Tennis Fights Itself While Real War Rages
The ATP and WTA strip Wimbledon of ranking points: the subtext of power struggles in tennis, play fighting, real fighting, and collateral damage
In response to Wimbledon banning Russian and Belarusian players due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ATP, WTA, and ITF have removed ranking points from the tournament. ATP for the men, WTA for the women, and ITF for the junior and wheelchair competitors.
— ATP statement, WTA statement, ITF statement, Wimbledon statement —
All four tennis organisations released long statements but the important bits are these:
ATP: Our sport is built upon merit-based tournament entry and a level playing field for all players, free from discrimination… Removing rankings points (entirely) at Wimbledon is a decision made purely on the basis of maintaining a level playing field for our players across the season. Providing ranking protection to the Russian and Belarusian players would not have done so in an adequate manner… The bottom line is there were various options on the table, and a joint decision should have been reached together. Instead, the decision was made in isolation.
WTA: 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 at other events and in other regions around the world.
As we have previously stated, after careful consideration against a variety of factors, and bound to act in accordance with the directive guidance from the UK Government, we came to two firm conclusions that formed the basis for this decision. We were not prepared to take any actions which could risk the personal safety of players, or their families. We believe that requiring written declarations from individual players – and that would apply to all relevant players – as a condition of entry in the high-profile circumstances of Wimbledon would carry significant scrutiny and risk.
In addition, we remain unwilling to accept success or participation at Wimbledon being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime, which, through its closely controlled State media, has an acknowledged history of using sporting success to support a triumphant narrative to the Russian people.
Simply the ATP/WTA/ITF are convinced that Wimbledon should have done two things. First of all that a decision should have been made in consultation with the other organisations in tennis. And secondly that the other options on the table (for e.g. giving Russian/Belarusian players the option to compete as neutral athletes with a declaration that they do not support the war) were discussed and considered across those organisations. Wimbledon maintain that the other options were not safe for Russian and Belarusian athletes, while the ATP suggest that, considering UK government guidance (below), that risk was perhaps assessed incorrectly:
…the (UK) Government is not seeking a statement that is critical of the Russian regime, to avoid the potential for any undue personal risk being incurred by the sportspeople involved.”
Too big to care?
The ATP/WTA have left the door open to reverse course, hoping Wimbledon changes their stance. They will not.
We now have the most famous tournament in this sport stripped of ranking points. Relegated to borderline exhibition status by modern definitions. But considering Wimbledon’s pull, both to hardcore tennis fans but, more importantly for their bank accounts, normie/casual fans who make up the bulk of Wimbledon attendees year after year, the event is unlikely to mind the absence of ranking points too much for 2022. Some players may well still boycott the tournament or choose to prioritise non-grass preparation. But Wimbledon’s aura of attraction is far too large for them to be meaningfully damaged by this. The last time a large scale boycott happened, with 81 male players including 12/16 seeds not playing the 1973 edition, Wimbledon still posted their 2nd highest attendance to date. A similar scale boycott looks very unlikely for now, with massive prize money and prestige still up for grabs in south west London. And Wimbledon especially, but all four Slams, are tennis’ version of being too big too fail. A ranking point deduction for one year is a light, glancing blow rather than a full-blooded, landed punch.
This is where the subtext comes in.
The subtext (and text in a few sentences) behind most of these statements is more dismay from non-Slam tennis organisations that they don’t have any meaningful say in what the Slams often decide to do. Ranking points, as the most valuable currency of leverage that the ATP/WTA have, up against the all powerful and wealthy islands that are the Slams, were always going to be the method of retaliation. And that’s what this feels like. Retaliation.
Buried in multiple paragraphs of the ATP’s statement were sentences like this:
It was important to avoid setting a precedent of unilateral decision-making by events…
Our decision was taken to prevent a damaging and unsustainable precedent being set, not to punish these events for their response to this devastating crisis.
And in Wimbledon’s (and ultimately the US Open’s as well) response, sentences like this:
Wimbledon: We are considering our options, and we are reserving our position at this stage. We are also in discussion with our Grand Slam colleagues.
USTA (who run the US Open): …we believe their (ATP/WTA) decision to withdraw points from all those who play Wimbledon this year is disproportionately severe due to the extreme and unique situation Wimbledon faced when making its decision."
This is episode no.987898 of tennis’ power struggle between the fragmented regions which make up tennis governance. The Slams, whether it be Roland Garros deciding to bosh their way into an October slot during the COVID pandemic, or Wimbledon banning Russians and Belarusians a few weeks ago, continue to act unilaterally with little input from, or respect for, the ATP/WTA. There had been progress, sparked by the pandemic, when it came to collaboration between these organisations. A new ‘T7’ working group composed of all of the major organisations in tennis, were meeting bi-weekly starting last year to discuss and collaborate. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, relationships between the Slams and the ATP/WTA were likely the friendliest they have been for some time. But now the fragments are fighting again, and the uneven power structures are once again laid bare. Something will have to give in these power games eventually. This sport moves far too slowly, and far too disjointedly, for it to maximise its success and capitalise on the stability that successful 140 year old foundations provide. Every time something like this spat happens, the ability for this sport to make nimble, collectively beneficial decisions suffers. And boy are there a lot of things that this sport needs to agree on, and act on, right now in 2022.
Of course the backdrop to this organisational infighting is a real warzone, with many more severe consequences than tennis’ ability to unplug itself out of a muddy field of agency. Russia continues to wreak bloody havoc on the sovereign nation of Ukraine, murdering countless innocent people daily. And the purpose and role of sanctions, especially at the more trivial sporting end, continues to be extremely murky. When Wimbledon first made the decision to ban Russians and Belarusians, I wrote:
Perhaps Wimbledon’s ban is the latest ineffectual pocket knife in a battlefield featuring ballistic sanction missiles. Or perhaps every weapon, no matter how small, is needed for the cause to bring about change in Putin’s crumbling, yet still lethally dangerous, fortress. I don’t have a good answer to which scenario is right, and I would be skeptical of anyone who had a confident answer considering the tangled, overlapping weave of sanction efficacy.
I haven’t gotten any further to having a good answer to this, and I’m still skeptical of those that claim they do. Although I’m also still left with an uneasy feeling over the United Kingdom and the United States, who, because of their near duopoly on owning or at least partially running nearly every ‘major’ sport, inhabit what is essentially an insulated bubble in this regard. Safe from similar sanctions, unjustifiably so from the perspective of countries and civilians who have suffered at the hands of various mistakes in western interventionism.
But really, as the various statements fade to the background as Roland Garros occupies tennis fan’s thoughts over the coming two weeks, the two sides on this issue will be defined by the following. Either you consider all actions and sanctions, no matter how small, against Putin’s Russia as a necessary blacklisting of their ambitions and influence while a dictator wages heinous crimes against humanity. Or you don’t.
Wimbledon signed off with this:
…we remain unwilling to accept success or participation at Wimbledon being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime, which, through its closely controlled State media, has an acknowledged history of using sporting success to support a triumphant narrative to the Russian people.
And as I’m yet to see a good answer as to whether sporting sanctions ‘work’, and considering no one really knows what ‘work’ even means right now, who knows. But as yet another signal into how messy the impact of sanctions like this can be, the back and forth between the ATP and Wimbledon have actually made it more likely that a Russian player, Daniil Medvedev, will ascend to world No.1 over the next month or so. Djokovic, as the reigning Wimbledon champion and current world No.1, will no longer be able to defend his 2000 ranking points due to the ATP’s decision. As a result No.2 Medvedev, who is defending just 180 points from last year’s Wimbledon, has a great chance to be counted as the sport’s best player (again).
And so Putin will likely have his Russian champion in some form or another, regardless of what the ATP or Wimbledon do.
Perhaps the saddest things about the removal of ranking points from Wimbledon is that many of those hurt by this decision are the players rather than the tournaments or tours.
Players defending points at Wimbledon are angry about an incoming drop in the rankings through no fault of their own, unable to defend points. Other players are confused about a lack of communication over the decision. Ukrainian players are happy with Wimbledon and livid with the ATP/WTA for ‘standing on the side of invaders and murderers’, noting that the ATP/WTA’s actions in punishing Wimbledon have already been co-opted into Russian propaganda.
The ATP maintains that they are protecting players. But because at least part of this feels retaliatory and precedent-setting in response to Wimbledon’s autonomous overreach, the considerations of player needs, especially lower ranked players who normally count qualifying for the Slams as a huge potential ranking and career mobility boost, has gotten lost in the dust of the scuffle.
For those 100-300 ranked players, do they play Wimbledon qualifying with no points on the table? Or do they enter lower level, if far less prestigious and lower paying, events which do offer points? Watching lower ranked players battle through Slam qualifying, celebrating as if they’ve just won the entire tournament just as the main draw is about to start, is always incredibly emotional, both for career progress in a brutal competitive environment, and for the basket of rewards waiting for them. That basket just got less valuable this year.
If you were feeling as though the ATP and WTA have been blindsided by all of this, in the face of the all powerful Slams, consider how insignificant many lower ranked players must feel as the smallest pawns in this power struggle. Conditions like this could contribute to the right conditions for players to organise, but movements like the PTPA have seemingly stalled in terms of progress.
And so, tennis is fighting itself as usual. And while sport’s organisations play their power games, a real war rages on. Rather than collaborating, decisions have been made, and subsequent retaliations to those decisions imposed. Wimbledon suffers, slightly. Communication lines between the Slams and the ATP/WTA suffer, more so. Russian and Belarusian players cannot play despite some already publicly stating their opposition to war. Ukrainian players feel as though many of their peers are more outraged over one missed tournament than friends, relatives and countrymen being murdered in cold blood.
Roland Garros will offer much needed distraction before the reality of these decisions play out in what will be an unusual grass season. Ukraine’s people avoiding death and destruction remains the most urgent consideration. But secondarily we keep hoping for tennis to get out of its own way, away from infighting and towards the more nimble progress this sport needs to thrive over the next decade and beyond. These last few weeks have set tennis, and most of all its often powerless pawns, back a bit.
See you on Thursday.
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Top: Clive Brunskill/Getty
Rather unfortunate, imo, that a tournament of such stature as Wimbledon felt "bound to act in accordance with the directive guidance from the UK Government", given what the PM leading such UK Government has actually made repeatedly clear for all of us to witness over several months now, for example the following:
Perso, I definitely prefer Nadal's stance on the matter, which remains fundamentally respectful of everyone involved, for example in the following statement Nadal made at Roland-Garros today:
"At the end, I understand both sides. I respect and I understand Wimbledon position, without a doubt, but in the other hand, I understand and I respect too that the ATP is protecting their members."
To the best of my understanding, the ATP's decision was taken together with the ATP Players' Council, of which both Federer and Nadal are members, as well as Auger-Aliassime, Murray, Simon, Anderson, etc. Reasonable for us to presume the same holds true for the WTA's decision and the ITF's decision = their decisions were taken together with their respective Players' Council. Perso, I very much doubt "retaliation" was actually part of their decision-making process.
Hence, it might have been wiser for Wimbledon to simmer its decision over a bit more.
Because, by the end of the disaster that Wimbelon decision (banning INDIVIDUAL tennis players on grounds unrelated in any way whatsoever to the set of principles, foundations, rules and regulations overseeing tennis competition) will certainly/dangerously/unwisely/etc have created, namely to follow the UK PM's political recommendation on a matter relating to the INDIVIDUAL sport that is tennis rather than the decision taken by the all 3 tennis players councils, all of us will have come to the same conclusion as Wertheim in his various articles, including the following published today:
At least you actually mention the war. The amount of takes that don’t….