To historians of the American psyche, 1973 is known as the Year of the Nervous Breakdown. Rock critic Lester Bangs coined the term that summer, when he used the title “1973 Nervous Breakdown” for his review of a Rolling Stones record. Three decades later, author Andreas Killen borrowed the phrase for his book about the year as a whole. Does “breakdown” sound a little grim, or a little exaggerated? Maybe not, if you consider the series of world-changing, and often anxiety-producing, events that the nation endured during those 12 months.
In January ’73, the Supreme Court legalized abortion; the verdict in Roe v. Wade marked the high tide of that era’s liberal movement, and kicked off the left-vs.-right culture wars that are still with us today. A few months later, President Richard Nixon ended the military draft; by the close of the year he had ceased hostilities, and all but admitted defeat, in Vietnam. With that, the most polarizing issue of the previous decade was over, but there were new ones to take its place. Over the summer, the first oil crisis stalled U.S. drivers and put an end to the country’s two-decade economic boom. By the fall, Americans were watching their president’s excruciating demise as the Watergate hearings unfolded, live on TV, night after night. All the rugs of society had been pulled out from under the country at once.
You might think, with so many serious developments in the news, that something as trivial as tennis would have had a hard time making a mark. Instead, the sport followed the world’s lead and produced its own year-long series of momentous events. Tennis was, in many ways, the perfect sport for the moment. As the political ideals of the 60s splintered into the narcissistic concerns of the Me Decade ’70s, Americans took up individual sports in larger numbers than ever—the tennis boom began just as the country’s economic boom was sputtering to a close. Between 1970 and 1974, participation in the U.S. went from 10 million to 30 million.
Even as the U.S. appeared to be in terminal decline in ’73, tennis was riding a wave of newfound popularity and influence, as well as experiencing its own 60-style revolutionary moment. After years of stagnating behind the high walls of its country clubs, the “secret sport,” as Bud Collins dubbed it in during its amateur days, spent the early 70s playing cultural catch-up. In ’73, it would take its place at the center of that rapidly changing culture. It was the year when this individual sport was finally taken over by its individuals.
In 1973, the ATP led a boycott of Wimbledon and created its own computer rankings; Billie Jean King formed the WTA and beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes; Arthur Ashe defied his critics and played in apartheid South Africa; and, in a last hurrah for the amateur era, Australia won the Davis Cup with what has been called the best team ever, even as its old captain, Harry Hopman, moved on to coach the game’s next prodigy in New York. This week, beginning with the Wimbledon boycott, I’ll look at one of those events each day. (To see my write-up of the Battle of the Sexes, go here.)
“Jack, we have a little problem.”
This was how Philippe Chatrier, the tournament director of the French Open, greeted Jack Kramer, the head of the men’s players’ union, when the American flew to Paris to visit him in June 1973. Chatrier’s words almost certainly qualified as the understatement of the season. His “little problem” was in reality the tennis equivalent of a world war. But Chatrier was an old-guard amateur official, and like the rest of his ilk, he had no idea how big that problem was about to get.
The men’s game was in the midst of what the press had dubbed the Pilic Affair. It began, as world wars sometimes do, as a small personal conflict in an obscure corner of Eastern Europe. Niki Pilic (pictured above right) was a highly ranked Yugoslavian player; his uncle, General Dusan Kovac, was the head of the country’s tennis federation. Uncle asked nephew to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia. The nephew’s answer would change the governing structure of tennis forever.
For 60 years, since the advent of international competition, the world’s best players had chafed under the control of their federations. If they wanted to enter a Grand Slam or be selected for Davis Cup, which in those days was more prestigious than the majors, they had to remain in the good graces of the often-tyrannical federation officials. It was fitting that Pilic’s uncle was also a General, because there was a military quality to amateur tennis, with the players serving as (unpaid) foot soldiers for their nations. If they didn’t follow orders, they didn’t get to compete.
By 1973, though, the soldiers finally had an alternative. With the rise of the professional game five years earlier, many of the top men had signed contracts with tour promoters. That included Pilic, who was obligated to participate in a professional doubles event in Montreal the same weekend as Yugoslavia’s Davis Cup tie. This scheduling conflict, as mundane as it seemed on the surface, represented a collision between the sport’s old dictators and its new capitalists—one of them, either the past or the future, would have to give. Pilic chose the capitalists, and the future: He skipped Davis Cup for the doubles tournament. His uncle, still living in the past, promptly suspended him for nine months from all events run by the amateur governing body, the International Lawn Tennis Federation. That included Davis Cup and the Grand Slams.
In previous years, a player would have had to suffer these consequences in silence. But in the fall of 1972 the men had, for the first time, formed a union, called the ATP. “Player Power,” an echo of the 1960s slogan “People Power,” was in the air on tour in those days. Pilic was hardly the most popular pro, and he was the farthest thing from a progressive. As the British journalist Richard Evans wrote in his essential book on the subject, Open Tennis, the Yugoslavian regularly lectured other players on how “the wife is supposed to serve the husband”; and Pilic's solution to the drug problem was to shoot the pushers first and ask questions later. But the union stood by him nonetheless. To the shock of the game’s old guard, 80 men, including the two most recent champions, Stan Smith and John Newcombe, agreed to boycott Wimbledon if Pilic wasn’t allowed to compete in the tournament with them. (It was only men, too; according to Billie Jean King, the ATP ignored her call to join forces.)
Neither side blinked. Wimbledon upheld Pilic’s suspension, and the players, with Kramer leading the way, walked. The British press supported its beloved tournament, and accused the young pros of greed. “STUPID! THE MONEY MAD STARS OF TENNIS” one headline screamed. But money wasn’t the issue; freedom and control were. Once it was obvious to the amateur officials that the players were willing to give up their ultimate dream, a chance to play Wimbledon, for the sake of another union member, the jig was up. From then on, the players would have the power.
Tennis wasn’t alone in this shift: The world was moving away from old ideals of nationalism and duty, and toward individual choice. Most prominently, in the spring of 1973, President Nixon ended the military draft in the United States; a month later, the Pilic Affair did the same for tennis. A country’s federation would no longer be able to draft its players into service.
While the pros were lambasted as ungrateful money grubbers at the time, their unified stand marked the beginning of a union that is still intact today, and which has helped bring its members astronomical gains in earnings over the last four decades. The Wimbledon boycott was also an accidental marketing coup. With the top men out, two floppy-haired youngsters with newfangled double-handed backhands made breakout runs to the quarterfinals, and caught the eyes of fans along the way. Their names were Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. The boom had begun.