After a controversial build-up, claims and counter-claims, Wimbledon is set to begin on Monday. The familiar sights of the perfectly-manicured lawns, players wearing pristine whites and spectators in their jackets and ties, sundresses and jumpsuits, Panama hats and sunglasses, may give an impression that it is business as usual at SW19.
In truth, however, the year’s third Grand Slam will get underway in circumstances that are stranger than ever in recent history. The men’s world No. 1, Daniil Medvedev, will be missing from the main draw after the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) banned Russian and Belarusian players following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
And he isn’t the only one. World No. 8 Andrey Rublev and three of the women’s top 20 – Aryna Sabalenka, Daria Kasatkina, and Victoria Azarenka – won’t be there as well. The move did not go down well with most of the players or the sport’s regulatory bodies, who reacted by stripping the tournament of ranking points.
The decision split the tennis world. Many, like four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, suggesting it reduces the tournament, steeped deep in tradition, to a mere exhibition event. Not everyone agrees with Osaka’s deduction, however. And no other high-profile player has been as vocal on this as two-time champion Andy Murray, who had compared the prestige of the tournament to the FIFA World Cup or the Golf Masters.
In an email interview with The Indian Express, Murray doubled down on his claim. “I’ve spoken a lot about this already. I don’t think it (lack of points) will affect our mindsets on the day – we will all still be playing to win Wimbledon,” he said. “I think it’s huge for both fans and players. It’s such an iconic venue and feels very special walking out onto court there. Most tennis players grew up watching Wimbledon, so it’s their dream to play on the grass one day.”
But I guarantee they will remember who wins. @Wimbledon will never be an exhibition and will never feel like an exhibition. The end.
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) May 25, 2022
Murray talked about Wimbledon’s charm, an element that many argue has been at a premium at some of the world’s biggest sporting events.
Wimbledon takes place this year at a time when many sports find themselves at a crossroads: in golf, a Saudi-back league is paying players millions to prize them away from the PGA and European Tours; a franchise T20 cricket league has raked in a record-breaking broadcasting deal while the number of competitive Test-playing countries can be counted on one hand; and, in normal circumstances, it would have been fighting for eyeballs with the football World Cup, which will instead be held in Qatar in the winter this year under a cloud of controversies, corruption, and bribery.
Wimbledon, in that sense, is one of the outliers in world sport. It is untouched by corporate or state-owned money and its myriad of traditions – sponsor logo-free courts, all-white dress code, ‘The Queue’ in which people camp for hours on end for a ticket, and many others – remain intact. Murray believed it is the history and heritage of the event, and the assurances that these traditions provide that have kept its brand so strong.
“Wimbledon is such a unique tournament – despite being a huge event, you still feel like you are playing at a club… People know what to expect here, and I think with all the uncertainty in the world at the moment, people like that,” he says.
There is concern among fans about tennis as a product, though. There are calls to scrap best-of-five matches to compete for the falling attention spans of a newer generation, to make tournament schedules leaner, matches shorter, and the sport more spectator-friendly.
While he does not think the format needs changing, Murray said the game has to evolve with its audience: “It’s always important to listen to the fans and try to understand what they want. Tennis is competing for attention, not just from other sports but from the entertainment industry, things like Netflix and esports, so we need to make sure we stay relevant.”
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 22, 2022
Murray himself comes into Wimbledon in good nick. The Scot reached the top 50 of the rankings for the first time in four years following a final in Stuttgart, where he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios. The result has raised his stock as a dark horse in the main draw. While he is nursing an abdominal injury, which he said is not very serious, a deep run at SW19 will be his first at a Major since 2017.
After a few injury-plagued seasons, the 35-year-old underwent a hip replacement in 2019 which was believed to sideline him from the game. The Scot rallied to come back and compete on tour but has been unable to reproduce the highs of his career. True to form, however, his expectations from himself remain high, and he still comes into a Grand Slam with the belief that he can win.
“I think as a professional athlete, you’ve always got to back yourself to go all the way. Having belief in yourself is a crucial part of winning and I’ve been pleased with how I’ve been playing this year. Getting through to the final in Stuttgart was great and I’m hoping I can do well at Wimbledon this year too,” he says.
His perspective has changed after the injury though. The three-time Major winner has been dedicating more time to his business interests outside tennis. This includes the Cromlix hotel in Scotland, a place that Murray says has always been special to him and his family, which he has turned into a five-star destination. He also runs his own tennis apparel line, AMC, and his own sports management agency, 77, with which he is “mainly involved in mentoring up and coming athletes.”
“My main priority remains tennis though and I’m really enjoying being able to focus on that for now,” he clarifies. Following Wimbledon, the Scot plans to travel to the United States for the hard court swing ahead of the US Open, during which time he is going to do his best to take a break. “Rest is something I’ve realised is really important as I’ve got older, so I may even fit in a holiday with the family at some point as well.”