An Open Court
For Robert J. Kelleher ’38, that’s not just a phrase for someone in search of a game. It’s a campaign for justice that embroiled him in controversy and helped earn him a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Inducted during a July ceremony in Newport, R.I., Kelleher was honored for a love of the game that has spanned over 70 years, and for his contributions to tennis as a U.S. Davis Cup captain and president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now known as the U.S. Tennis Association). Tennis great Billie Jean King introduced Kelleher and noted that he “should be thanked by every professional tennis player living.”
“He gave the big push needed to make open tennis a reality in 1968. Instead of peanuts we were getting under the table as amateurs, it was prize money on top of the table, and the game took off,” said King.
Before his presidency, which began in 1967, major tennis tournaments such as Wimbledon were closed to professional players and prize money was not offered, although clubs did unofficially give the best players cash incentives to play. Kelleher set out to change the system so that anyone could play, and to institute legitimate prize money in tournaments, which would stop the chicanery that he said was besmirching a great game.
The cash payoffs were “widely known and seen as a necessary evil,” said Kelleher. “I was very much opposed to it on principle. I ran on a campaign to be elected president saying I’m not going to be president of a crooked organization.”
Most U.S. tennis officials disagreed with him. Nevertheless, Kelleher won the presidency and, through an international campaign, accomplished a change that has allowed the sport to flourish, he believes.
Although Kelleher was honored as an administrator, as a young adult he competed (though, he said, he mainly lost) against some of the best players in the country. His love for the game blossomed as a child after his family moved to Forest Hills, N.Y., a place comparable to Wimbledon in U.S. tennis tradition. He later served as captain of the tennis team at Williams College, where his team beat the favored Harvard team, and as the non-playing captain led the U.S. Davis Cup team to victory over Australia in 1963.
A U.S. district court judge in Los Angeles, Kelleher still presides on the bench but has stopped playing tennis for health reasons. He continues to be an ardent supporter of the game, however, serving on the board of directors of the Southern California Tennis Association and remaining involved with the national organization. Through his longtime ties to the game, he has known every person who has joined the ranks of the International Tennis Hall of Fame for the past 50 years. In September, he went to the tournament that by its very name is a tribute to his commitment to the sport: The U.S. Open.
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