Special report: Wimbledon in turmoil amid fallout from Russia ban

Special report: Wimbledon in turmoil amid fallout from Russia ban - GETTY IMAGES
Special report: Wimbledon in turmoil amid fallout from Russia ban - GETTY IMAGES

The All England Club has been plunged into turmoil by the departure of three senior directors and a move to sideline its chairman Ian Hewitt in the wake of the controversial decision to ban Russians and Belarusians from this year’s Wimbledon.

Despite hoping to continue in the role until 2024, 75-year-old Hewitt will have to put up with the election of a new vice-chairman who will run next year’s tournament alongside him before taking over sole charge of the board as soon as Wimbledon finishes.

After three years as the All England Club chairman, Hewitt’s accelerated exit is the latest domino in a series of events which began in April, with the original announcement of Russia ban.

The professional tours insisted that this was a discriminatory move and hit back by stripping the event of rankings points – an unprecedented and humiliating outcome for the club.

While the AELTC committee had originally supported the ban, an insider said that the club’s leadership had been guilty of “a combination of arrogance and naivety” in expecting the rest of the tennis world to accept the decision without demur.

Daniil Medvedev was one of the high-ranking Russian players kept out by Wimbledon's ban - GETTY IMAGES
Daniil Medvedev was one of the high-ranking Russian players kept out by Wimbledon's ban - GETTY IMAGES

Hewitt has been described by one associate as a deep thinker who finds it difficult to make decisions, which is hardly the hallmark of a dynamic chairman. Meanwhile Sally Bolton – who was promoted from the AELTC’s operations manager to its chief executive in 2020 – is also struggling to make an impression in her new role.

In further evidence of turmoil behind the facade, the AELTC has lost three of its seven directors over the three months since the end of this year’s tournament. Commercial director Gus Henderson’s departure was confirmed at the weekend, while Robert Deatker – the estates director – cleared his desk and left suddenly after returning from holiday in August.

While the explanation for Deatker’s exit remains unclear, his role involved working closely on the AELTC’s expansion into neighbouring Wimbledon Park Golf Course – another project that has run into complications owing to the hostility of the local community.

Both Wandsworth and Merton Councils are expected to consider the plans – which include a controversial 8,000-seat stadium – before Christmas, but there are reported to be as many as 14 local organisations lining up in opposition.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the proposed development, the AELTC were slow off the mark in selling their vision to the affluent homeowners of SW19. By the time they realised that they needed to make a charm offensive, many had already decided against.

Jevans leading race to replace Hewitt but lack of leadership is stark

To a passer-by on Church Road, everything looks as serene as ever. The grand gates, with the legend “AELTC” picked out in gold lettering. The imposing clubhouse, wreathed in its costume of Virginia creeper.

And yet, within the confines of Wimbledon’s hallowed 42 acres, this is a turbulent time. Not only is the All England Club down to just four active directors, after a sudden slew of departures, but the committee are collectively ushering 75-year-old chairman Ian Hewitt towards the exit.

An organisation with a century-long history of probity and good management has come unstuck in the last year, amid accusations of arrogance, incompetence and internecine political squabbling. Most pressingly, its antiquated structures have been exposed as ill-equipped to run a thoroughly modern tournament which turns over more than £250 million per annum and accounted for almost 80 per cent of the Lawn Tennis Association’s income last year

The latest senior figure to leave SW19 is commercial director Gus Henderson, a former executive at Universal Music Group who had only been in position since May 2021.

That brought the number of high-profile departures in the last two months to three: Robert Deatker, the estates director, cleared his desk suddenly in August after coming back from holiday, while Alexandra Willis stepped down from her position as communications and marketing director to run the Premier League’s digital media business.

While Deatker’s post remains vacant, the other two roles are to be combined from Monday, when Usama Al-Qassab - who previously helped to launch the Disney+ streaming channel - is due to take over as marketing and commercial director. It is an important appointment after several recent mis-steps. However, the recent exodus means that Sally Bolton, the AELTC’s embattled chief executive, has only five directors left from the previous seven.

Meanwhile the race is on to take over from Hewitt, with Debbie Jevans – formerly director of sport for the 2012 London Olympics – well placed to become the club’s first female chairman.

But why is there so much ill-feeling sloshing around these pristine courts? There are two issues counting against the present regime.

First, the Russian ban. When the AELTC chose to exclude Russian and Belarusian players from Wimbledon this summer, it seemed like a bold but defensible stand – especially as the starting point had been a hefty nudge from the government.

Within a month, though, the professional tours had come back with the strongest rebuke they could muster – the elimination of rankings points. This extreme sanction was a sign of the AELTC’s friendlessness on the international stage.

Second, the golf course. In 2018, the AELTC spent £65m on annexing neighbouring Wimbledon Park Golf Club, which adds 73 more acres to the existing 42.

The AELTC's purchase of Wimbledon Park Golf Club has pitted the club against the community - HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY
The AELTC's purchase of Wimbledon Park Golf Club has pitted the club against the community - HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

The club had originally hoped to earn approval for their development plans last year, but the community’s reaction has been more hostile than expected. Merton and Wandsworth Councils will both have to consider the plans, which include a controversial 8,000-seat stadium. They hope to give their initial response before Christmas, but that could only be the start. In June, prominent local opponent Christopher Coombe predicted that the whole saga would play out at great length: “five sets with a tie-breaker”.

These two issues might seem to have little in common, but there is a unifying theme. In both cases, the problem is not so much with the club’s policies, but the lack of smart or effective diplomacy surrounding them. As one employee of a rival grand slam put it, “They just think they can do what they want and everyone else will have to put up with it.”

While the impression is of an arrogant and out-of-touch organisation, this may partly be a misunderstanding based on communication failures. In person, neither Hewitt nor chief executive Sally Bolton – the duo who now run the club – could be described as headstrong or pushy. But neither has much experience of leadership, nor any strong alliances within the wider world of tennis

Bolton, in particular, is a latecomer to the sport, and seems not to understand its niceties. In one press conference this summer, she appeared to be unaware of the effect that closing the Centre Court roof can have on playing conditions – and thus on the likely winner.

Hewitt – who took over the chairmanship from Philip Brook after the 2019 Championships – had hoped to oversee at least one normal Wimbledon during his term, despite the club convention that chairmen should leave the post no later than their 75th birthday. In 2020 the tournament was cancelled, in 2021 it ran at limited capacity, and in 2022 there were no Russians, Belarusians, nor rankings points.

While the committee will stop short of ousting Hewitt altogether, the AELTC annual general meeting – which is scheduled for early December – is likely to approve a vice-chairman who will take over next summer, thus limiting Hewitt’s influence in these final months, and dashing his hopes of continuing until 2024.

Most of the AELTC’s members would probably now accept that Hewitt – a convivial character who is a former partner at the well-known City law firm of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer– is not a natural leader. But then, the constitution doesn’t leave many options open. The chairman has to be chosen from the committee, which consists of 12 people. This year, the main alternative to Jevans would seem to be Kevin Havelock, a former president at Unilever.

Tim Henman, one of three former players on the committee, also considered running for the role of chairman - AFP
Tim Henman, one of three former players on the committee, also considered running for the role of chairman - AFP

Until recently, the former Whitbread chairman Richard Baker was seen as a front-runner. But Baker is understood to have backed Havelock instead, as he is busy with his new private-equity business BD-Capital. With all the briefing, counter-briefing and intrigue behind the scenes, the process of appointing a new chairman can feel like the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, only without the body in the library.

Last time around, the succession debate was lengthy and chaotic. Hewitt’s victory owed much to a close bond with his predecessor, Brook. Telegraph Sport understands that Tim Henman, one of three former players on the committee, agonised over whether to throw his hat in the ring. But Henman has multiple endorsement deals with the likes of HSBC and Jaguar that he would have to give up if he were to take the role on, for fear of a conflict of interest.

What makes recruitment even more difficult is that the chairmanship is an unpaid role, despite demanding a commitment of perhaps 200 days per year. One AELTC insider also questioned whether Henman would have the stomach for the more mundane parts of the job. “You’ve got club members banging on your door and wanting to spend hours discussing the minutiae of the dress code. That’s not something a former athlete is used to putting up with.”

The AELTC’s options are limited both by the committee rule and the fact that the membership is relatively small. There are around 400 members in all but perhaps only a quarter of those are seen regularly at the club.

The constitution of the AELTC dates back to the club’s formation in 1868, when it was primarily associated with croquet rather than tennis. The stench of anachronism is overpowering. It all begs an obvious yet awkward question: how much longer can Britain’s biggest sporting event continue to be run in this way, with its ultimate authority – the chairman – picked from a tiny closed circle at a secretive private-members club?