Wimbledon may sue over ranking row as players' anger grows

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 Daniil Medvedev - SHUTTERSTOCK
Daniil Medvedev - SHUTTERSTOCK

The All England Club are understood to have consulted lawyers over the rankings-points row which threatens to downgrade Wimbledon, the world’s biggest tennis tournament, to mere exhibition status.

Were the AELTC to open a lawsuit, it would escalate what is already a bitter divide within the sport, and set the four grand slams - who appear to be pulling together as a unit - against the ATP and WTA tours in potentially ruinous fashion.

Any court case would almost certainly be built around the three-year contract that governs the tours’ interaction with the four grand-slam events.

The contract states that Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open are entitled to offer rankings points accepted by the two professional tours. On that basis, the ATP and WTA are clearly in breach, after announcing on Friday night that they would be stripping those rankings points away.

However, the difficulty for the AELTC would lie in blocking the inevitable response that they broke the agreement first by banning Russian and Belarussian players – a point that was spelled out quite specifically in the two statements released by the ATP and WTA  on Friday night.

To quote one of those statements, “The WTA believes that individual athletes participating in an individual sport should not be penalised or prevented from competing solely because of their nationalities or the decisions made by the governments of their countries.

“The recent decisions made by the All England Lawn Tennis Club and the Lawn Tennis Association to ban athletes from competing in the upcoming UK grass court events violate that fundamental principle, which is clearly embodied in the WTA rules, the Grand Slam rules, and the agreement the WTA has with the Grand Slams.”

Meanwhile, in Paris, the tours were facing a significant backlash to their decision amid concerns that it will catapult Russia’s Daniil Medvedev into the world No 1 spot as soon as Wimbledon is completed.

The Wimbledon controversy – which began when the All England Club announced the banning of Russian and Belarusian players last month – has overshadowed the French Open since the first ball was hit on Sunday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Benoit Paire – who had just lost in the first round – called a press conference off his own bat in order to express his fury at the WTA and ATP Tours. He was the most outspoken of a large group of players – also including Karolina Pliskova, Dan Evans, Jelena Ostapenko, Denis Shapovalov and Alize Cornet – who were critical of the situation.

“Players do not understand this decision,” said a fired-up Paire. “Ninety-nine per cent of players, they want to have points and to play the tournament as it was before.

“I'm sorry for Russia and Russians,” Paire added, “but they are the ones causing all the trouble. And all the ATP players are actually paying the price. Medvedev will be No 1 worldwide. This is absurd. ATP should defend the majority of players, not four or five players.”

The recent shift in opinion should encourage All England Club dignitaries as they prepare to fly in to Paris on Friday.

Medvedev’s promotion to No 1 after Wimbledon is not 100 per cent guaranteed, but it could only be avoided if Alexander Zverev – the German who is awaiting the outcome of an ATP investigation into domestic-abuse allegations – were to win the French Open. Otherwise, the 2,000 points that Novak Djokovic is sure to drop will allow Medvedev to replace him at the top of the ladder.

Medvedev was matter-of-fact when asked about the situation on Tuesday, an hour or so after he had overcome Facundo Bagnis in a routine first-round match. “I’m just going to prepare for next tournaments,” he said. “If there are no points, I become No.1, well, great for me. If there are points, I cannot become No 1, I'm going to be gutted. It is what it is. I cannot change some decisions, both about ATP and Wimbledon.”

Returning to the wider locker-room feeling, the two tours’ decisions were predicated on strong mandates from their respective player councils – which, in the case of WTA, featured a highly conflicted individual in the shape of Belarusian legend Victoria Azarenka.

Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the player councils – which comprised seven full members for the ATP and eight for the WTA – stood out of line with the views of the wider player community. This is not unusual in tennis, where what is good for the world No 8 is often inconvenient for the world No 80, and vice-versa.

“I would like to have more player input, but that wasn't to be,” said Evans, the British No 2, who is due to play his second-round match in Paris against Mikael Ymer on Thursday. “Like most things, the bigger, better players were asked, and there's quite a lot of other players on the tour as well as Rafa [Nadal] and Novak. Which is disappointing, in my opinion, from the ATP.”

Dan Evans - REUTERS
Dan Evans - REUTERS

There is real frustration at Roland Garros over the way the tours reacted, and even some hope that their joint decisions could yet be overturned. “There are of course a lot of rumours and talks,” said Ostapenko, who won this tournament in 2017, “but I think maybe they are going to change their mind. A lot of things may happen within the next week or two weeks.”

Other rumours have emerged around prize money, with Pliskova – last year’s Wimbledon runner-up – airing an oft-repeated claim that the AELTC might escalate the row further by cutting players’ pay. “If they're going to cut the money as well,” she said, “it's a question if some of the top players [are] going to play.”

There appears to be no basis for this suggestion at present, with the AELTC expected to announce a total prize money package of somewhere between £35 million and £40 million in the week after the French Open. But its very popularity is further evidence of the febrile atmosphere within the game.

Pliskova – who will lose a massive 1200 ranking points after the tournament – went on to describe the tours’ decision as “super-tough and unfair and bad decision”. Yet not everyone is taking Wimbledon’s side in what Paire described as a “war” between them and the ATP.

Andrey Rublev, the Russian who is world No 7, accused the AELTC of creating a “toxic” situation, and warned that they would “destroy tennis” if they continued the escalation of this row by starting their own breakaway tour.

“If Wimbledon go together with other slams and try to create another tour, it will only destroy tennis,” said Rublev. “It will destroy glory of tennis for many, many hundreds of years that tennis was building, all the big names [who] were putting passion into the tennis, results, all the history.”

This is not a completely implausible scenario. It is only a year since ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi tried to improve tennis’s atomised governance by creating a new “T7” group, comprising the four slams, the two main tours and the International Tennis Federation. Now, though, relations are at an all-time low.

The ranking-point agreement between the tours and the slams is up for renewal at the end of this season, and some observers believe that Rublev’s model – in which the slams set up their own shadow ranking system from that point on, thus effectively breaking away from the ATP and WTA – could yet come to pass.

One beneficial side-effect would be the creation of a separate player union, rather than the awkward current situation where both tours become deadlocked by trying to represent players and tournaments at the same time.

Q&A: What Wimbledon are considering and how likely they are to win

By Ben Rumsby

The toxic row over Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players is threatening to spark a bitter legal battle after it emerged the All England Club had consulted lawyers over the decision by the ATP and WTA to strip it of ranking points.

Here, Telegraph Sport assesses what could happen next:

What has been discussed?

The All England Club raised the prospect of legal action against the men’s and women’s tours in its statement in response to their decision last Friday. It said: “We are considering our options, and we are reserving our position at this stage.” By reserving its position, the club was effectively providing formal legal notice that it could go to court over the decision, removing the threat of the ATP and WTA arguing it had not informed them of this in good time.

It also said it was in discussions with its “grand slam colleagues” about what can only be a collective response. The club has since consulted lawyers both about whether the decision itself could be challenged and what other action it could take to prevent a repeat given there is no telling when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will end and how long it will remain a sporting pariah.

What are its options?

In terms of overturning the decision, it could argue the ATP and WTA have breached the contract that governs the tours’ interaction with the four grand-slam events. That contract states the tournaments are entitled to offer rankings points accepted by the two professional tours. Amid a growing player revolt against the decision, it could also argue the ATP and WTA have acted against the interests of the majority of their members and failed to obtain their consent beforehand for one of the biggest decisions they have ever made.

Beyond launching a direct challenge to the decision, it and the other majors could use it as a catalyst to seize full control of the grand slam rankings system when the current agreement expires at the end of the year, preventing them falling prey to the whims of the ATP and WTA in future. Whatever action the club takes, it has been promised the full support of a “furious” Government?

What is the likelihood of success?

The problem with arguing breach of contract is that the ATP and WTA can argue the All England Club’s ban amounts to the same thing. The club may need to show it effectively had no choice in this regard – force majeure – due to the Government’s position on the matter. That would require it to prove ministers would have blocked Russians and Belarusians playing at Wimbledon had the club itself not done so, or would have made it impossible for them to enter by forcing them to sign formal declarations denouncing the Ukraine invasion.

ATP and WTA rules also allow them to make decisions such as stripping tournaments of ranking points without seeking the approval of every single player. Players have a regular opportunity to elect members of both organisations’ player councils to act in their interests. The four majors seizing full control of the grand slam rankings system would appear the path of least resistance legally but, like all the above options, could still spark all-out civil war.