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The Break: More on the Wimbledon ban and player reaction

Maria Sakkari, the No. 3-ranked WTA star, echoed the sentiments of many pros on both tours during a press conference at the French Open a few days ago. Asked to comment on the ATP and WTA’s joint decision to strip Wimbledon of rankings points, she allowed that it did not seem “fair” to everyone and added, “The decision has been made, so I just have nothing to say about it.”

The tours took this dramatic step—call it exercising their nuclear option—because Wimbledon, intent on pressuring and punishing Russia for its unprovoked, wholesale attack on Ukraine, and denying the Putin regime the chance to score a propaganda victory on the lawns of the All England Club, is denying entry into its upcoming tournament to a handful players from Russia and its ally in the invasion, Belarus.

The response by the tours, and by the everyday players whom the ATP and WTA purportedly represent, suggest that the officials may have badly overplayed their hand. Unlike Sakkari and many of her peers, especially the ones protected by high rankings and income, French maverick Benoit Paire had plenty to say about the punitive measure targeting Wimbledon.

In an astonishing reversal of protocol, Paire asked to meet with the press following his first-round loss at Roland Garros (only winners are obliged to be available to press). He made an opening statement, including these comments:

I would like to talk about Wimbledon, however. I would like to know if ATP defends more players, or Russia. . . We are going to play a tournament without any points. When some people had COVID [and could not compete], we didn't say, ‘Oh, okay, we should cancel the tournament altogether.’ It's a pity, because if we were to listen to all the players, they do not understand this decision. Ninety-nine percent of players want to have points and to play the tournament as it was before.

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Never one to shy away from controversy, Benoit Paire had choice words for the ATP tour at Roland Garros.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Benoit Paire had choice words for the ATP tour at Roland Garros.

The percentage may be a little high, but not by much. Furthermore, Paire repeated a popular refrain on both tours, that the leadership leaves the rank-and-file out of the loop:

Nobody told us about this. If it's a war between ATP and Wimbledon, it's not nice for us. We want to play normally. I'm sorry for Russia and Russians, but they are the ones causing all the trouble. And all the ATP players are actually paying the price. Medvedev (a Russian) will be No. 1 worldwide [should there be no rankings points]. This is absurd. We should actually take position for all the players in the world, and it's the opposite that is being done right now.

Strong words, indicating that there is significant resentment brewing again in the rank-and-file. While tennis players are self-interested and generally fearful of expressing strong opinions on pretty much anything, even the butchery and war crimes currently taking place in Ukraine, denying them the lifeblood of rankings points hits home. Some are taking a hard, second look at how and why the tours are flexing their muscles. Some at the French Open were willing to touch radioactive subjects.

Karolina Pliskova, a WTA Top 10 staple for years, put it this way: “I think they (WTA and ATP) didn't really help anybody. Like, I mean, they punished Wimbledon maybe. But I think most of the players, if you love the game you're still going to go and play. This is, like, political.”

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Medvedev advanced to the round of 16 for the first time at Wimbledon last year.

Medvedev advanced to the round of 16 for the first time at Wimbledon last year.

The tours argue that the longstanding principle of tournament entry based solely on rankings (Medvedev, for example, is No. 2) is sacrosanct. Thus, allowing rankings points for an event that locks out some eligible players would create misleading rankings. But stripping Wimbledon of rankings points would probably create even more spurious rankings. How’s it going to look if defending champion Novak Djokovic wins Wimbledon again with the net result of a drop in the rankings (the scenario Paire alluded to when he mentioned Medvedev) as his points from last year drop off?

And let’s not forget the optics: Wimbledon bans Russian players. The tours bring the hammer down on Wimbledon, conveniently ignoring that just maybe there are more important things in play here than guaranteeing a “right to play” for a subset of players—none of whom seems to think that, given the global situation, they might consider voluntarily staying away from London.

Ukrainian pro Lesia Tsurenko said: “As we see a lot of sports, they banned Russian, a number of Russian players, and in tennis it’s only one tournament. I honestly think that this is not a very big price for them to pay or to accept.”

The various player representatives who played a role in developing the tour's decision have underscored Paire’s complaint by being, at best, opaque; at worst, condescending.

Sloane Stephens, who sits on the WTA player council, said, “I think the decision that was taken was the correct one. I think that there is a lot of things that happened behind the scenes that the press are not aware of, and I think there has been a lot of mishandling of how everything was handled.” Asked to elaborate on the decision-making process, she replied: “No. Snitches get stitches, so no.”

The flip rejoinder doesn’t change the fact that few are happy with this outcome. Kaia Kanepi said, “It's very tough to tell (if it’s a good decision). I think it's so and so. I really don't know what to answer. But getting no points is not good.”

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It isn’t just the rank-and-file that resents the ATP and WTA’s decision-making process and lack of transparency. Many feel that their input is not valued and perhaps not even wanted. Paula Badosa is a rising star, already the No. 4 WTA player. After issuing the usual disclaimer about respecting the decisions of both parties, she said: “I’m not maybe happy about [the fact] that players have an opinion, have a voice, and maybe they don't listen to us as much as we would like [them] to.”

Djokovic, who certainly has skin in the rankings game, is no longer on the ATP player council. That’s partly because he is also the activist founder of the budding Professional Tennis Players’ Association, which is more or less a players’ union. Although the PTPA is not yet officially active, this issue would be right in its wheelhouse.

The Serbian star said, “We knew that whatever decision the ATP makes there is going to be a lot of unhappy, unsatisfied players.”

Do the math. Which outcome—stripping rankings points from Wimbledon or accommodating the tournament’s decision at a crucial, unique historical junction—best serves the general interest of everyone?

The ATP and WTA may have overplayed their hand. And this is unlikely to end well for anyone.