasoline so they kept asking the players to move closer to the courts. I moved hotels three times.”
On May 22, five days before the tournament was to begin, the French Tennis Federation’s organizing committee seriously considered calling it off because of concerns about the lack of public transportation and the financial impact. With the need to add 100,000 francs in prize money (about $141,000 today) to the usual organizational costs because of the professionals, the committee members had doubts that enough fans would show up to avert a big financial deficit.
But the spectators did not turn out to be the problem: On the contrary, they had plenty of free time with the city on strike. About 120,000 turned out, close to triple the previous year’s figure. According to L’Equipe, a chair umpire had to ask the fans at one of the second-round matches on May 30 to turn down their radios because they were listening to President Charles de Gaulle give a speech.
It was the players who struggled to reach Roland Garros Stadium.
Many came from abroad and were forced to get to Paris by circuitous routes. Abe Segal, the irrepressible South African player, bought a Ford Mustang in Geneva and drove to Paris carrying jerrycans filled with gasoline.
Richey and other American women, who were scheduled to play the Federation Cup (now called the Fed Cup) in Paris the week before the tournament, had to fly to Brussels and take a bus. When Richey arrived, she asked reporters, including Rex Bellamy of The Times of London, “How do we get out of here?”
Richey laughed at the anecdote: “I don’t remember saying that, but it doesn’t surprise me that I did,” she said. “You get a little claustrophobic when you think you can’t get out.”
Richey’s brother, Cliff, also a leading player, had to fly into Luxembourg and took a long, expensive taxi ride. Others hitchhiked or, once they got closer to the city, even borrowed a bike.
Rosewall was one of the least inconvenienced. With the commercial airports out of commission, he was able to fly from New York to a military airfield south of Paris in Brétigny-sur-Orge.
But many players did not make it at all, which resulted in 30 walkovers in the first round of the men’s tournament and four more in the second round. Zeljko Franulovic, representing Yugoslavia, reached the third round without having to play a point.
Five of the 16 seeded men’s players failed to show, including the past or future major champions Lew Hoad, Jan Kodes and Nicola Pietrangeli. There were other prominent absentees, among them the American amateur Arthur Ashe, who would ambush the professionals to win the first United States Open later in the year.
Margaret Court, the great Australian player still working her way back from maternity leave, also skipped the 1968 French Open, as did a group of prominent professional men known as the Handsome Eight, who were under contract with World Championship Tennis and who included Tony Roche, John Newcombe and Cliff Drysdale. Roche had won the French singles title in 1966 and lost to Roy Emerson in the final in 1967.
“A lot of the top players were missing, but we were delighted to be there and we knew how important the moment was,” said Rosewall, who, then 33, was part of a group of men’s and women’s professionals under contract with the American promoter George McCall’s barnstorming National Tennis League.
Rosewall had won at Roland Garros in 1953 before turning professional after the 1956 season. The 1968 tournament was his first Grand Slam event in 12 years.
He had prepared unconventionally, spending the week before the tournament on Long Island with Bobby Riggs, the American tennis star and inveterate gambler who was then 50 but still an accomplished player (and hustler).
“We were going to have some friendly tennis, but every time I played a set with Bobby he wanted to put some money on it,” Rosewall said. “We ended up driving into New York every day to play with some of his friends, including Jack Dreyfus of Dreyfus Funds. All these guys played for money, and at the end of the day Bobby said to me, ‘Let’s have a set of singles for 100 dollars.’ I didn’t want to do it, but he kept pushing, and I won that day. And the next day he wanted a handicap so we had to start with him up 30-0 each game, and the next day it was a 30-0 lead plus the sidelines, and the day after that it was a 30-0 lead and a 4-0 lead to start each set.
“I won all of those, but on the last day I lost to him because he said, ‘You only get one serve.’ So he got back to even in the end, but I think it all kind of got me in good form going into Paris, and all those times we played in New York was on a clay court.”
Rosewall, with his tactical acumen and strong single-handed backhand, would go on to win the 1968 title in Paris, defeating his fellow Australian pro Rod Laver, 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, in the final after a tough five-set semifinal against the Spaniard Andres Gimeno.
Richey remembers saving a match point in the third round against Karen Krantzcke of Australia. Down the stretch, she came back to beat a fellow American, Billie Jean King, in a three-set semifinal and then beat Britain’s Ann Jones, the 1966 champion, in a tough three-set final.
King and Jones had turned professional earlier in 1968, joining McCall’s group, but Richey was still an amateur and could not claim the prize money of 5,000 francs (about $7,100 today).
“The U.S.L.T.A. kept us players from receiving prize money that year; they were holding on to the amateur game to the last breath,” Richey said, referring to the United States Lawn Tennis Association. “I had to play for a $27-a-day per diem from the U.S.L.T.A., and I had a hard time getting it from them.”
From the French, she got a replica of the trophy. “The tiniest trophy I own, in a little green box that is lined with white satin,” she said. “It’s a different trophy than the one they have now. It’s still the Lenglen Trophy, but it was so rinky-dink that they’ve changed it from when I won.”
But Richey still considers that title the most meaningful of her career and said she probably would not have won if she had turned professional along with King, Jones, Rosie Casals and Françoise Dürr.
“George McCall didn’t ask me to be part of that, and part of the thing was I’d been out with a bad back a good part of the year, and I think he was afraid I would end up being lame,” Richey said. “As it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I played all the Caribbean circuit and was in really good shape physically, and those four were not as physically fit as I was, and it was one of the big reasons that I beat Ann in the final.”
It was early June by then, and the city was on its way back to normal. The newspapers, unable to print throughout Roland Garros, would resume publishing the Monday after the tournament. Many of the protests had dissipated.
“One of the strikes broke the afternoon I won the tournament; I was able to call my mom and dad in Dallas and tell them I won,” Richey said.
But the sport of tennis would never return to normal again. It was open for good, and Richey, who was one of the original nine women to sign with the Virginia Slims professional circuit in 1970, takes pride in seeing that the singles champions in Paris this year will earn 2.2 million euros, about $2.6 million.
“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “That’s why the nine of us did what we did. To get the money coming in and for players to be able to make a living out of tennis.”
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