By Nick Carter
As we are now in the grass court season, it’s time to address the big issue hanging over the whole thing. It was even distracting everyone during the first week of Roland-Garros. I am, of course, talking about Wimbledon having ranking points removed by every tennis authority.
The AELTC and LTA banned Russian and Belarusian players from taking part in tennis tournaments in the UK in 2022 because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This caused a problem for the tour organisers: the ATP, WTA and the ITF. The principle of modern tennis is that the only criteria for entry to professional tournaments is a player’s ranking and their age (i.e. not under 14 years old). This prevents tournaments from discriminating in other ways. For example, an event run in South Africa during apartheid or in the Deep South of the United States would not be allowed to have a rule preventing a player with a specific skin colour from competing. Likewise, events in Russia or the Middle East are not able to refuse entry to any players who are openly members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Not without consequences anyway. This situation is no different.
The question is not whether there should be consequences for Wimbledon’s decision, but what those consequences should be. If there are no repercussions, then other events can start doing the same thing, meaning either discrimination becomes a part of tennis or the tour organisers have one rule for some and one for others. Even if we try to look at things pragmatically, every system has some form of moral framework to it, even if it is assumed.
There is a further political dimension to this situation: the organisational structure of tennis. Like a lot of sports, tennis has competing groups who all want to grow the sport and make money, but want to get the maximum benefit for themselves. They form an uneasy alliance, working together for the most part but seizing any opportunity they can to gain a little more power within the dynamic. I would love to get a full understanding of the relationships, structures and decision-making within tennis organisations, but that might be a longer-term project to satisfy the political science nerd in me. Even if I don’t know the inner workings, I do know that these conflicts of interest are counterproductive to the sport’s progress as a whole.
For a major championship, a Grand Slam, to make a unilateral decision like this has the potential to upset the balance of power. If nothing is done, then the Grand Slam organisers will have an edge. After all, they represent tennis’ biggest markets. Most casual fans only watch majors, and even then, they’ll only really watch one taking place in their home country. Wimbledon might have the biggest edge, as it seems to have a unique status in the world of sport beyond tennis given its widely recognized tradition and history. The Grand Slams need the tours to provide players, and also to provide the support to bring them up to a standard to create a great spectacle. But it would be beneficial for the majors to dictate the terms of the relationship.
In this context, it is especially important that there are consequences for breaking a fundamental agreement within the sport, which is officially codified in the Grand Slam rulebook (https://www.itftennis.com/media/5986/grand-slam-rulebook-2022-f-2.pdf). If there are none, not only does it look like certain tournaments can get away with doing what they want because of their status within the sport or what country they are based in, but it could create a slippery slope where the very structures within tennis are changed.
The tournaments could claim force majeure in this case, that their hands were tied by national politicians. Whilst I do believe there was behind the scenes pressure from the UK government on Wimbledon and the LTA to ban Russian and Belarusian tennis players from competing, as there have been similar moves in other sports, there was no public law or directive forcing them to take such action. This is not like the Australian Open at the beginning of 2022 with Novak Djokovic and Natalia Vikhlyantseva, where the tournament made an effort to support the players in being able to compete, but it was a public government decision that meant they could not due to being deported. There is nothing in UK law preventing Russian or Belarusian people entering the country or working there. There is no statement from a British politician saying that Russian and Belarusian athletes are not welcome in the country. Wimbledon and the LTA could have stood their ground, though I suspect there would have been a significant cost to them in doing so. Anyone who is a fan of British political satire such as “Yes Minister” or “The Thick of It”, or even “House of Cards” would understand what kind of backroom discussions are had. Still, with nothing codified, the event organisers do not have anything to stand on when facing the tennis authorities.
So, the question then becomes what action should be taken to show that such a move is not acceptable. Whilst the principle is laid out in the rules, there is nothing in writing about any specific punishments, so this is where things get tricky. Let’s look at all the options: a fine aimed at the event itself or removing ranking points from the event. The tours are unable to cancel the event outright as they do not organise it, there is nothing that can stop Wimbledon going ahead, save for war or a global pandemic.
Something like this has happened before. In 2009, Israeli players Shahar Peer and Andy Ram were refused entry to the Dubai Championships because of their nationality, despite their rankings being high enough to make them eligible to compete. The situation threatened to escalate to the point where both tours were on the point of pulling out of supporting all events in the UAE (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/feb/17/dubai-israeli-ban-shahar-peer-andy-ram-wta-atp). This was resolved with a $300,000 fine being issued by the WTA to the Dubai Championships, and one year later Peer was allowed to compete in the event.
So, this seems fairly cut and dried. Fine the tournaments $300,000 per player banned. The thing is, because there are multiple players, how does one calculate this? We could base this on how many Russian and Belarusian players are in the top 250 currently, given they would have automatic entry to the Wimbledon main draw and qualifying draws respectively. This would be 11 players in the ATP rankings and 27 in the WTA rankings. If you were to base the fine on a set price per player, then Wimbledon would be fined $10.8 million (£8.6 million) combined by both tours. Given it made a profit of £44 million in 2021, a fine this size wouldn’t be a huge dent for the organisers (https://tennishead.net/wimbledon-report-44-million-profit-in-2021-despite-covid-19-restrictions/).
It becomes more difficult to calculate for smaller tournaments based on a per player cost, given that entry for those depends on player preferences, as there are competing events of similar worth (if not more) taking place (mostly in Germany) at the same time. The fine would be smaller for Queens and Birmingham as they are ATP and WTA events respectively, but Eastbourne is a combined event and Nottingham includes a challenger tournament on the men’s side. None of them are mandatory events. There is a scenario that no Russian or Belarusian players would choose to take part anyway. Going back to the Dubai 2009 situation, the fine for excluding Shahar Peer was equivalent to 15% of the prize pot. If you wanted to base it on just the principle of banning a nationality it would be easier to calculate. However, this becomes an issue because Wimbledon would have to be fined on the same terms, which would drop the cost for them to $6.6 million (£5.25 million). The status issue also means the smaller events have less financial stability than a big money event such as Dubai, let alone Wimbledon.
Then we get to the ranking points issue. Taking the players out of it for the moment, doing this sends a message. A fine could be seen by a major as a slap on the wrist. Removing ranking points removes some of the prestige from a tournament, and lessens the appeal to the big stars (as we have seen with Naomi Osaka’s comments in Paris). It doesn’t completely – this is still Wimbledon after all – but it sends a message that if they can’t abide by the agreed rules, they will not be supported. While this raises the question of what happens if the war continues into 2023, it’s a bridge that only needs to be crossed should Wimbledon insist on continuing its ban, as it gives the tours time to organise some competition. Taking ranking points away from the smaller tournaments, however, makes things tricky as effectively they become disenfranchised. Suddenly, there are fewer opportunities to play on the main tour as usually there’s a couple of 32-player draws taking place consecutively during a week. The question also remains of how likely these tournaments would be to survive long term. With grass court events becoming rarer nowadays, if the tours aren’t careful their actions could spell the beginning of the final end for tennis on its traditional surface.
It is clear that the tours sent a big message, to make sure that the majors cannot be seen to dominate the tennis scene. Hence why Wimbledon had ranking points removed and the others not. This decision wasn’t taken for any other reason than to make a power move. Personally, I’d have advocated for fines for all the events. The smaller events would be based on a flat rate, whilst Wimbledon would have to pay based on the total number of excluded players. This would send the same message, and gives room for escalation should this behaviour continue.
For many, this would be the fairest result for the players, who are all set under the current arrangement to lose all their points gained from Wimbledon 2021. I would agree with this, although controversially it is my view that players should not have points on their ranking still from over 12 months ago (I say this as a Federer fan, but I don’t think it’s right that he’s still in the top 50). Keeping half the 2021 Wimbledon points, as the WTA seem to be moving towards, is a reasonable compromise but my view is that if you are 60 in the world and your yearly form suggests you shouldn’t be in the top 100, this should be reflected in your ranking sooner rather than later. We saw the chaos a frozen ranking system created, and we need to move on from this and stick to the system. Again, the decision around how to deal with the player bans is about maintaining the integrity of tennis and keeping 2021 points for another year undermines a system that is (rightly) based on 12-month form.
For those who are disappointed that the tours seem to be protecting Russian players and doing very little to support Ukrainian players, this decision is not about the war, it is all about tennis. War or no war, the integrity of the sport and its organisation needs to be maintained. Again, if an event can ban an athlete based purely on their ethnicity, nationality or anything about them during a time of war, it is a slippery slope until it is done during a time of peace. The ATP, WTA and ITF are international sporting bodies, and they have sanctioned the Russian tennis authorities. The players are contractors, they work for themselves and the tennis authorities represent them too. National bans are up to national sporting authorities. No one else needs to step in. The tours are doing as much as they can to support Ukrainian players. They should only do more if Russian players are somehow shown to be a threat to their Ukrainian counterparts’ physical safety or mental wellbeing.
Ranking fairness and player nationalities are side issues though. This is about making sure that all those involved in the running of the sport are acting according to their agreed responsibilities. A response to the player bans was necessary, even if it was mishandled. We won’t know the full impact until next year, and that will depend on whether this terrible war is still raging on.