The 2013 Wimbledon Championships marks the anniversary of a dubious event in the tournament’s history.
It was 40 years ago in 1973 that 81 men’s players voted to boycott the tournament as a protest against the tournament’s decision to upon a suspension imposed upon him by the Yugoslav Tennis Association to refusing to compete in a Davis Cup match.
The men’s singles champion that year was Czechoslovakia’s Jan Kodes, who was already a two-time French Open champion and a singles finalist at the U.S. Open in 1971 (and later that summer).
Kodes discusses the Wimbledon boycott in his book written with Peter Kolar about the history of Czech tennis A JOURNEY TO GLORY FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN, available here: http://www.amazon.com/Jan-Kodes-Journey-Behind-Curtain/dp/0942257685/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371228538&sr=8-1&keywords=Jan+Kodes and excerpted below.
A week before Wimbledon a scandal with Pilic broke out in full force. It was a culmination of the world tennis organization’s crisis, which had been lingering for some time. Since 1968, when gates of world tennis tournaments were opened also to professional players, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) faced problems with unions representing the interests of the players. The strongest dispute fl ared up in the middle of 1973. Seeded Yugoslavia lost a Davis Cup match to New Zealand at Zagreb and Nikki Pilic, who refused to compete was fined by the Yugoslav Tennis Association with a nine months long play suspension penalty, which was announced at the French Open. Pilic appealed the decision and ITF lowered the penalty to one month, however Wimbledon took place during that month. The ATP board of directors than said that they had not alternative but to carry out their threat of a boycott unless Wimbledon allowed Pilic to compete. The independent Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis Club stood by ITF decision, denied Pilic the entry and the ATP threatened to boycott.
KODES: It is my opinion that majority of players considered the issue as pointless thinking “who cares about Pilic and the Yugoslav Tennis Association?” The ATP inflated the controversy further and one week before Wimbledon, during the Queen’s Club tournament, the feud reached a boiling point. Jack Kramer and Donald Dell represented the players and threatened the ITF and the governing body of the All England Club with a boycott of over seventy players. Nevertheless, the organizers held their ground.
Many people felt that the situation could have been saved. If it was a battle for the control of the game, it was also a battle in which both the contending sides shared great many common interests. Wimbledon, as the most prestigious tournament in history, and the All England Lawn Tennis Club as its organizer, held tremendous influence over the course of world tennis. They hoped that members of ATP would support the tournament, but if they decided against that, the Championships would still go on. However, the ATP, against a mounting wave of criticism, decided to continue the boycott. Later the crowd was the second biggest in the Championships history, and the British triumphantly made the best of a bad job.
The original list of seeded players was as follows: Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Ken Rosewall, Tom Okker, Marty Riessen, Roy Emerson, Tom Gorman, Cliff Richey, Adriano Panatta, Manolo Orantes, John Alexander, Bob Lutz, Jan Kodes and Roger Taylor.
KODES: When this issue was under scrutiny during the week before Wimbledon began ATP representatives inquired among all players whether they would or would not play. I was not an ATP member and neither were Nastase, Metreveli, Borg or Connors. At that time the ATP was still in diapers – a motley organization that needed time to solidify. 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.
I was surprised that even some professionals turned down playing Wimbledon that year in spite of the fact that they weren’t ATP members. For instance Rosewall, an older player then, and three times a finalist; I do not understand till today who managed to influence him so much that he refused to play. But, according to the Grand Prix point standings out of top 15 just prior the tournament were Newcombe, Smith, Pilic, Panatta, Okker, Gorman and Orantes, who supported the boycott.
When it was definite that an agreement would not be reached the organizers had to alter the seeding to eight players only: Nastase, Kodes, Taylor, Metreveli, Connors, Borg, Davidson, Fassbender.
KODES: I did not get emotionally involved in the turmoil of the issue and until the draw was made public I did not know who was in nor who was out. The remaining players were still strong and there were some excellent grass court specialists, particularly the Indians. I was convinced that I should not choose not to boycott Wimbledon! Nastase thought similarly, Taylor was told that unless he shows up on the court the British would expel him from the club. They put it to him straight and plainly. For the Americans it was simple: “We, ATP members, can pick and choose tournaments we want to enter.”
The controversy lingered in my mind: “Newcombe is not playing and that is his decision. I defeated him on grass already at Forest Hills and in Rome on clay. Rosewall, who I beat three months previously in Vancouver, will not play. In the last couple of years I did beat Ashe and also on grass. I overcame Laver in Stockholm, Okker and Riessen on the WCT indoor circuit. Why should I not beat them also in Wimbledon?” Laver chose not to enter regardless the boycott. And Smith? I could beat him last year, why not this year. I considered that Wimbledon as any other tournament. There was nothing else I could do.
Yet, many people asked me: “So, how many players actually entered it?” I answered: “As usual – 128! The same as any other Grand Slam tournament.”
Jan Kodes had to win seven matches, all in three out of five sets, before he could raise the Wimbledon Trophy above his head. Those matches were far from easy. He could not take a rest in between side changeovers sitting down because there were no chairs. Wimbledon chairs appeared the following year in 1974!
The London spectators were wonderful! In spite of the absence of the biggest stars they supported “their” tournament spontaneously and came in record numbers almost daily. When Nastase entered the centre court to play the opening match as a number one seed the audience welcomed him with standing ovation. They repeated the same when their own favorite, Roger Taylor, came out to play. It was a common belief that the final match would be between these two players. But, there was still Jan Kodes….
KODES: I was seeded as number two. That gave me plenty of responsibility to deliver a fine performance. The previous year I reached the semifinals and I contemplated that I could reach that far again?! I experienced something similar in Paris, when I won, and in subsequent years I was seeded as number one.
A JOURNEY TO GLORY FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN is a coffee table book, originally published in Czech, that provides a narrative and illustrated history of Czech tennis through the eyes of Kodes and author Peter Kolar. The book, filled with hundreds of unique and personal photographs, documents the successful journey of Kodes from political turmoil of the Cold War to international tennis fame, detailing the early days of darkness and family persecution in communist Czechoslovakia and the complexities of becoming a professional tennis player under a totalitarian regime. Entertaining anecdotes featuring Czech tennis legends Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova are also featured as well as the stories behind Kodes’ victories at Wimbledon and the French Open and his two runner-up finishes at the U.S. Open.