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Richard Evans: The Wimbledon Boycott Forty Years Later

6/27/2013 4:00:00 PM

by Richard Evans

For days on end the headlines were plastered all over the front page of all the London papers. “GREEDY PLAYERS THREATEN WIMBLEDON!”   “KRAMER GO HOME!”

It is difficult, forty years on, to understand just how big a story it was as Player Power clashed with Amateur Control in that unforgettable summer of 1973.  And it was all about control, not money as the media tried to make out.

The fact that 91 male players elected to pull out of the tournament they wanted to play above all others had everything to do with the realization that they had to break free of the shackles imposed on them by amateur officials who viewed professionalism with disgust and were trying, desperately, to cling on to their badges and blazers and buffoonery that went with strutting around a center court on finals day.

The ATP, with the legendary godfather of pro tennis Jack Kramer as its first CEO, had been formed just nine months before and if the player association was going to have any clout at all, this was a battle it could not afford to lose.

The issue that sparked it all was incidental. Nikki Pilic found himself in the impossible position of being told to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia during the same week as the WCT Doubles Championships in Montreal – an event he was contractually obliged to play with his Australian partner, Allan Stone.

It turned into the classic tug of war but Pilic stood firm and told the President of the Yugoslav Federation, who happened to be his uncle, that he would honor his pro contract. Uncle or not, the President promptly banned Pilic which meant that he would not be able to play any of the traditional championships that came under the auspices of the International Federation which, of course included Wimbledon.

Under normal circumstances all this could have been cleared up long before Wimbledon but Allan Heyman, the Danish lawyer who was President of the ITF at the time, saw an opportunity to crush the ATP in its infancy by moving the battlefield onto the pristine lawns of the All England Club. His intentions became crystal clear when his American ILTF colleague Walter Elcock boasted to Wimbledon finalist Dennis Ralston, “You guys may boycott a lot of tournaments but you’ll never boycott Wimbledon.”

Wrong. Because that’s just what they did. Cliff Drysdale, the ATP’s first President, caught the mood very quickly as he canvassed players in the locker room at the Foro Italico during the Italian Open. They were militant. Not because they loved Pilic but because they were fed to the teeth with being ordered about by amateurs who had no investment in their welfare.

“And they really did try and control us,” said John Barrett, the former British Davis Cup player and ATP Board member who actually abstained when it came to the vote because of his close affiliation with the All England Club. “You had to ask for permission if you wanted to play out of the country for more than seven weeks. How could you function as a professional like that?”  

So by the time everyone arrived in London for Queen’s, the situation had become electric. As Kramer chaired a succession of ATP Board meetings in  a basement room at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, the press whipped up public opinion and gave the story a very pro-Wimbledon slant.

Selling it on the basis that this was just a bunch of pros demanding more money, they went in search of a villain and, inevitably, settled on Kramer, the cigar-smoking impresario. After all, it would have been difficult for them to have labeled much loved players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe as villains.

But they had got it wrong. Kramer, although in favor of taking a tough stand, was only doing the players bidding. After the Board, which included the likes of Ashe, Barrett, Stan Smith (the defending champion), Mark Cox, Jim McManus and Ismael El Shafei had decided to sleep on their original decision to go with the boycott because, as Smith told me, “It was such a momentus decision,” Kramer got a midnight phone call from Newcombe.

“If you guys buckle and agree to play, I’ll resign from the ATP tomorrow,” Newk told Kramer.

It was the strongest possible indication of the mood of the locker room because Newcombe, the champion in 1967 and 1970, ’71, had the most to lose. He had been prevented from defending his crown the year before because, in an oft-forgotten fact, all 32 members of Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis group, were banned from playing at Wimbledon in 1972.

“I actually turned up to sign in and play,” Newcombe told me while we chatted at Wimbledon this week. “But they said I was still under contract with WCT and that, therefore, I was banned. It was just how it was at that time. The amateur game was very frightened of Lamar.”

So, a year later, Newcombe was facing the prospect of missing another precious opportunity to add to his list of Wimbledon triumphs. So, too, was Rosewall, the little maestro who had won everything in the game – except Wimbledon. All those players were desperate to play but they knew they had reached a moment of destiny and, in the face of mounting criticism, they held firm.

During the course of the week, with Drysdale racing between meetings, including a couple with of the Minister of Sport, Eldon Griffiths, at Westminster, the whole matter had gone to the High Court when Pilic took out an injunction against the ILTF in an effort to get the ban lifted. Although his judgment seemed somewhat ambiguous, Mr Justice Forbes came down on the side of the establishment and ordered Pilic to pay $11,000  in court costs.

So when the players elected to defy that judgment and go ahead with the boycott, the media criticism was raised to fever pitch. “You’ve had your day in court and lost so now play!”  was the gist of the newly-minted headlines.

But in a rare and remarkable show of unity, the players held firm and, on the Friday before Wimbledon was due to start, Drysdale took a list of 91 players to referee Captain Mike Gibson informing him that they would not be playing.

Only three players broke ranks: Ilie Nastase, who insisted his Romanian Federation had ordered him to play; Roger Taylor, the British hero who was put under intolerable pressure to appease his fans and a low ranked Australian called Ray Keldie. Neither Nastase nor Taylor were able to grab the opportunity presented to them and the tournament was won by Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia  who like the Soviet Union’s Alex Metreveli, the man he beat in the final, was not an ATP member.

In Sports Illustrated Joe Jares wrote at the time: “It seems that the ILTF are doomed to lose a good chunk, and maybe all, of its power over the pro game.”

Jares was right. The game had changed forever. Within weeks the ATP’s legal counsel Donald Dell was busy negotiating with the ILTF and the tournaments to set up a tri-partite Men’s Professional Tennis Council which would run the game for the next two decades.

And the players were sitting right where they wanted to be – at the table. “Without the boycott it would have taken years for that to happen,” said Newcombe.

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Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 160 Grand Slams. He is author of 16 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He was the play-by-play commentator for BBC Radio at Wimbledon for twenty years. 
Follow him on twitter @Ringham7