Wimbledon is the most prestigious, famous and time-honored tennis tournament ever created.
This is not hubris or braggadocio. This is plain fact.
Wimbledon began first. Wimbledon is staged on Centre Court, the most venerated tennis court on the planet.
No other major tournament has a royal box.
Hate Middle Sunday all you want (and at times, I hate it too, chiefly when it rains), but it identifies Wimbledon as a world-recognized event hosted by a small village with very intimate and steadfastly-maintained political demands. Wimbledon will always have a certain intimacy relative to its surroundings which Melbourne, Paris and New York — three great world cities in their own rights — don’t offer.
Wimbledon stands out. It always has. It is most deeply and centrally connected to the roots of tennis. That’s not embellishment. That’s reality.
Because of this, it is no surprise that when the Open Era of professional tennis began in 1968, Wimbledon had 128 players in its men’s draw and 96 in its women’s draw. Only Roland Garros matched Wimbledon in that first year of the Open Era. In 1969, though, Roland Garros could not maintain 96 women. In 1972, Roland Garros could not field 128 men. The U.S. Open needed eight years to get 96 women (1976).
From 1968 through 1980, Wimbledon was the only major to have 128 men and 96 women in all 13 editions. No other major matched Wimbledon. It was the unquestioned No. 1 major for every obvious reason.
And yet… even this, the crown jewel of majors, did something which was behind the times on a scale which is hard to imagine today.
If you hate Middle Sunday, there was a time when Wimbledon wouldn’t play on ANY Sunday, period.
This placed a limitation on women’s tennis at The All England Club.
Wimbledon women’s finals were scheduled to be played on Fridays through 1981. They moved to Saturdays beginning in 1982.
On Friday, July 3, 1981, Chris Evert defeated Hana Mandlikova to win her third Wimbledon title. That was the last Friday final, but it was part of a 14-year run in the Open Era.
This reality of Friday women’s finals explains in part why Wimbledon didn’t have a 128-player women’s tournament in all the years it had a 96-player field. It is true that the 96-player field still set the standard (through 1980 — the U.S. Open moved to 128 for the first time in 1981), but it could have been 128 if Wimbledon had allowed play on one Sunday… or if the tournament had been willing to play the women’s final before the men’s final on Saturday’s order of play.
As it was, since Wimbledon was not willing to play the women’s and men’s finals on the same day, the tournament maintained a Friday women’s final through 1981. Given that lack of flexibility (sounds familiar, right?), organizers did not allow for wiggle room.
As soon as Wimbledon insisted on a Friday women’s final without play on Middle Sunday, the reality was plain: The women had 12 available days of play. Asking — or rather, forcing — the women to play seven matches in 12 days (no play on Middle Sunday) would have been brutal. No other major would have imposed such a burden on its players. A 96-player tournament gave top players a first-round bye and a six-round path. The lower-rung players had to play seven rounds, but the whole field did not.
As mentioned above, the true obstacle was not so much the refusal to play on Sundays (though that didn’t help). The idea that the women couldn’t or shouldn’t play on Saturday was the bigger error. That seems so hard to understand through a modern media lens.
Not having play on a Saturday would seem to run against every instinct and effort to make a product more visible for global television consumption. It’s not as though we had black-and-white on the telly in 1968. Color TV was common. Television had established itself as the dominant global communications medium. Having a women’s final on a Friday? Even for 1968, that seems hard to digest.
The ultimate reminder — and takeaway — from all this: Wimbledon, for all its history and tradition, showed even in its Open Era beginnings (and through 1981) that it could be very inflexible and unresponsive to seemingly obvious needs.
Wimbledon scheduling cock-ups and limitations aren’t just a modern thing. They have existed throughout the Open Era. This is part of the point of this Tennis Tumult series.