The Wimbledon Boycott by Dominic Bliss

In 1970s Britain, industrial action was rife. So when 80 or so of the world’s top players refused to compete at the 1973 Wimbledon Championships, it was just another strike amongst countless others.

Like all raging fires, the infamous Wimbledon boycott started with the tiniest spark. In May 1973, Yugoslavian player Niki Pilic was given a nine-month ban by his national federation for (allegedly) refusing to compete for his country in Davis Cup. Later commuted to just one month by the International Lawn Tennis Federation (now the ITF), it nevertheless prevented him from playing in that year’s Wimbledon.

Pilic was having none of it and took his case to the High Court in London where the judge, Sir Hugh Forbes, decided there had been “no breach of natural justice” and refused to reinstate him. Then all hell broke loose.

The Association of Tennis Professionals had been in existence for only a few months and, like all fledgling organisations, was keen to flex its muscles. Its board decided to order all ATP players to boycott Wimbledon in solidarity with Pilic. Around 80 players agreed to walk out. Just three – Romania’s Ilie Nastase, Britain’s Roger Taylor and Australia’s Ray Keldie – broke the picket lines. As far as the ATP were concerned, they were scabs.

On the outside it may have looked like a union standing up for its members but, beneath the surface, there was some serious tennis politics at play. The boycott was in fact the perfect opportunity for the ATP to stand up to tennis’s old guard – the global governing body for the sport, the ILTF. By stripping Wimbledon of key players, the ATP was proving who was really in charge. There were also rumours that it was an attempt by the American-dominated association to dislodge Wimbledon from its lofty position as the most important tennis tournament in the world.

Imagine how emasculated the bosses of the All England Club must have felt when they discovered the lion’s share of male players weren’t coming that year. Only non-ATP members and the three strike-breakers had signed up for the draw. It was nothing short of emasculation. As American magazine Sports Illustrated reported, the boycott turned “the greatest tennis tournament in the world into little more than another stop on the women’s circuit, with an auxiliary of male strikebreakers.”

What the ATP didn’t count on, however, was the great British public and their infamous “Dunkirk spirit” and collective “stiff upper lip”, as Tennis World magazine described it at the time. Leading tennis journalist Lance Tingay wrote: “Whatever case ATP members had for their drastic action, they met with small sympathy from the British public. If anything there was an even warmer response than usual, reflecting particularly in the attendance figure for the first Friday, 32,445, the highest daily figure for many years.”

Indeed, when Ilie Nastase strutted onto Centre Court for the opening match of the Championships, he was given a standing ovation, and every time Roger Taylor went into battle he enjoyed unstinting support from the home fans. In the end, Czech player Jan Kodes won the title, beating Alex Metreveli 6-1, 9-8, 6-3 in the final. For Taylor, 31 years old at the time, the decimated field allowed him to progress through to the semi-finals. It was the last time he ever reached the business end of a Grand Slam.

In 1973 a row between the power factions in tennis resulted in a Wimbledon boycott by virtually all the top male players.