It could be said that this year’s Wimbledon upsets have been unprecedented. But that could also be said about what happened at Wimbledon 40 years ago. Virtually all the world’s top male tennis players boycotted the sport’s showpiece. The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Futterman, who wrote about the curious tournament that resulted, joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: In your article titled “The Wimbledon Boycott of ‘73” you write, “Nearly all of the top 70 players withdrew from the tournament.” What led Arthur Ashe, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, et al. to boycott?
MF: Well what had happened was Niki Pilic, who was from the former Yugoslavia, had decided to play in a professional tournament on a May weekend rather than playing in a Yugoslav Davis Cup tie against New Zealand. It probably would have been OK except somehow the Kiwis beat the Yugoslavs, 3-2. And once that happened the Yugoslavian tennis federation blamed the whole thing on Niki Pilic not playing, and they suspended him for the rest of the year. Wimbledon decided to honor the suspension and said he’s not going to be able to play in our tournament. And, with that, the fledgling Association of Tennis Professionals decided to threaten a boycott over the right to play whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted.
BL: Alright, so 70 players basically boycotted Wimbledon in protest. Why didn’t Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors go along with that boycott? Were they anti-union?
MF: Jimmy Connors didn’t go along with the boycott because he was kind of a rebel and an upstart and very sort of untrusting of organizations like the ATP – an organization he later sued— and so in effect crossed the picket line. Now if you ask Niki Pilic, he will tell you that all those excuses are lame and that the only reason these players played was because they saw an opportunity to win in the most illustrious event in the sport.
BL: In a seriously depleted field, obviously.
MF: Yeah, right, but you know the thing is, 40 years later a lot of people have forgotten about how depleted that field was so they look at the record books, and they see Jan Kodes was the 1973 Wimbledon champion, and it’s the rare record book that would even bother to put an asterisk in there to say it. And I bet if you go over to Jan Kodes’s house for dinner he’s not going to tell you about how lame the field was, and instead he’ll show you his Wimbledon trophy.
BL: So the tournament, of course, did go on. Where did the International Tennis Federation find the players to fill out the rest of the draw?
MF: You had American college players, you had amateurs who were playing – they basically took anybody who could swing a racket. Bud Collins, the longtime tennis commentator, says he thinks they tried someone out who he had beaten back when he was sort of a competitive amateur back in the ‘50s. He certainly isn’t paying any compliments to the field.
BL: It was interesting to me that you wrote that the tournament was very well attended. Did the crowd have any problem with the quality of tennis on display?
MF: They don’t seem to. What was more important was supporting the establishment. I mean here were these sort of upstart players staging this boycott, and there was sort of a how-dare-they sensibility to all of this. How dare they want such freedom and not go along with our rules? So the British media, the British public, obviously the All England Club, was just hugely against the players. They did not win, you know, the battle of public perception in this in any way. What they won was the war in that they gained their freedom very shortly thereafter.
BL: So given the shape of tennis going forward after Wimbledon ’73 it would be fair to conclude the boycott was a success.
MF: It’s a huge success. I mean this was the moment where tennis really sort of grew up — the players no longer had to listen to their federation and could go anywhere and play whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted. And the federations were, you know, scared out of their wits by this sort of boycott. And the suspension was lifted. There was no way the U.S. Open was going to allow something like this to happen, and it’s basically been pretty smooth sailing for tennis players ever since. The players that are competing at Wimbledon, the purse is about $35 million.