Golden Handcuffs

Monday, February 23, 2009 /by

by Pete Bodo

Greetings, everyone. It's nice to be home; we arrived in JFK (from Panama) at around 1 AM last night and got a few hours sleep before rolling into work (and school) this morning. I'll probably write a little about our trip later this week, and post a few photos for those of you who might be interested. But I wanted to get back in the flow here first, which isn't always an easy thing to do - especially when so much has happened while I was eating vegetables I'd never tasted (or heard of) before this trip, chasing Cowboy Luke around the backwash of the surf, and helping our hosts at La Loma Jungle Lodge shell chocolate beans.

Ever taste the bean from which chocolate is made? It's a lot like a large kidney bean that tastes like a concentrated dose of expresso coffee, with a dash of semi-sweet chocolate. The first one you eat tastes really bitter, but by the time you pop your third or fourth, the chocolate flavor is more pronounced and pretty soon you're popping the suckers like candy.

Pilic Anyway, I just wrote a post for ESPN on L'Affair Pe'er, basically interpreting the controversy the way a foreign policy wonk, or political realist, might look at current events - less with an eye toward the obvious "moral" or "human rights" dimensions at play (although they certainly exist) than the hard realities of who won and lost -  whose ambitions were more or less realized, and who managed to pursue his or her interests most successfully.

If you weigh those realities with a fairly clinical, dispassionate eye, you learn more, and that knowledge will shape your thinking in a more valuable way than simply picking your moral stance and trying to shout down whoever happens to have a conflicting view. Besides, most of you regular readers know how I feel about the engagement between tennis and the United Arab Emirates; if you don't, that's why we have the Search box.

The most striking thing to me in this latest controversy is how thoroughly and ruthlessly the promoters of the Barclay's Dubai Tennis Championships gamed the WTA, waiting until the last moment to reject Shahar Pe'er's visa application. The tournament gambled that neither the WTA at-large (meaning, the women players) nor their leader, Larry Scott, would have or find the political will to call them on what was really just another variation on the old bait-and-switch theme.

And it's significant that the issue was in one critical way not about "human rights" or Mideast politics - it was, and could have been made to be seen, as a quasi-legal contractual issue. That is, the WTA could have brought the tournament to a grinding halt in a way that had nothing to do with Pe'er's nationality, and everything to do with the contract between the Dubai tournament and the WTA.

So with a combination of hindsight (and a healthy appreciation for just how easy it is for a journalist to sound like a know-it-all, or worse), I'm going to suggest that when the crisis erupted, Larry Scott should have conferred with his board of directors and rallied the troops, using all of his authority to insist that Dubai issue Pe'er the visa or fold the tournament, on the grounds that the tournament was in violation of its sanction.Pe'er may not have been a top contender for the title, but players far less likely have won tournaments no less significant - and that's a matter of fact.

And when forced to address the obvious political issue, Scott should have just said: This has nothing to do with the nationality of Shahar Pe'er, or the WTA's institutional view of the Arab-Israeli conflict; the WTA would have been forced to issue the same ultimatum had a Canadian, Chinese, or Iranian player been similarly denied.

That would have put the collapse of the event squarely on the shoulders of the Dubai promoters (and for those of you who care about such things, it would have lessened the public relations disaster that this affair must have become for the title sponsor, Barclay's bank).

Instead, Scott blinked.

One helpful parallel here might be the history of the 1973 Wimbledon boycott. That also was a case of a single, not exactly iconic player (Nikki Pilic) from a relatively obscure nation (the former Yugoslavia) being denied entry to a tournament. The reason Pilic was barred was certainly less explosive and, to many, less inherently offensive. Pilic had bickered with his national association and was accused of refusing to represent Yugoslavia in a Davis Cup tie (a charge he vigorously denied), so the Yugoslav federation suspended him. The ILTF (back then, it was still the International Lawn Tennis Federation) backed its member federation, which meant that Pilic was not allowed to compete at Wimbledon (owing to the way the tournaments and ILTF were entwined at that time).

Very few people expected that the emerging ATP and its players would risk missing what was then still far and away the most important of all tennis tournaments. So, while it was for entirely different reasons, Wimbledon and the ITF really made the same calculations that must have played a part in Dubai's gamble: It's crazy, why would all these big international stars pass up all the glory and money just to stand behind one of their bretheren?

As it turned out, the person most astonished by the ATP's decision to fight and, ultimately, boycott, was the man at the center of the controversy, Pilic. When Wimbledon started, 79 players - the vast majority of whom could hardly be described as stakeholders in the proceedings - answered the fledgling ATP's call and observed the boycott. That included 13 of the original 16 seeds.

The most conspicuous "scab" of them all was Jimmy Connors, who felt antipathy toward the ATP and it's top stars (men like Rod Laver, Stan Smith, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe). And then there was a new, teen-aged face out of Sweden, Bjorn Borg, who didn't know from ATP or boycotts or any of that other stuff. And here's the political backstory: at the time, the Iron Curtain was still a very real - and formidable - entity. The Soviet Russia held sway in its own dominion, and it was working overtime to score propaganda points on the international sporting stage.

In tennis, the Soviet bloc nations danced an elaborate waltz with the ILTF, seeking to enhance their credibility and reap the rewards of athletic glory (which included much-cherished hard currency) - even as they felt no kinship with the nations where institutions like the ILTF were created, and flourished. As a result, many of the best players at Wimbledon in 1973 were from the eastern bloc, and under orders (and intense pressure) from their home associations to ignore the call for a boycott. The penalty for bucking the association in an Iron Curtain nation was revocation of all international traveling privleges - or worse.

Ultimately, Ilie Nastase of Romania, already an international star became, with Connors, the co-favorite to win Wimbledon. Alex Metreveli of Russia and Jan Kodes, of the nation then known as Czechoslovakia, were also highly touted.

Nastase couldn't handle the pressure; he was beaten in the round-of-16 by Stanford University star Sandy Mayer. Metreveli and Kodes fared better - the former upset Connors in the quarterfinals, but ended up losing in the final to Kodes, a worthy player by any standard.

The most striking thing about this review of 1973 is the solidarity shown by the ATP players. Although Wimbledon that  year was still a success, the All-England Club and the ITF both realized that the price was high. The boycott established the ATP as a force in the game, almost overnight, and it helped accelerate the process by which the archaic, complicated, bureaucracy-heavy game eventually became streamlined and, in the best sense of the word, professional.

This is a different era, of course. And let's remember that the women to some degree blazed the trail for the ATP men in 1970, when Glady Heldman conceived the Virginia Slims Tour and convinced a disgruntled Billie Jean King and her consorts to sign contracts to play that tour - at the risk of banishment from the majors. Maybe there's neither a call for, nor an appreciation of, the kind of activism that the men and women tennis players of the early 1970s demonstrated as they helped usher in the Open era and create the entity now known generically as the tour.

Certainly, those progenitors had a lot more to gain (financially) than today's lavishly compensated stars. And the pioneers of pro tennis undoubtedly felt a stronger sense of solidarity; that's something you create, not an idea that you embrace. Maybe the current system has placed such golden handcuffs on the players that rebellion against it is simply unthinkable. The players may have created a system close enough to the ideal that confronting it seems self-destructive; suicide by the goose that lays the golden eggs. In just a few decades, tennis has not only offered a significant number of players a handsome living, it's also become the springboard from which a robust handful of stars of either gender have vaulted to a degree of fame and fortune most of their forerunners could hardly even imagine.

Still, I can't help but think the WTA could have really enhanced its stature and garnered a tremendous amount of international goodwill (and the attendant interest) if it had stood up to the Dubai promoters. And, of course, I can't help but also think of Shahar Pe'er, and how nice it might have been for her to wake up that morning about 10 days ago and feel a little bit like Nikki Pilic did when he learned that his cohorts were not about to leave him hung out and twisting in the wind.

But that was in another time, in another country.

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