War games leave Wimbledon with wounded pride

Ban on Russian and Belarusian players may have been to save royal blushes

It took an assertive Andy Murray to put an end to the bouts of swooning around the All England (AELTC) club. Naomi Osaka, before she withdrew injured from this year’s event, said the €47 million prize funded Wimbledon without ranking points might feel “like an exhibition.” Technically any professional event without ranking points is an exhibition.

Such a casual relegation of the world’s biggest tennis tournament drew a withering reply from the former champion.

“Wimbledon will never be an exhibition and will never feel like an exhibition. The end,” said Murray.

Wimbledon at war with the players rarely infects the competition as much as it has this year. But in May the All England club officially entered the bare knuckle political arena with its controversial decision to bar players from Russia and Belarus over the invasion of Ukraine.

In retaliation, the women’s and men’s professional tours, the WTA and ATP, announced they would not award ranking points at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament. Both bodies said they were reacting to what they called unreasonable treatment.

“Discrimination, and the decision to focus such discrimination against athletes competing on their own as individuals, is neither fair nor justified,” they said.

Currently the most prominent Russian tennis players affected are Daniil Medvedev, who won the US Open in September and briefly reached number one in the men’s rankings this year. Andrey Rublev, who is ranked number seven in the ATP, is another top male player, while the WTA’s number seven, Aryna Sabalenka, a semifinalist at Wimbledon a year ago and former world number one Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion and ranked 19, are from Belarus.

In all three of the women’s top 20 and two of the men’s top 10 are on the banned list.

Conservative Nigel Huddleston, the UK sports minister, opened with the government allowing only individual athletes from Russia or Belarus to compete in sports events in the UK if they received assurances that the individual was not linked to the Russian or Belarusian states or their leaders. That message was conveyed to AELTC Chairman Ian Hewitt, who said the club was left with only two options.

It could enforce an outright ban on the players or require them to sign declarations condemning the invasion of Ukraine. “The UK government has set out directional guidance for sporting bodies and events in the UK with the specific aim of limiting Russia’s influence,” said Hewitt.

“But we believe we have made the most responsible decision possible in the circumstances, and there is no viable alternative within the framework of the government’s position to the decision we have taken in this truly exceptional and tragic situation.”

“After lengthy and careful consideration, we came to two firm conclusions. First, even if we were to accept entries from Russian and Belarusian players with written declarations, we would risk their success or participation being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime, which we could not accept. Second, we have a duty to ensure no actions we take should put players or their families at risk. We understand and deeply regret the impact this decision will have on all the people affected.”

In other words, the UK government had put the tournament organisers in a lose, lose position. Forcing players to sign a document condemning Putin’s invasion was a choice they knew the players would not take because of the danger in which it might have placed their family members living in Russia or under Aleksandr Lukashenko, the autocratic Belarus president known as Europe’s last dictator.

But the only real alternative was a ban because optically there was an even more indigestible prospect for the establishment club and the British government. At all costs the spectre of a member of the Royal family presenting the men’s single’s trophy and women’s Venus Rosewater dish to a Russian or Belarusian player and hand Putin or Lukashenko a free photo opportunity would not be entertained.

In that respect Wimbledon’s historically successful patronage was also its downfall. It wouldn’t be Wimbledon if there wasn’t a Windsor at hand.

This was a particular consideration in the men’s draw, where Medvedev would have been among the favourites to win the tournament. Last year the Duchess of Cambridge was present at the prize-giving ceremony, when Novak Djokovic won the title and in 2019, she directly presented the trophy to the Serb player after his victory over Roger Federer.

As the royal patron of the All England Club and a tennis fan, Kate Middleton is a frequent visitor, as is fellow royal and cousin of the Queen, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent.

There was no recognition from the Tory government that players could have competed as neutral citizens rather than representatives of a nation. That take was repeated in Dublin when Russia player, Vitalia Diatchenko was stopped from practising in Elm Park under the direction of Tennis Ireland, who interpreted an Irish Government statement as meaning she should not be allowed to practice either.

As for Medvedev, because of the way the ranking works, which the UK Government - in its haste - failed to understand, he is back to world number one. After Wimbledon, even if Djokovic wins, the Russian player will still be number one. The 2000 points the winner would have collected are not available, all because Westminster was more concerned about optics and the Royal family.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times