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Wimbledon in a Spin

Has the All England Club double-faulted on its decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from Wimbledon?

The decision in April by the All England Lawn Tennis Club to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s Wimbledon championship elicited a volley of criticism. Players past and present, such as Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova and Novak Djokovic, lined up to declare it an unfair and a meaningless gesture. The Russian players, such as the world number two Daniil Medvedev, and number 11 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, went further, accusing All England Tennis of illegal discrimination that might yet be challenged in the courts.

Club President, Ian Hewitt, pleaded that it was the only decision possible within government guidelines. These require players to denounce the war and their country, which Hewitt argued put players’ families back home at risk, not to mention guaranteeing a life in exile. But the furious backlash from fans and players has nonetheless threatened to undermine Wimbledon’s reputation for fair play.

In the days that followed All England Tennis’ decision, pressure mounted as the Association of Tennis Players (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) warned they would strip Wimbledon of its rankings points, potentially rendering the £36m competition an expensive exhibition tournament.

Global rankings points are not just for bragging rights but are critical to junior players building their careers. For senior players, the prize money and kudos might keep them in, but if Wimbledon loses its ranking points, it could yet precipitate the mass withdrawal of junior entrants in favour of other competitions.

Tennis is a somewhat unlikely candidate for international politics. In contrast to football or the Olympics, athletes rarely compete as country representatives. Instead, there is historical precedent from the Apartheid era to the Balkan conflict, that players can compete as neutral citizens.

Reacting to the All England announcement in April, Novak Djokovic said: “When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good.” But this is naïve. Sport has become inexorably political in recent years and tennis is arguably just catching up. Whether it’s the debate in the UK over homophobia in football this week, past convulsions over Black Lives Matter supporters taking the knee, protests from the Olympic podium, or the near cancellation of Yorkshire County Cricket Club following allegations of racism, sporting organisations need to be as deft at navigating social politics as they are at building champions.

For its part, the whispers on court are that Wimbledon looks to have come through a gruelling five-setter to grind out a win, with the ATP and WTA set to allow it to keep its points. But as the French Open gets underway next week, with Russian and Belarusian players in attendance, all eyes will be on how they act and what they say. Should either Medvedev or Sabalenka lift La Coupe des Mousequetaires or La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, you can be sure that Vladimir Putin will give it the full top spin to make it a propaganda coup.