Wimbledon Plays Politics, Wades into Troubled Waters over Player Ban
Ban on Russian and Belarusian players
In keeping with 2022's strange 'tradition' where no Grand Slam so far has been without controversy, Wimbledon has added its drama. Reduced this year to a virtual exhibition event, it is testimony to Wimbledon's history that it still managed to draw on tennis' star power. There were some good, bad and ugly moments in the aftermath of recent global developments.
After Novak Djokovic's detention and deportation over coronavirus non-vaccination protocols, clearance ahead of the Australian Grand Prix earlier this year, and concerns over the popularity of the women's game raised in the course of the French Open, the All England Lawn Tennis Association was in for a scathing indictment over its strong stance against Russia's war on Ukraine.
In April, Wimbledon organisers decided to ban players of Russian and Belarusian nationalities from participating in the third Grand Slam of the year. They cited Russia's war on Ukraine. Not surprisingly, the reactions to this were not only fast and furious, but also, divisive and far reaching.
Echoing similar sentiments, both, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) , which govern the men's and women's tennis sports respectively, condemned the decision.
They stated it was in violation of 'allowing players to participate on merit and not on issues of nationality or related concerns'. Identical actions followed suit whereby it was declared that Wimbledon 2022 would not affect ranking points. This stripped the All England Club of entitlement and reduced it to a virtual exhibition tournament. of sorts.
What was unfathomable to the governing bodies, to some of the highest ranking players and to the tennis world at large was why individual players were being punished as part of political fallouts. Although there was an almost immediate impact of the invasion where Russian drivers like Nikita Mazepin were removed from Formula 1 racing and Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) announced that Russia would not be a part of the World Cup later this year. The athletes did compete, albeit under the neutral flag, and exceptions were made for players in their individual capacity, as the French Open had done prior to Wimbledon.
The ATP, that is in charge of the men's game, expressed disappointment at the decision but said that "discrimination by individual tournaments is simply not viable. Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP rankings." It claimed that the decision was "unilateral" without consultation with the players and governing bodies.
The WTA, that governs international women's tennis, also extended its displeasure while stripping points off the tournament, stating that players "should not be penalised or prevented from competing solely because of their nationalities or the decisions made by the governments of their countries."
While the All England Club stated it understood the reactions and measures, it defended its stance. It stated, "given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia's global influence through the strongest means possible." Not since World War II when players from Germany and Japan were banned, has the All England Club taken such a decision that has divided the tennis world and even the sports world at large.
The effect of the ban is almost immediate. Some of the top players across the men's and women's game are missing from this year's edition. Amongst them are world No.1 Daniil Medvedev, and Andrey Rublev for the men's side, and Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka and Daria Kasatkina for the women's side. These are of course the more visible players, compared to other players who are ranked much lower but no less aggrieved.
In an unusual situation, one player who will play despite their Russian nationality until the recent past is Natela Dzalamidze. She will feature in the women's doubles after changing her nationality to Georgia. Although there is some grey area here, she appears to have met the 'cut off' criteria. She had apparently held a Georgia passport which made the transition possible.
Injuries have added to the conspicuous absence of some players. Alexander Zverev injured his ankle during his tense semi final match against Rafael Nadal during the first French Open semi final. It was a match shaping up to be of epic proportions. However, it ended horribly for Zverev who limped off on crutches. Although it gave him a high of a world ranking of No.2, the German has had to undergo ankle surgery to fix the three torn ligaments in his ankle earlier this month. This has put him out of action for the grass courts.
Wimbledon will miss its resident champion, Roger Federer, who has not recovered from his knee troubles. His last outing at Wimbledon last year was unremarkable for him, resulting in a shock exit for the former world No.1 in the quarterfinals. That too at the hands of a virtual unknown, Hubert Hurkacz.
Speaking of the knee surgery he underwent last August, the 40-year-old, contrary to reports of a possible off-court retirement, extolled the virtue of patience. He is possibly looking at 2023 to at least have a final swansong, if not add to his eight titles which is more than any other men's champion to date on the hallowed green grass.
Other familiar names on the injured list include Sebastian Korda and Dominic Thiem in the men's section and Naomi Osaka and Leylah Fernanadez in the women's.
Finally, The Good…
Federer's absence, Zverev's injury, Djokovic's dodgy form and Medvedev's ban opens up the door for Nadal. Despite his own battles with injuries, Nadal managed to add to his aura on the red clay. He won the French Open for a record 14th time, extending his Grand Slam titles count to 22.
Despite his rusty appearance in the French Open, the struggling Serbian's motivation might stem from the fact that he is on a roll on grass court, seeking his fourth consecutive championship win and his seventh overall at the venue while stranded on 20 grand slams. The same as Federer. The Spaniard meanwhile looks to be on track to extend his streak after winning the first two Grand Slams of the year.
Whether this sketchy scenario has any impact on the visibility of the men's game remains to be seen. The women's game became the centre of attention following the remarks of the tournament director and former tennis player, Amelie Mauresmo, at the French Open.
For the women, Emma Raducanu returns to the US Open. This is a different experience, last year she reached the fourth card as a young wildcard and an unknown entity. Ranked 10th in the seedings at the Wimbledon Championship this year, Raducanu is the hope of the home nation that has not witnessed a women's champion since Virginia Wade in 1977.
With defending champion Ash Barty having retired in rather shocking fashion earlier in the year, it is an opportunity for current world No.1 Iga Switek on a 35 match winning streak as it might be for Coco Gauff who has been something of an outsider looking in for some time now.
Another veteran at Wimbledon looking for a final hurrah is Serena Williams. Nearly 41 years of age, she returns after injury and mental scars, keeping her out of tennis action since the last tournament. Ranked outside of the 1000's, but seeded 10th here, Williams has had to bank on a wildcard entry as a way to return to Centre Court.
Speaking of the relief of being able to practise on Centre Court, in a break away from tradition at the All England club, where she slipped and injured herself last year in the first round, Williams, in the quest for her 24th Grand Slam title, said, "it was always something since the match ended that was always on my mind. So, it was a tremendous amount of motivation for that. You never want any match to end like that, it's really unfortunate."
Paying the price for world conflicts, some of the players might have been given a raw deal. But it is the tournament also that is paying in terms of relevance in the overall context of the game for sticking to its stance, to keep up the pressure and mount sanctions to end unjustified wars after being penalised for its convictions.
The governing body is right to feel the quake of these contradictory decisions across successive Grand Slams because it does set precedent, but not clearly enough for what constitutes an untenable situation to merit such extreme measures for future editions.