As the world of tennis and its celebrity entourage descend on south-west London for this year’s Wimbledon Championships, the talk of the town will be a player who is not even there.
Daniil Medvedev, the current men’s number one, will not be participating following the decision to bar Russian players. The All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs the tournament that starts on Monday, said it had been left with little choice following guidance from the UK government “to limit Russia’s global influence” after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
That decision has divided international tennis, with many top players voicing their displeasure. Novak Djokovic said it was “wrong”, Rafael Nadal, called it “very unfair”, while Andy Murray said he was “not supportive” of the move.
In response, the ATP and the WTA, which run the men’s and women’s tours respectively, have stripped Wimbledon of its ranking points, making it effectively an exhibition event – albeit one with a generous prize pot and plenty of cachet.
“I disagreed with the All England Club not allowing the Russians and Belarusians to play. And I disagree with the ATP and the WTA about not giving points for the tournament, ”said John McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon winner. “It’s just a damn shame that it’s come to this.”
Both the French and US Opens, which with Wimbledon and the Australian Open make up the grand slam tournaments, have allowed Russians and Belarusians to participate under a neutral flag. But the Championships’ place as the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament has made it easier to shrug off fears that its status has been undermined.
Indeed, brief murmurings that players might skip the tournament came to nothing; all the top injury-free stars are due to attend.
“Winning the grand slam is in the end. . . what you will tell to your kids or grandkids. You’re not going to talk about the points that you got in a tournament, ”said Casper Ruud, the Norwegian men’s number three seed.
“I’ve always thought that Wimbledon was the only grand slam that was bigger than the players,” said former women’s world number one Chrissie Evert, a three-time winner. “You think about all the former champions, the ghosts and spirits that played on that center court. I do that only at Wimbledon. I don’t do that really at any other grand slam. ”
While the break with the rest of tennis is a direct result of the UK’s hardline approach to Russian aggression, it can also be seen as an attempt to protect the tournament’s image, said Simon Chadwick, a professor of global sports at the Emlyon business school.
“What most of us see is grass and strawberries and glasses of champagne – this is Downton Abbey with tennis balls, ”he said. “Wimbledon represents a rules-based world, so the last thing you’d want is a Russian coming and winning the tournament and essentially undermining the very essence of the Britain brand.”
Many at the top of the sport have lamented the intrusion of geopolitics and hope it proves a one-off. Both the ATP and the WTA say tennis is built on the principle that participation is based solely on merit, making discrimination against a particular nationality unacceptable.
“The decision should have been made by tennis,” said Andrea Gaudenzi, ATP chair. “We condemned the war, we canceled the tournament in Moscow. Going beyond that would be like saying these guys are guilty. We don’t see ourselves supporting that. ”
Wimbledon, which will be at full spectator capacity for the first time in three years, must also adjust to life without its greatest salesman: Roger Federer. The 40-year-old Swiss star has won the tournament a record eight times, but is recovering from knee surgery and is not expected to appear. His legion of fans will be forced to direct their adoration elsewhere for the first time in more than 20 years, although the number two ranked player, Alexander Zverev, will not be an option: the German is out with an ankle injury.
Djokovic will be gunning for his sixth title – his fourth in a row – and in others’ absence will be the heavy favorite. His main rival will be Nadal, who has already won both the Australian and French Opens this year, but is returning from injury and has skipped the traditional warm-up events.
Meanwhile, the women’s draw will be without its reigning champion after Australia’s Ashleigh Barty shocked the game in March when she announced her retirement, aged just 25. She said she was “spent” and that it was time to “chase other dreams”.
But there will be stardust as Serena Williams, seven-time Wimbledon champion and the most successful player to grace the women’s game, returns to the court. Following a year away from tennis, the 40-year-old American is currently ranked 1,204 in the world. But her performances this week at Eastbourne playing doubles with Ons Jabeur have created some buzz.
“I think she could lose in the first round or win the tournament,” McEnroe said. “If she got something going, you never know.”
Hopes for British success will rest heavily on 19-year-old Emma Raducanu. Her fairytale triumph at last year’s US Open helped make her face of tennis in the UK, securing her sponsorship deals with a bevy of international brands including Nike, Vodafone, Tiffany, British Airways and HSBC.
Her social media following helps explain why: she has 2.4mn Instagram followers, dwarfing the 880k of strongly backed world number one Iga Świątek, and equal to those of the top five female players combined.
But expectations on the court have been tempered. Injury has made her doubt for this year’s tournament, she is currently without a coach, and her performances since winning the US Open have held her global ranking outside the top 10. At the French Open earlier this year, she was knocked out in the second round.