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."