Dear Sports Fan,
I’m excited that the U.S. Open tennis tournament is starting this week. I have a question which you might be able to answer though: why are some tournaments called opens? Who are they open to?
In today’s sports language, the word “open” is almost a synonym for the word “tournament”. If you ask a tennis fan what she’s watching in the next couple weeks, she’ll say, “the U.S. Open” not “the U.S. Open tournament”. In a more technical sense, the term does make a distinction between one type of tournament and another. In a non-open (sometimes called an “invitational”) tournament, all of the places in the tournament will be filled by professional tennis players based on a current ranking that is maintained by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). An open tournament doles out most of its places to players based on the same rankings but it reserves a small number of spots (16 for men, 8 to 16 for women) for people who qualify by winning or doing well in a qualifying tournament. (Side note — players who don’t win their qualifying tournament but who make it into an Open field anyway are wonderfully called Lucky Losers.) These qualifying tournaments are open to professional and amateur players. Amateur qualifiers have rarely made an impact in recent years. In men’s tennis, a qualifier named Vladimir Voltchkov made it to the semifinals in the 2000 Wimbledon and during the 2015 British Open (of golf), an amateur qualifier named Paul Dunne was tied for the lead after the third of four rounds. Nonetheless, the inclusive nature of open tournaments adds to their romance. Like an open cup in European soccer, the fact that an unknown could win is enough to justify their inclusion.
Given current use of the “open” moniker, you’d be forgiven for thinking that tournaments have historically been the province of professional players and the opening of open tournaments has always been to allow amateurs to join in. Historically, at least in tennis, it’s actually exactly the opposite. Before 1968 the major tennis tournaments each year were open only to amateurs. In 1968, they all began to allow professionals to compete. This change was reflected in the name of two of the tournaments. The U.S. National Championships became the U.S. Open and the Australian Championships became the Australian Open. In today’s money fueled sports world, it seems crazy to think that professionals were excluded and amateurs preferred, but that’s how things were in tennis before 1968.
Thanks for your question,