Monday, February 16, 2009

TO (NOT) PRESERVE THE UNION

A lot's been said about the UAE denying Shahar Pe'er a visa to play in the WTA event in Dubai, and more importantly, the inaction, acquiescence and disunity exhibited by the WTA and its players. I would love to see the "leaders" of the WTA (and by leaders, I mean its most prominent players) boycott the event. If they were really a player's association (of course it isn't) they would, but it isn't, so they won't, and what a shame that is. Long lost are the days when this was viewed as a players union.

When was the last time anyone in tennis took a stand in support of a player who'd been screwed? Guillermo Vilas was suspended for 12 months for taking an appearance fee in March of 1983 at the Rotterdam tournament - the very same tournament that Andy Murray just won this weekend. While many spoke out in support of him, not a single player on tour protested by boycotting anything in support of Vilas, even though they were all doing the same thing.

This is right about the time when money in tennis began to explode, with players easily eclipsing six-digits in prize money for the most lucrative titles.

The last time anybody on the ATP put up a fight on anyone's behalf was 1973 when Niki Pilic (former German Davis Cup captain and an early coach of Novak Djokovic) was banned from Wimbledon after refusing to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia. 81 of the top 128 players in the world boycotted Wimbledon that year, including the defending champion Stan Smith, who's probably about the nicest guy ever to play tennis (maybe him and Barry MacKay) and who probably cost himself a second Wimbledon title. Some pretty good players joined him, including Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson just to name a few. It could be argued that they did it for selfish reasons as well - I mean if Yugoslavia could do it to Pilic, who's to say Tennis Australia or the USLTA couldn't have done it to them as well? But somehow, after all those years playing professionally, or playing for daily allowances, I doubt their reasons were entirely ego-centric - not 81 players anyway.

Now that was a union.

And there were some ignominious absentees from the band of brothers who apparently didn't see it the way the aforementioned stalwarts did. Ilie Nastase, who probably needed the money for current or future alimony, an 18-year old Bjorn Borg who probably didn't give a hoot, and a 21-year Jimmy Connors, who definitely didn't give a hoot, all played that year - and perhaps poetically all lost. In any case, aside from Emerson, there's probably never been a player who has been so lowly regarded for winning Wimbledon as Jan KodeŇ°. A good player who never won another Slam in his career, Kodes, it's worth pointing out, probably couldn't have boycotted if he wanted, just 5 years removed from Russian tanks rolling through Prague and an oppressive regime tapping his phone lines and harassing him for his prize-money (and by harassing, I mean threatening him - furtively or otherwise).

Irony of ironies: Vijay Armitraj, one of the most successful Indian tennis players in history, played Wimbledon that year. He was just 20 years old, was an up-and-coming player, and lost in the quarterfinal to the eventual champion KodeŇ°, who was seeded 2nd - his highest ever seeding.

A year later, in 1974, as India was on the verge of its second Davis Cup final, their tennis federation forfeited the final against South Africa, in protest against apartheid. It remains the only time in the history of the cup that the final has been forfeited.

Armitraj was so upset with the federation that he threatened to quit Davis Cup altogether - he didn't, but had to wait another 13 years until 1987 before he participated in another final. By then, long past his prime, he lost 1 live rubber to Anders Jarryd and one dead rubber to Mats Wilander. Karma? Who knows...

By then Armitraj had refused several opportunities to play exhibitions in South Africa for political reasons, so it just goes to show you that sometimes, even a man with every reason to take a stand, who has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do so, can eventually come around. So while it may be stupefyingly naive of me to wish that tennis millionaires today would be willing to do the right thing and boycott Dubai, it is not without precedent.

Apparently the wealthy athletes of today, like many wealthy people in society, have no interest in preserving any union.
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