A little over two years back, when the coronavirus pandemic first started to sweep through the globe, Wimbledon was among the first major sporting organisers to pull the plug on that year’s edition without so much as a second thought. Call it foresight or sheer coincidence, tennis’ most prestigious Grand Slam tournament had a pandemic insurance policy in place. Given the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 at the time, the organisers of the tournament decided as early as on April 1, 2020, to call off that year’s championships, making it the first time since World War II that the world’s most glamorous grass-court tournament was not held.
The All England Club, which hosts the tournament, received upwards of $141 million as compensation for the cancellation of the event, and in turn decided to pass on some of the money to the players who might have otherwise made a pitch for top honours. Consequently, Wimbledon doled out up to $12 million to close to 500 players, including those in the wheelchair and quad wheelchair competitions. Forever the favourite Slam for most players, Wimbledon went further up in the estimation of the tennis fraternity for remembering and rewarding its most important stakeholders at a time of crisis for the sport as much as it was for the world.
Also read: Wimbledon bans Russia, Belarus players over Ukraine invasion
Now, Wimbledon is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The All England Lawn Tennis Club’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from competing in the 2022 edition following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the devastating subsequent damage had already polarised opinion. The majority held the view that it was unfair to punish players hailing from those two countries, many of whom have openly condemned the war, for the actions of their governments. But the AELTC stood firm in the face of mounting criticism and pressure, determined not to allow Wimbledon to be used as a platform to further Russian propaganda.
After intense deliberations involving various interested parties, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) reacted to Wimbledon’s ban on Russians and Belarusians by taking away the ranking points that would have been on offer. Effectively, what this means is that Wimbledon 2022 will be no more than a glorified ‘exhibition’ event. The move by the ATP, tennis’ men’s governing body, and the WTA, the corresponding women’s unit, stands on the bedrock of fairness and maintaining the integrity of the sport. In the absence of a level-playing field devoid of discrimination, the ATP said, it was left with no option but to ‘avoid setting a precedent of unilateral decision-making by events’. “Our Tour can only operate and thrive as a sport under shared principles of governance,” the ATP Tour said in a statement.
While the ATP, and the WTA, pretty much run men’s and women’s tennis respectively, it’s worth pointing out that they don’t exercise the same control over the four Grand Slams – the Australian, French and US Opens as well as Wimbledon – as they do over the other Tour events. That’s what the ATP meant when it spoke of ‘unilateral decision-making’ by events. Wimbledon could have followed the informal guidance from the UK government that seeks a declaration from the Russian and Belarusian players that ‘they would not express support for the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian or Belarusian regimes, or their leadership’. Instead, it opted to go one step further and banned these players altogether, a tack that was subsequently adopted by other grass-court tournaments in England – Nottingham and Queen’s Club, among others – serving as lead-up to Wimbledon.
The ATP has clarified that ranking points will continue to be up for grabs both in Nottingham and at Queen’s despite the ban on the two European countries because players from Russia and Belarus have the choice to play in other tournaments that run concurrently but don’t have that option because during Wimbledon, the rest of the tennis calendar comes to a complete standstill.
So, how will Friday’s decision to remove ranking points from Wimbledon 2022 affect the competition as such?
It’s early days yet, but it’s unlikely too many of the top guns will stay away from the tournament just because ranking points aren’t available. The tournament occupies the pride of place in the tennis calendar; the event is the most efficiently run of all Grand Slams, and there is a certain charm to playing in England in the summer that is hard to replicate. The heady mix of rain, strawberries and cream and stiff upper-lipped spectators compete for impact with the vagaries of a surface that promotes attacking, serve-and-volley tennis marked by big serving and sharp, electric exchanges, even if there is now a greater and more definitive slant towards baseline rallies than ever before.
Unless players have compelling reasons or determine that Wimbledon’s ban on Russians and Belarusians doesn’t sit well with their philosophy of fair play, an en masse boycott of the competition should be a non-starter. Ranking points or not, there is an allure to the tag of ‘Wimbledon champion’ that the virtuoso and the journeyman alike have coveted for years on end. Indeed, there is a school of thought that still holds that Ivan Lendl, the celebrated Czech with eight Grand Slam crowns, is somewhat of a ‘lesser’ champ because he couldn’t conquer the grass of SW 19. Whether that is justified is a debate for another occasion, but it just goes to show in what esteem the King of Slams, the first among equals, is held by the tennis player, the aficionado and the connoisseur.
Also read: Is banning Russian tennis players from Wimbledon the right call
It remains to be seen if, following Friday’s decision, Wimbledon is driven to reconsider its stance and throw its doors open to those from Russia and Belarus. The French Open, which gets underway in Paris on Sunday (May 22), is an inclusive event in which Russian world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, among others, will be seen in action. Will Wimbledon react to the scrapping of the ranking points and the subsequent mounting pressure by doing an about turn and winning back some of the goodwill it has lost in the last month? Or will it stick to its convictions, no matter the repercussions? Watch this space.