It’s looking very much like Maria Sharapova will return to Wimbledon this summer in a very British embrace, but Ilie Nastase, the new villain du jour, need not bother queueing up.
The All England Club still hope the Russian will be the architect of her own resurrection at Madrid, Rome and the French Open before they need to decide, but hinted as strongly as decorum would allow on Wednesday that there ought to be no moral impediment to her coming back to a tournament where she announced her arrival in 2004 by beating Serena Williams in the final.
Dancing around the hottest subject in tennis, the club chairman, Philip Brook, said a sub-committee headed by Tim Henman would decide on 20 June if she needed to be offered a wildcard, although, judging by her return from her 15-month ban in Stuttgart last week, when she reached the semi-finals, Sharapova might need no help.
Nastase, meanwhile, remains very much on the outer. Since his outbursts regarded by most right-thinking people as sexist and racist during Great Britain’s Fed Cup tie against Romania two weekends ago, the 70-year-old former world No1 has fought a losing battle to convince the tennis community of his naivety and innocence.
Brook said: “What he did, I think we have to say his actions were not very good and we condemn them. In terms of an invitation to the Royal Box, he’s not going to receive an invitation.”
Pressed on whether or not he could get through the gates at Wimbledon, the chief executive, Richard Lewis, noted that, because of his suspension by the ITF, Nastase would also not be allowed on site. “If he is suspended, and we noticed him, he would be stopped,” Lewis said.
As for Sharapova, Brook revealed he would be on the sub-committee, along with Henman and club members Debbie Jevans and Richard Stokes, as well as Martin Corrie and Cathy Sabin, representing the LTA, and the tournament referee, Andrew Jarrett.
Their task would be simpler, of course, if Sharapova, in the absence of Williams, who is expecting her first child, were to win the French Open. However, Brook would only say: “I can’t answer that because I don’t know what we’ll discuss on 20 June but, obviously, we are keeping an eye on what they’re doing. We’re not discussing it with [the French federation]. We’ve not discussed it with them.” But, surely, it would mean she would receive a wildcard if she qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros, especially if she did well, he was asked. “It might do,” he said.
Sharapova’s presence or otherwise has become something of a moral dilemma for the game’s authorities since her wildcard return in Stuttgart, which several players have criticised. Andy Murray, who is one of the men’s Tour’s strongest anti-drugs campaigners, returned to the subject on Tuesday when he said players should only be in the big tournaments by right. As respected as his opinion is around his home tournament, Brook was the acme of diplomacy.
“There are a number of factors taken into account which historically include looking at British players who we think might add interest to the championships,” he said. “We take a look at who’s done well in the lead-up tournaments – those are important to us so we have in the past rewarded success in some of these tournaments by awarding a wild card.
“And we will also 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 in our consideration as well.”
Does the tournament not need Sharapova, though, now that Wimbledon is missing its defending champion, who has won the title seven times?
“The first thing to say is, ‘Congratulations, Serena.’ It’s very good news and we’re delighted that she’s going to become a mum, and we wish her all the best with it. The other thing to say is that Wimbledon is a very strong event and we’re looking forward to having a very successful and interesting tournament in any event.”
So Sharapova’s long ago victory could win her an invitation? “There are many factors that will be taken into account. It could be one.”
Far easier to pin down were the financial boosts to the 2017 tournament. Although Brook would not confirm that Brexit played a part in discussions, he acknowledged that currency fluctuations around the world have always been a factor in determining prizemoney – at Wimbledon and the other major events.
Total money is up 12.5% to £31.6m, with the singles champions each receiving £2.2m, an increase of 10%. “Over the last six years,” he pointed out, “[Wimbledon] has more than doubled the total prizemoney, from £14.6m in 2011.”
Lewis said security would be tight, but no more than normal, despite recent atrocities on the streets of London.
“There is no specific threat to Wimbledon. We recently saw very tragic events, of course, and we’ll see if there are any adjustments that need to be made in our security, but it’s something that we witness in this day and age, sadly.”