There is nothing in tennis to compare with Wimbledon, where every hallowed square inch of grass is manicured with fingernail scissors, where beneath the traditional tent rich cream is ladled over strawberries that seem to have bloomed right off Julie Andrews' cheeks, where winning on Centre Court is like being knighted by Excalibur's touch. Once a year, for the fortnight of the All-England Championships, the very soul of Great Britain takes leave of Westminster Abbey and vacations at this shrine of lawn tennis. Surely, then, the reports last week of a labor dispute with the players were just silly rumors. Boycotts and strikes are things for the Liverpool docks or the factories of Birmingham, not Wimbledon. But last week 82 men tennis pros, including defending champion Stan Smith and 12 of the other 15 top seeds, did indeed boycott Wimbledon, turning the greatest tennis tournament in the world into little more than another stop on the Virginia Slims women's circuit, with an auxiliary of male strikebreakers.
Most of the boycotters were members of the Association of Tennis Professionals, an organization less than a year old and the most promising—and threatening—of the various player groups that have been started in the last 15 years. The ostensible reason for the boycott was to support Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia, who had been banned from Wimbledon; but really it was a test case, probably the first of many battles to be fought between the ATP and the International Lawn Tennis Federation for control of professional tennis.
Yugoslavia seems to be a birthplace of wars. World War I started with the assassination at Sarajevo. The great tennis war of 1973 started last month in Zagreb, the site of one of the more obscure sporting events of the year, a Davis Cup match between Yugoslavia and New Zealand. Pilic, whose hometown is appropriately named Split, did not show up. New Zealand won 3-1 and the Yugoslavian Tennis Association, headed by Pilic's uncle, let out a scream heard round the world, or at least as far away as Barons Court, London, headquarters of the ILTF. There it was decided that Pilic would be banned for a year.
The ATP, whose president is Cliff Drysdale of South Africa and whose executive director is ex-pro champ Jack Kramer, insisted that its members had the right to refuse to play Davis Cup matches, that Pilic had not committed himself to play in Zagreb and that even if Pilic had sinned the ATP should do the punishing. The French championships in Paris should have been the battleground, but the French found an excuse. They couldn't oust Nikki because his case was under appeal. The players were ready to boycott at the Italian championships in Rome, but Pilic was allowed to play because the tournament had already started when the final ILTF ruling was made.
As the players arrived in England for the various warmup tournaments leading to Wimbledon, Kramer was busy negotiating with the ILTF, which reduced Pilic's suspension to one month, starting June 1, but would not budge another millimeter. It was supported by the men who run Wimbledon.
"We are backing a body that represents world lawn tennis," said Sir Herman David, chairman of the club. "ATP cannot replace a world governing body."
Cliff Drysdale spent a weekend debating with President Allan Heyman and other ILTF officials, and the feeling was that somehow Wimbledon, which after all started open tennis in 1968 in defiance of the ILTF, would be "saved."
"I cannot believe that both sides will be so stubborn as to undermine the greatest tournament of all," said Drysdale.
"It was the International Federation that chose Wimbledon as the battlefield," he said later. "They suspended Pilic until July 1, five days after the start of Wimbledon. Had they lifted his suspension before Monday there would have been no trouble. They were inflexible from start to finish."
Early last week ATP and Pilic filed suit in the British High Court, asking for an injunction to lift the ban. The judge, Sir Hugh Forbes, ruled that there had been "no breach of natural justice," refused to reinstate Pilic and ordered him to pay all costs, estimated at $11,000. The attitude of the British public and the British press was, "All right, mates, you've had a fair trial and lost, so let's get on with the game."
The players, most of whom were gathered at the Queen's Club in London for a tournament, were disappointed at the decision and angered by the reaction. They had been seeking to have the ban lifted, not to have the right or wrong of Pilic's case decided. The night of the court decision the ATP board met at the Westbury Hotel and voted 7-1 (two abstained) to go through with the boycott.
The next morning, Wednesday, Pilic packed his bags and tried to get through to Yugoslavian Airlines on the telephone. Each time he picked up the phone the Evening Standard or The Guardian would be on the other end firing questions. At last he made his reservation, checked out and headed for the airport in a taxi, a photographer on the jump seat shooting pictures of him all the way, a reporter on the other jump seat trying to turn the conversation to the boycott.
Sick of being in the limelight and fed up with being a "guinea piggie," Pilic seemed pleased to have the company but preferred to talk about his new restaurant in Split. He did say he would be ready to fly back if he were reinstated.
There were glimmers of hope at Queen's Club, too. In the pressroom and in the lounge upstairs where players and rackets lay scattered over the premises, the rumors buzzed. When ATP Treasurer Arthur Ashe came hurrying through and was asked, "What's up?" he answered, "A lot." Eldon Griffiths, Britain's Minister for Sport, had stepped in at week's end to try to save the situation and was talking with Kramer and Drysdale.
There was at least one precedent for a government official breaking in on a tennis dispute. In 1928 the USLTA banned Bill Tilden for "professionalism," i.e., writing a series of articles for a handsome fee. The U.S. was about to meet France in the Davis Cup Challenge Round, so France, fearful of a fiasco at the gate, appealed to the U.S. Ambassador, Myron Herrick, who in turn ordered the USLTA to forgive Tilden.
But Griffiths did not have as much clout as the old U.S. Ambassador to France and could do nothing to save the situation. Wimbledon Referee Mike Gibson finally gave up Friday morning and put out a new men's draw. No. 1 was Ilie Nastase of Rumania, an ATP member who said he had been ordered to play by his national association. No. 2: Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia. No. 3, and the one resented most by ATP: Englishman Roger Taylor.
Taylor is an ATP member who happens to live in a lovely house by Wimbledon Common, so close to Centre Court that, when the wind is in the right quarter, he can hear from his front door the snip-snipping of the manicuring scissors. At first he said he would go along with the boycott but declined to sign a withdrawal form. His wife plainly wanted him to play, and the British Lawn Tennis Association sent him and countryman Mark Cox identical messages:
"As an Englishman you may feel that to an even greater extent than overseas players you are under an obligation to respect the decision of a British court."
Friday morning, not long before the deadline for the new draw, Taylor phoned Mike Gibson and said he was boycotting. Minutes later he rang back and said, "I'll play." Cox, however, stayed with the union.
"The ATP took the thing to the courts with the most honorable intentions but didn't abide by the decision," Taylor reasoned. "I consider myself an ATP member. Obviously, there is a bit of tension, to say the least. I would hope they'd give me the freedom of choice."
Taylor also said he would donate any Wimbledon winnings to the ATP and would refuse any Commercial Union Grand Prix points. Still, he and Nastase knew they would have to face the association's disciplinary committee, headed by Stan Smith. And worse than that will be the continuing icy treatment they are likely to get from their colleagues. Ironically, at the Queen's Club on Saturday, the two met in what some described as an all-scab final. Taylor got a standing ovation from the crowd when he appeared on the court, then lost to Nastase, who had not been at all weakened by the ballgirl Delilahs who had taken snippets of his hair during the week. It could be the same pair meeting for a Wimbledon men's championship that isn't going to mean much.
There were still other bad omens for Wimbledon around the Queen's Club last week. Larry King, husband of Billie Jean King, and Dennis Murphy, one of the founders of the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association, were busy giving sales talks to Stan Smith and others on behalf of their latest scheme, World Team Tennis. Their first draft will be held in New York in August and their first season is being tentatively set for May, June and July 1974. Wimbledon happens to fall in that period. And Thursday night the women gathered at the Gloucester Hotel in London and formed an as yet unnamed association of their own. It claims 61 members and is headed by Billie Jean King.
It is clear that even if Wimbledon survives the next few years of union battles and remains the greatest tennis event in the world, the ILTF is doomed to lose to the pros a good chunk, and maybe all, of its power over the professional game. The fire fight was triggered by the man from Split, but it was bound to happen soon anyway.
Heading toward home across the gloomy grounds of London Airport, Nikki Pilic splits.