1973 Wimbledon boycott begs the question: Why isn’t a boycott happening this year?

It’s really hard to care about who wins Wimbledon this year. I say that as someone who loves Wimbledon almost as much as life itself. If you go to my Twitter page — @mzemek — you’ll see that my wallpaper background image is of Centre Court Wimbledon. That specific image — late afternoon (just before 6 p.m. in Wimbledon Village) on Centre Court — is my favorite visual in sports. I love Wimbledon’s history, tradition, elegance, and clean, simple presentation. The tournament marries so many aspects of a great sporting experience: aesthetics, stature, atmosphere, significance, historical weight, a hushed and reverent crowd respecting the moment. Wimbledon is dignified and important, and the dignity and importance reinforce each other.

This is why Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarusian players is so offensive and impossible to accept.

This is the tournament which reveres Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” and its seminal line, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.” How is banning a subset of players simply for their nationality — not as a result of anything they did to materially help a bad actor such as Vladimir Putin — in tune with Kipling or any of the ideals of The Championships, or any of the basic tenets of fair play and good sportsmanship?

You won’t see me live-tweet about tennis for the next few weeks, as much as it pains me to ignore Wimbledon. I didn’t have this tournament in 2020 because of the pandemic. It felt like a good, close friend came back into my life in 2021 when the tournament returned. Now, I have to give it up in 2022 because of this draconian and morally unimaginative response by The All-England Club to world events.

It is worth noting important events in tennis’s past to explain — and lament — why a lack of action in the present moment is so disappointing. (Not surprising, mind you, but certainly disappointing.)

In 1973, ATP players did boycott Wimbledon. Interestingly enough, nationality and player freedom were central issues.

Steve Tignor of Tennis Magazine wrote about the boycott in 2015. Below is a subsection of his larger article. The central figure of the boycott is Nikola “Niki” Pilic, who is shown speaking in the cover image attached to this story:

Niki Pilic was a highly ranked Yugoslavian player; his uncle, General Dusan Kovac, was the head of the country’s tennis federation. Uncle asked nephew to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia. The nephew’s answer would change the governing structure of tennis forever.

For 60 years, since the advent of world competition, the world’s best players had chafed under the control of their national federations. If they wanted to enter a Grand Slam or be selected for Davis Cup, they had to remain in the good graces of their federation’s officials. It was fitting that Pilic’s uncle was also a General, because there was a military quality to amateur tennis, with the players serving as (unpaid) foot soldiers for their nations. If they didn’t follow orders, they didn’t get to compete.

By 1973, the soldiers finally had an alternative. With the rise of the professional game five years earlier, many of the top men had signed contracts with tour promoters. That included Pilic, who was obligated to participate in a professional doubles event in Montreal the same weekend as Yugoslavia’s Davis Cup tie. This scheduling conflict, as mundane as it seemed on the surface, represented a collision between the sport’s old dictators and its new capitalists—one of them, either the past or the future, would have to give in. Pilic chose the capitalists, and the future: He skipped Davis Cup for the doubles tournament. His uncle, still living in the past, promptly suspended him for nine months from all events run by the amateur governing body, the International Lawn Tennis Federation. That included Davis Cup and the Grand Slams.

In previous years, a player would have had to suffer these consequences in silence. But in the fall of 1972 the men had, for the first time, formed a union, called the ATP. “Player Power,” an echo of the 1960s slogan “People Power,” was in the air on tour in those days. As British journalist Richard Evans noted, Pilic himself was hardly a progressive. According to Evans, the Yugoslavian’s solution to the drug problem was to shoot the dealers first and ask questions later. (For the full story of the boycott, see Evans’ book Open Tennis.)

The union stood by Pilic nonetheless. To the shock of the game’s old guard, 80 men, including the two most recent champions, Stan Smith and John Newcombe, agreed to boycott Wimbledon if Pilic wasn’t allowed to compete alongside them. (It was only men, too; according to Billie Jean King, the ATP ignored her call to join forces. But the union did provide a model that she could show to her fellow women players when they banded together later that year.)

Neither side in London blinked. Wimbledon upheld Pilic’s suspension, and the players walked. The British press supported its beloved tournament, and accused the young pros of greed. “STUPID! THE MONEY MAD STARS OF TENNIS” one headline screamed. But money wasn’t the issue; freedom and control were. Once it was obvious to the amateur officials that the players were willing to give up their ultimate dream—the chance to play Wimbledon—for the sake of another union member, the jig was up. From then on, the players would have the power.

Where is the sense of solidarity with Daniil Medvedev, Aryna Sabalenka, and the many other tennis players who, through absolutely no fault of their own, are being deprived of the opportunity to play in a prestigious and lucrative tennis tournament, an opportunity they have earned through hard work and achievement?

This is so morally offensive and repulsive that I feel it important — speaking only for myself and not Tennis With An Accent or its contributors — to not offer commentary on Wimbledon this year unless Saqib has a health emergency which requires me to fill in for him, in which case I will naturally help him out. I also will not watch Wimbledon on any of its American TV outlets: ESPN, ESPN2, ABC Sports, Tennis Channel, or DirecTV.

Sports are a source of respite from the outside world and its darkness. I do sincerely hope fans will enjoy this tournament for that very reason. I’m expressing my personal disappointment and protest at The All-England Club, the tours, and their players, over a spectacular lack of moral imagination and basic common sense. This is not a lifetime protest of Wimbledon, but it is a protest for 2022 and the entirety of The Championships. I will rejoin you for the North American hardcourt summer.

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