The All England Club’s annual spring press conference felt more like it was staged in midwinter, such was the icy wind sweeping through SW19. Yet if the weather was freakish, the cautious mood was entirely predictable. As usual, the primary purpose of the Wimbledon briefing was to avoid controversy.
On the clearest moral issue in the sport, the Club’s chairman, Philip Brook, did confirm yesterday that the disgraced Romanian Fed Cup captain Ilie Nastase would not be appearing in the Royal Box this summer. No great surprise there: neither will Joey Barton nor Robert Mugabe.
But will Nastase be banned from the grounds?
“I think we have to say his actions were not very good,” Brook suggested, “and we condemn them.” Yet the Club’s chief executive, Richard Lewis, clarified that Nastase’s entitlement to a ticket was a matter for the International Tennis Federation to decide, rather than for Wimbledon itself.
“At the moment he is under temporary suspension from the ITF,” said Lewis. “We would certainly support that suspension and we will wait for the outcome of their investigation. If he is suspended and we noticed him, he would be stopped [at the gates].”
Perhaps Lewis’s self-effacing stance on this and other issues stopped short of the leadership that Herman David, Brook’s distant predecessor, displayed almost 50 years ago. It was David, in 1968, who declared that professionals should be admitted to the tournament, ending the curse of ‘shamateurism’.
On the other hand, the Club’s carefully prepared positions will achieve the desired aim of maintaining Wimbledon’s frictionless and lofty neutrality. This is unquestionably the smoothest-run event in British sport, and its guardians are determined to keep it that way.
The same pattern resurfaced with regard to the topic of Maria Sharapova, which has dominated the tennis airwaves for much of 2017. Since the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down its verdict in October, we have known that Sharapova might need wild cards to play in the summer’s two biggest tournaments, the French Open and Wimbledon. But as Andy Murray had accurately predicted on Tuesday, the Club is still waiting to see if she gains the 600-odd rankings points she needs by May 22 to achieve entry under her own steam. “That’s what Wimbledon would be hoping for,” Murray said, “so they’re not in a position to have to make that decision.”
Murray’s observation was supported yesterday by the smoke signals sent up by Lewis and Brook in the Club’s main interview room. One thing we did learn was the D-day on which the decision will have to be made: June 20, when the tennis sub-committee – a body chaired by Tim Henman – will announce its list of wild cards. But the rest remains guesswork, especially until the French Tennis Federation delivers its own decision on May 16.
“Obviously we are keeping an eye on what they’re doing,” said Brook.
There was some encouragement for Sharapova and her team. Asked if her celebrity would be an advantage, Brook replied that the sub-committee would have to consider “what might add interest to the tournament, so if someone had a very strong playing record here at Wimbledon, that would be a factor.”
It may also be significant, however, that the qualifying tournament at Roehampton is to be ticketed for the first time. This would seem to eliminate one possible argument for handing Sharapova a main-draw wild card: that her presence in the qualifying event would be a health-and-safety nightmare on the unsecured Roehampton site. Instead, fans will be charged £5 per head – the proceeds will be forwarded to charity – and attendance at the Bank of England Sports Centre will be capped at 1,000 people.
“Last year we were faced with queues to get in the ground,” said Lewis. “We don’t know the facts of Sharapova, so we made the decision regardless.
“Qualifying has been moving in that direction anyway for the last few years now and it has become more and more popular. The security aspect last year made it inevitable.”