TBT: Anti-apartheid activists raid 1977 USA-South Africa Davis Cup tie

TBT: Anti-apartheid activists raid 1977 USA-South Africa Davis Cup tie

On the second day, events took a twist when two men stormed the court during the third set of the doubles rubber.

All through the 1970s, South Africa’s presence in tennis was complicated and controversial. The nation’s repressive policy of apartheid had made it a worldwide political pariah. In 1970, South Africa was banned from Davis Cup. Two years later, it was reinstated. The 1974 South African squad won six ties to reach the final. They were set to play India, who defaulted in a vivid statement of protest.

In 1977, South Africa took on the United States in Newport Beach, Calif. Prior to the tie, Joseph Carrico, chairman of the USTA’s Davis Cup committee, had said, “We can play Russia without supporting communism and South Africa without supporting apartheid. We feel that we can do more for world order and peace, and frankly, more for the blacks of South Africa, by working from within rather than by throwing them out.”

Several days before the matches got underway, a Southern California organization named the Committee to Stop the United States-South Africa Tennis Match announced its plans to hold protests. “Our thing is to stop it by legal and peaceful means,” the group’s leader, Vincent Perkins, told the Washington Post. “There will be a lot of noise, but no on-court sit-ins or illegal activities.”

On the second day of the tie, the Saturday of the doubles match, events took a twist. The American duo of Stan Smith and Bob Lutz held a two-sets-to-love lead over the South African team of Frew McMillan and Byron Bertram. Early in the third set, two men rushed on to the court. One of them emptied a plastic bottle of motor oil on the court. Amid the chaos, as police rushed on to the court, American Davis Cup captain Tony Trabert hit one of them with his racquet.

“I had some athletes out there and I went out to protect to them,” said Trabert. 

While the men were wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and taken away, a maintenance crew took 45 minutes to clean the court. Smith and Lutz lost the third set, but went on to take the fourth to win the match, 7-5, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, and in the process clinch the tie for the U.S.

The next day, ten protestors carried a banner to the court, three of them headed towards Trabert and a linesman. Trabert this time chased after the protestors, who swiftly were arrested.

“It was a little unnerving out there,” said South African player Ray Moore. “I was shaking in my boots to start with and then we were told that there would be a demonstration by different people today, apparently more violent.”

A year later, the U.S. again hosted the South African Davis Cup team, this time in Nashville. There would be another protest, a peaceful march through the city of 1,500-2,000. Soon after, South Africa was once again banned from Davis Cup. Not until 1992, as apartheid began to end, did it return.