It all changed in 1973 for the ATP
LONDON -- It was a funny way for some of the world's top players to spend a night the week before Wimbledon -- holed up in a meeting room of a London hotel in tense and furious discussion about whether to play the tournament. Yet that's where they were in 1973, the board of the fledging Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), trying to choose whether to take the courts or take a stand.
On one side was defending champion Stan Smith, who wanted to play. Public pressure was with him. On the other was 1968 US Open champ Arthur Ashe, who wanted the ATP to boycott. The vote was locked at 3-3, and all eyes turned to the chairman, Cliff Drysdale. "I abstain," he said.
Talk about a 'Cliff'-hanger.
But it turned out a tied vote meant the boycott was actually on -- a veiled start to a veiled revolution. By the end of the week, over 90 of the world's top players had withdrawn from the world's top tournament. What could have brought them to this?
The official reason was to support ATP member Nikki Pilic, a pro who had been banned from playing Wimbledon that year for not playing a Davis Cup tie for Yugoslavia. The bigger cause, however, was player independence.These days, all a globetrotting tennis pro needs to enter a tournament anywhere in the world is a ranking high enough to get in. But it wasn't always that simple.
Once upon a time, players who wanted to take part in tournaments required the assent of their national tennis federations, and often only a select few were chosen to travel abroad and represent their countries at the Grand Slams and other big tournaments. Displeasing the federation in any way might mean staying at home while the biggest events took place.
In 1928, for example, 10-time Grand Slam champion Bill Tilden was banned by U.S. officials from national events for writing newspaper articles about tennis, which was deemed to contravene his amateur status. After some wrangling, the U.S. order was then extended to 34 countries through the International Tennis Federation (ITF), leaving the world's most-famous male player with nowhere to compete.
Even as tennis' Open era began in 1968, which allowed both professional and amateur players to take part in the same tournaments, national associations and the ITF wanted to maintain some control over the movements of the professionals who had just been returned to the fold. But they no longer had the field to themselves, as professional promoters signed up increasing numbers of players and wanted their own commitments from them.
A fierce rivalry ensued between the traditional association-run events and the emerging World Championship Tennis (WCT) pro circuit over the next few years -- in 1972, for example, several big-name pros missed the French Open because a WCT event was being held at the same time, and found themselves banned from playing Wimbledon in retaliation.
"We, as players, felt we were in the middle of two competing forces and had no say," said Drysdale, who was then a recently turned pro playing for South Africa.
In an attempt to get their voices heard, about 85 amateurs and pros had formed a players' union called the Association of Tennis Professionals, with legendary player-turned-promoter Jack Kramer as its director and Drysdale as chairman. When the Pilic situation arose, Drysdale canvassed ATP members at the Italian Open that spring and got backing for a potential boycott. After ATP lost a lawsuit to force Pilic's participation at Wimbledon, a decision had to be made.
It was no coincidence that officials had chosen Wimbledon as the battleground -- the one event they felt players would not be able to bring themselves to miss. But when the players stood firm and refused to play, the establishment's grip was irrevocably shaken. Only three ATP members broke ranks (one a British player put under extreme pressure to support his home tournament), and even an illustrious nonmember like Ken Rosewall stood with the rebels.
"It was sleepless nights, sleepless nights. But there was never any doubt in my mind that this was the right principle," Drysdale said. "As far as the players were concerned. It was the right issue. It wasn't about money; it was just about the principle.
"And it's hard to imagine that anybody looking at it in retrospect would say we did the wrong thing because the very next week, everything changed. Players became a part of the decision-making process from that time."Even John Barrett, a British ATP board member who did not want the players to boycott his home tournament, agreed with the cause.
"The importance of the boycott was … to prove the solidity of the ATP, which was an immense step and a very healthy one for the evolution of the sport. The players quite reasonably felt that, as professionals, they should govern their own destiny," he told the ATP this month.
As revolutions go, it was not marked with trumpets. In fact, the players were heavily criticized by much of the British press for their actions, and spectators flocked to show their support for the abandoned tournament and the second-string players who were filling in. Ironically, attendance was reportedly the second-highest of any Wimbledon fortnight during that period.
But what looked like a defeat publicly was privately acknowledged as an important victory for the players within the sport. The sport's officials could no longer control their careers.
"There were never rules that were rewritten because of what we did. It's just that the subject never came up again," Drysdale said. "The ITF never again, to this day, has tried to impose any kind of sanction or requirement on a player to play in their home country or anything like that. It just got out of the business of trying to dictate to professional players."
Just months after the boycott, a ranking system was established for dealing with entry into tournaments. Shortly following, the Men's International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC) was formed to bring different interests together and coordinate the sport, just as the ATP had called for when announcing the boycott. In 1990, a reconfigured version of the ATP, representing both player and tournament interests, took over the running of the men's game.
It had been the first time the players had taken a collective stand. Why now? The opportunities presented by open tennis and the strength of leadership among the top players at the time likely played a role.
"I was ready to retire," Drysdale said of the years just before. "I mean, there wasn't any money in the game. So I said, 'Okay, I've had my run. I did great. I've been to the semifinal of Wimbledon. I played the final of the US Open -- let me go home.'
"Then, WCT came along and they said, 'Hey, I'm going to give you $30,000 to sign a contract.' Well, this was like ten times what I could have made doing anything else. So, at this point, we had been given a taste of freedom. Maybe we had some special people -- Arthur Ashe was part of it, John Newcombe. [Rod] Laver, Rosewall."
Since then, there has never been player action on that level -- perhaps because the memory of 1973 lingers.
Jan Kodes, a two-time French Open champion (and US Open finalist on grass), won the tournament that year. Like other players from the Eastern Bloc, he was not a member of the ATP and had remained distant from the conflict.
Later, however, he reflected on the impact of the boycott in his memoir.
"At that time the ATP was still in diapers," he wrote in "A Journey to Glory from Behind the Iron Curtain." "I do not know if players, who refused to play, later regretted their decision but it is obvious that the ATP with its actions impressed the international functionary body for the times to come. Even today, when something pops up in tennis world, they are still able to pull out Pilic scandal with a threatening tone. It became a precedent for dealing with player frictions."
Thought not used directly, the threat of a boycott was in the background when negotiating this year's large increases in Grand Slam prize money. Most of the majors were initially reluctant to provide substantial raises, but succumbed in the face of ATP pressure. Wimbledon, at the far end of the scale, is offering over 40-60 percent more per round in the singles than was offered last year.
"I think if we had not done what we did in 1973, this whole discussion would not have been as easy for the players. Because I think in the back of everybody's minds is, 'This could happen again,'" Drysdale agreed. "I think there are much more pragmatic people running the game now. The whole dynamic of the decision-making process is different.
"But I do think 1973 had something to do with it."