Unless there are further seismic developments in the weeks to come, this year’s Wimbledon Championships will be taking place under a cloud of controversy after the decision of players’ bodies the ATP and WTA to all but render the tournament a glorified exhibition event - by withdrawing ranking points over the decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players.
After the cancellation of the 2020 staging and the 2021 event taking place with reduced crowd and media numbers, this year’s annual had perhaps been even more hugely anticipated than usual – not least because of the opportunity to welcome US Open champion Emma Raducanu to the teenager’s first home Slam since that amazing success in New York.
But from that clear sky, and as a direct result of the terrible and internationally condemned war being waged on Ukraine by Russia, there have flowed a string of consequences for the Major often seen as the London blue-riband event by players and observers alike.
First the All England Lawn Tennis Club [AELTC] opted to ban all Russian and Belarusian players from taking part in this year’s event – citing primarily the UK government stance on limiting Russian global influence in finance and other fields, and noting that they felt they had only two choices with either a full ban, or having players from those countries sign a declaration condemning the war.
Tim Henman, the former world No4 and now member of the board of the All England Lawn Tennis Club that made the decision, had admitted that fears over the possible Russian “propaganda” opportunities was a major factor in making the call. That followed a UK newspaper report suggesting that the merest chance of a member of the royal family handing a trophy to a Russian or Belarusian player influenced the huge call.
And while he has not been mentioned by name in the various official statements, there can be no doubt that Daniil Medvedev, the world No2 and former No1, and last year’s US Open champion, was very much in the minds of the authorities as a potential winner of the men’s singles, with many other players on the women’s side equally likely to have a good run.
In fairly measured remarks on Russian state media outlet TASS, Medvedev himself described the ban as “unfair” but also expressed some understanding of the reasons behind it.
The initial decision triggered a wave of criticism from other high-profile players including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and even Wimbledon darling Andy Murray – querying the ethics of the move, with everyone waiting with bated breath to see what the ATP and WTA, as representative bodies of the players affected would do.
That, after days of rumour and speculation, became clear on Friday as both made the dramatic call to take away the ranking points for the Wimbledon events. However justifiable the decision, that represents a huge and unfortunate blow to the status of the tournament.
Both the ATP and the WTA expressed concern about “discrimination” and “precedent” in their statements on Friday.
“The ability for players of any nationality to enter tournaments based on merit, and without discrimination, is fundamental to our Tour,” the ATP said in their statement.
“The decision by Wimbledon to ban Russian and Belarusian players from competing in the UK this summer undermines this principle and the integrity of the ATP Ranking system. It is also inconsistent with our rankings agreement.
“Without a change in circumstances, it is with great regret and reluctance that we see no option but to remove ATP Ranking points from Wimbledon for 2022. Unilateral decisions of this nature, if unaddressed, set a damaging precedent for the rest of the Tour. Discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable on a Tour that operates in more than 30 countries.
“We greatly value our long-standing relationships with Wimbledon and the LTA and do not underestimate the difficult decisions faced in responding to recent UK Government guidance. However, we note that this was informal guidance, not a mandate, which offered an alternative option that would have left the decision in the hands of individual players competing as neutral athletes through a signed declaration. We remain hopeful of further discussions with Wimbledon leading to an acceptable outcome for all concerned.”
Steve Simon, the WTA chairman, said: “The WTA has made the difficult decision to not award WTA ranking points for this year's Wimbledon Championships. The stance we are taking is about protecting the equal opportunities that WTA players should have to compete as individuals. If we do not take this stance, then we abandon our fundamental principle and allow the WTA to become an example to support discrimination based on nationality.”
The situation is now where no one wants to be – and Wimbledon were quick to express their “deep disappointment” with having the event’s ranking points removed – having perhaps underestimated the strength of opinion and likely response over the issue.
A statement from the AELTC on Friday read: "We appreciate that opinions differ in relation to our decision to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to the Championships this year, and we deeply regret the impact of this decision on the individuals affected.
"However, given the position taken by the UK Government to limit Russia's global influence, which removed automatic entry by ranking, and the widespread response of government, industry, sport and creative institutions, we remain of the view that we have made the only viable decision for Wimbledon as a globally renowned sporting event and British institution, and we stand by the decision we have made.
"We therefore wish to state our deep disappointment at the decisions taken by the ATP, WTA and ITF in removing ranking points for the championships. We believe these decisions to be disproportionate in the context of the exceptional and extreme circumstances of this situation and the position we found ourselves in, and damaging to all players who compete on tour.
"We are considering our options, and we are reserving our position at this stage.”
All of the statements appear to leave some wiggle room for future negotiation. Whether that will be enough to allow Medvedev and the rest to take part remains unclear, and at this point still looks unlikely.