Cries of a “woke Wimbledon” show that it can’t avoid the culture wars forever

“The introduction of unisex lavatories has angered some fans who fear that the All England Club has ‘gone woke’,” frowned the Times on 27 June. “Woke Wimbledon to scrap ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ titles from honours board this year,” screamed the Sun on 27 May after the All England Lawn Tennis Club dropped marital honorifics for female players. “Keep virtue signalling out of sport,” urged the internet dustbin Spiked in response to Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players at this year’s tournament.

Yes: with a breathtaking inevitability, the culture warriors have come for Wimbledon. One imagines that this is a source of no little discomfort for Wimbledon itself, an institution that for much of its history has resisted even the mildest form of ideological engagement. “We spend a lot of time not having a view on things,” its chief executive, Sally Bolton, told a business conference last October. “The reality is we don’t have a position on most things, because it’s not for us to comment.”

Wimbledon’s leafy shroud of silence has served it perfectly well. You could argue that a rejection of reality is the basis of its appeal. Stroll through its bustling grounds during Championship fortnight and what strikes you is the incongruous Arcadian unreality of it all: the vivid colours, the orderly lines of ball children marching towards their next assignment, more food than you could hope to eat. Everything works and everything is on time: a little make-believe model English village constructed for our own escapist pleasure.

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There are quiet structures of power at work here too: unspoken hierarchies and tacit conventions, layers and barriers that prevent anybody from seeing any more of the machine than they are supposed to. We may all be watching the same tennis, but the sense of shared experience is fleeting and illusory: once the match is over the well-heeled return to their debenture lounges and corporate boltholes, while the rest of us return to Henman Hill and queue for some nachos. Who gets invited to the Royal Box? How are court assignments decided? What’s behind that door? If you needed to know, you would already.

Wimbledon’s lack of an overt world-view constitutes a world-view in itself: a paternalistic, rules-based conservatism where everyone has a place and knows what it is. Invariably, the punters and players are mostly white, while catering and security staff are disproportionately black. Even the appeals to tradition have an element of theatre to them. Behind the scenes Wimbledon has embraced the trends of global sporting capitalism: expanding its commercial presence, undertaking ambitious construction projects and honing its digital identity, right down to the inevitable Wimbledon non-fungible token (NFT) collection, unveiled to cautious fanfare on 13 June.

And of the criticisms levelled at Wimbledon over the years, you could scarcely accuse it of failing to move with the times. In the 21st century alone virtually the entire infrastructure has been rebuilt or refurbished, final-set tiebreaks introduced, retractable roofs installed on Centre Court and Court One, and manual scoreboards replaced with electronic ones. At this year’s tournament play will be scheduled on the middle Sunday for the first time. But change has been enacted on its own terms, and at its own stately pace. It was the last of the four Grand Slams to award women the same prize money as men. Marital honorifics should have disappeared with wooden rackets. And recent years have raised the question of whether the world’s oldest tennis tournament is able to encompass a social and political landscape that is shifting at an unprecedented pace.

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The ban on Russian and Belarusian players, announced in April, was applauded in some quarters and condemned in others. Almost immediately the men’s and women’s tours responded by stripping Wimbledon of its ranking points. Conversely, many questioned why Wimbledon was adopting this stance on Russia while maintaining a cosy commercial relationship with HSBC, which has been accused of supporting the repressive Chinese government. But while the morality and effectiveness of the ban can be debated, the real surprise was that for the first time in recent memory Wimbledon had chosen to take a political view on anything at all.

There are more battles ahead. Last year the club announced its intention to build 39 new courts, including a new 8,000-seat stadium, on the current site of Wimbledon Park Golf Club. The plans have piqued the anger of residents and the local Tory MP, Stephen Hammond. At the heart of this debate lie more profound questions: about the balance between profit and public good, between developers and residents, between sport as a national asset and sport as a vessel for speculation and return.

For a long time Wimbledon was able to sidestep these debates, straddle them, often ignore them altogether. But as paternalistic, order-based conservatism finds itself squeezed from both directions, plotting a careful middle path feels less plausible. The wedge issues will keep coming: the gender balance of show-court assignments, the diversity of its board and crowd, Russia and China, tradition and modernisation, perhaps one day even trans players. Wimbledon has always liked to imagine itself as all things to all people. The time may soon come when it has to pick sides.

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness