Why Wimbledon row has pushed British tennis to the brink of disaster

·4-min read
Why Wimbledon row has pushed British tennis to the brink of disaster
Why Wimbledon row has pushed British tennis to the brink of disaster

When the leaders of British tennis decided to exclude Russian and Belarusian players from this summer’s grass-court events on political grounds, they must have expected the decision to cause significant blowback.

Even so, the scale of the tours’ rage has still come as a surprise – and one that could cause serious damage to the whole British game. The mooted removal of rankings points would cripple tournaments and impact players careers, making this arguably the most divisive decision since the ATP Tour was launched more than 30 years ago.

The tournaments

As of Thursday afternoon, the world’s best tennis players were still in a quandary over their schedules for the summer’s grass-courts events. Entry lists for Wimbledon, Queen’s and Birmingham were due to close on Monday, but there was still no clarity over whether rankings points will be available.

If the two tours – the ATP and the WTA – decide to withdraw or reduce rankings points in retaliation for Britain’s stance on Putin, then there will be a scramble to gain entry to the alternative build-up events in Europe.

There are four European grass-court events on the men’s side (’s-Hertogenbosch, Stuttgart, Halle and Majorca) and four on the women’s (’s-Hertogenbosch again, Berlin, Gaiba and Bad Homburg).

So who would be left at the five Tour-level events in the UK? Mostly homegrown players who want to compete on their own soil in front of their own friends and family while earning a bit of cash in the process. (Prize money is one thing that the tours cannot take away.)

If the mooted sanctions are imposed, the value of these tournaments would be significantly downgraded in the eyes of sponsors, broadcasters and fans. Although it should be said that Queen’s, supposedly the crown jewel in the Lawn Tennis Association’s portfolio, had already lost half-a-dozen marquee names to its major rival Halle as a result of the LTA’s disinclination to pay appearance fees.

The LTA supports all five British grass-court events. (Namely Queen’s and Eastbourne on the men’s side; Nottingham, Birmingham and Eastbourne on the women’s). With income of up to £50 million a year from Wimbledon, plus more from the Government, the governing body has deep pockets. But if rankings points end up being withdrawn or reduced, that would be a bitter pill to swallow.

The players

On the face of things, the cancellation of rankings points for British events would be a blow for players across the board – albeit one that the players themselves have recommended, out of a strong belief that excluding Russians and Belarusians counts as discrimination.

In practice, though, British players tend to gain a disproportionate benefit from home grass-court events, just as French, Spanish and Italian players usually do well on clay.

Admittedly, no-one in Britain grows up training on grass. It simply isn’t a developmental surface. Even so, our players tend to know their way around better than international visitors, who often find the footing uncertain and the bounce disconcertingly low.

The likes of Cameron Norrie and Dan Evans – who made the final and quarter-final of Queen’s respectively last year – could be negatively affected by any downgrading. There is even a theory that Andy Murray – who has won the title there five times – might switch to Halle this year if his hand is forced.

The administrators

There appears to be no likelihood of an immediate decision on rankings points being announced until next week, as the ATP and WTA Tours mull over what action to take.

In the circumstances, it seems likely that Monday’s entry-list deadlines will be postponed. Or, at least, players will be offered extra flexibility about withdrawing from events as and when a final decision is made.

Given the strength of feeling among the ATP player council this week – the decision to call for Wimbledon to lose its ranking points is understood to have been unanimous – the ATP board’s ongoing silence might seem surprising. But then, it is dangerous to go around provoking the four grand slams – which remain comfortably the richest and strongest events in the game.

One possibility that is probably keeping ATP chief executive Andrea Gaudenzi awake at night involves the grand slams running their own parallel ranking system, and reintroducing the old Grand Slam Cup as an alternative to the ATP Finals.

The ATP make almost all their money from the ATP Finals, while their rankings are the only real currency that they possess. This is how they have ended up using rankings points as a bargaining ploy in this latest row; they simply don’t have any other power over Wimbledon.

But such sabre-rattling could come at a massive cost if it were to provoke the slams into setting up their own alternative version of the tennis eco-system. As one experienced administrator told Telegraph Sport on Thursday, such an outcome would be “an existential threat to the tours’ very existence.”

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