1973: The men boycott Wimbledon and shift power to the players

by: Steve Tignor | March 19, 2015

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Niki Pilic, the center of the conflict. (Wikimedia Commons)

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It began, as world wars sometimes do, as a small, personal conflict in a seemingly obscure corner of Eastern Europe.

The press had dubbed it the Pilic Affair, and at first it seemed innocuous enough. Niki Pilic 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 world competition, the world’s best players had chafed under the control of their national federations. If they wanted to enter a Grand Slam or be selected for Davis Cup, they had to remain in the good graces of their federation's 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, 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 in. 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. As British journalist Richard Evans noted, Pilic himself was hardly a progressive. According to Evans, the Yugoslavian's solution to the drug problem was to shoot the dealers first and ask questions later. (For the full story of the boycott, see Evans' book Open Tennis.)

The union stood by Pilic 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 alongside them. (It was only men, too; according to Billie Jean King, the ATP ignored her call to join forces. But the union did provide a model that she could show to her fellow women players when they banded together later that year.)

Neither side in London blinked. Wimbledon upheld Pilic’s suspension, and the players 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—the 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 force its players into service. 

While the pros were lambasted as ungrateful money grubbers at the time, their stand marked the beginning of a union that remains 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 millions of fans along the way. Their names were Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. Each would reap the benefits of their elders’ sacrifice. 

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