The conclusion of Wimbledon 2017 is fast approaching and, while some of the matches this year have been absolutely stunning, the All England Club won’t be sad to see the back of this year’s Championships. The tournament organisers have faced criticism on a variety of topics, including the condition of the courts following a long spell of unseasonably hot weather and fumbling the scheduling decisions on Manic Monday, leaving three-time champion Novak Djokovic twiddling his thumbs all day before finding out at the 11th hour that he would have to wait until Tuesday to play his match.
The greatest controversy, however, has surrounded the tournament’s attitude towards women. As a huge fan of the tournament who has long taken issue with how Wimbledon has treated female players, I have come up with five steps the organisers can take to prevent this issue from raising its ugly head again in 2018.
1. Sort out the umpiring shame
I’m starting with a topic that I wasn’t even aware of until this morning, when it was brought to my attention by one of the tennis’ best Tweeters, Victoria Chiesa, who posted a link to an article by Bastien Thorne on tennismash.com. Thorne pointed out that Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam that has never had one of its men’s singles finals officiated by a female umpire. In addition, Thorne explained, no female umpire has taken charge of a men’s singles match from the last 16 onwards in the past six years.
Given that a significant proportion of the most respected figures in tennis umpiring are women, such as Alison Hughes, Marija Cicak, Eva Asderaki-Moore and Louise Engzell, this is a stain on the tournament that must be resolved as soon as possible, beginning with the 2018 tournament.
2. Big up the big names
This is where we come to the scheduling of the women’s matches, which has been all over the place in 2017. Two names stand out as prime examples of poor scheduling – Elina Svitolina and Jelena Ostapenko. Both players are among the newer of the big names on the WTA Tour, but have done more than enough to justify being given slots on Wimbledon’s biggest courts.
Svitolina has been one of the most consistent players on the Tour for the past two or three seasons and was seeded 4th (making her the second highest ranked female player on the days she played), while Ostapenko is a precocious 20-year-old who just last month stunningly won the French Open. This is where they played their matches for the first four rounds of the tournament:
Svitolina – Court 3, Court 12, Court 3, Court 12
Ostapenko – Court 18, Court 12, Court 2, Court 12
Wimbledon will argue that the two are not big enough names to stick on the two main courts, but this argument is cyclical and I fail to believe that if the general public watching on BBC1 or BBC2 (which focus almost exclusively on Centre Court and Court One) got to see Ostapenko playing anything near her best tennis, they would question why they were being shown her match.
Much has been made of how the organisers have placed the Big Four of the men’s game exclusively on the two main courts, at the expense of young and exciting players such as Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev, but the likes of Svitolina and Ostapenko have already proven themselves to a greater extent in the women’s game, so have a bigger claim to more matches on the main courts.
3. Equal representation on the two main courts
The point argued most frequently when it comes to inherent sexism at Wimbledon is that Centre Court hosts only one women’s match compared to two mens’ on a daily basis. Court One occasionally balances this out by flipping this ratio, though it only did so on three of seven days when an equal number of men’s and women’s matches were played in the 2017 tournament.
The organising committee has argued that the presence of the Big Four has driven television and audience demand towards the men’s game, and that they must respond to this by putting the most popular players on the biggest courts. This seems like a perfectly valid argument. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are four of the greatest players to ever the grace the game and, with the exception of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, both of whom are absent from Wimbledon 2017, no female players have the same recognition with the general public. However, whether or not this an acceptable justification was called into question by Chris Evert, who asserted that the same scheduling format of four men’s and two women’s matches was used in years when women’s tennis starts were significantly more well known than their male counterparts.
This isn’t a new issue. Female players have been complaining about the unfair balance of scheduling for a number of years. Many, including Andy Murray, have suggested that the problem could be resolved by simply bringing the start of play forward to accommodate two men’s and two women’s matches each day. However, the grounds staff have argued that this would leave the courts in a poor condition by the end of the tournament, and I have no evidence to dispute this.
In my eyes, the most fair way forward would be to make the balance of men’s and women’s matches on Centre and Court One completely equal. On one day, one has two men’s and one women’s, while the other has two women’s and one men’s, with this reversed the next time the same halves of the draw play. This would ensure that the first six days are fairly balanced between the men’s and women’s draws. Continuing with the existing system of holding a couple of interesting matches for a start no earlier than 5pm would mean that if play on either of the main courts were to finish early, another match could be brought on, just like currently happens. There you go, problem solved!
4. Let women share the primetime spotlight
As I said earlier, the argument that the big name male players should be given the showiest slots because they are who “the people” want to see is entirely cyclical. Of course they are going to be the biggest names if they are the players that the general, non-tennis-fanatical, public see on TV playing at Wimbledon every year.
In the UK at least, Wimbledon primetime on weekdays is most often the final match of the day on Centre Court. This is what people tend to see as they get home from work and switch on their TVs. The marquee names in the final match scheduled on Centre Court for the first six days of the tournament, when both men’s and women’s matches were being played before a rest day for all, went as follows: Wawrinka, Federer, Nadal, Federer, Murray, Federer.
Other than pointing out that the women’s tournament has been far more exciting and fulfilling to watch than the men’s this year, I’m just going to let that information speak for itself…
5. Be more open about decision making
The All England Lawn Tennis Club is infamous for its belief in sticking to tradition. As such, it remains an extremely exclusive members club and is the only Grand Slam not run by the national tennis federation of the country it takes place in. This is all well and good, and Wimbledon’s tradition is what makes it so unique, but it also has the effect of making the decision making process feel shadowy and secretive. The only committee member the public knows much about is Tim Henman, who, when questioned about his role and the decisions of the committee during his media commitments on the BBC, tends to stiffen up and very rarely gives anything away.
All the public sees of chairman Philip Brook, the man with the most power behind the scenes, is him taking his place each day in the Royal Box, mingling with royalty and celebrity, and it is extremely rare that those from the outside who have queries about processes and choices made by the Club are dignified with a response. This approach gives the appearance that white men of a particular class and age are pulling the strings while feeling that they don’t have to answer to anyone. People nowadays don’t like or respect that type of system.
This should be a wake up call to the Club. Most of us are happy to respect your traditions, but you have to modernise your attitudes in the same way you have your facilities. Please take note, because people won’t continue to put up with this year in, year out. Time has moved on.