Serving For the Soul of the All England Club | Thomas William Dowling
Last month, the covers were pulled over centre court for another year at SW16. Had it not been for the absence of Roger Federer (on court that is) this year’s tournament may have been one of the most memorable in recent years, given that the lifting of COVID restrictions marked the return of full capacity crowds. The mens’ singles final concluded with Novak Djokovic claiming his seventh Wimbledon title and twenty-first Grand Slam to overtake Federer’s twenty. However, it would have been much improved if his opponent, Nick Kyrgios, had not acted like a petulant child for most of the match.
To clarify: Kyrgios is not a “new kid on the block”. At 27 he’s been on the ATP tour for just short of a decade, having turned professional in 2013, and has more or less been known for his inflammatory antics on the court for every one of those nine years. On this particular occasion, however, there was something exceedingly distressing about his conduct, which certainly should have hit more nerves than it did. The BBC’s lead commentator in the final, Andrew Castle, hailed him as an “admirable amalgamation of nervous energy”. Sue Barker, again of the BBC, used her sports broadcasting sendoff to credit his brand of tennis as the thing which “made the final so compelling”. GB News’ Patrick Christys even dedicated a segment to Kyrgios’ behaviour, calling him “absolute box office”. Most insulting to the eyes and ears, however, was the extent that observers of a particular political persuasion appeared to be excessively aroused by the undermining of the prestigious institution hosting the tournament itself: the All England Club.
Kyrgios was not merely publicly expressing frustration at himself, as fierce competitors often do. He was picking fights with spectators who he believed to be distracting him on purpose, repeatedly swearing loudly between points, and, worst of all perhaps, directing his cursing persistently at a clearly intimidated umpire. In fact, such was the damage the Australian had done to the occasion, the umpire arguably lost the authority to challenge him altogether.
“Damage to what?” would naturally be the question posed in response, and many alongside Castle, Barker, and Christys would argue that such eccentricity “enriches the sporting spectacle”. Granted, if we were talking about a circus or a sport where broadcasting distance does the job of curbing the athletes’ antics, as is the case with football, then perhaps this point can be justified. But we’re not. We’re talking about Wimbledon which has, up to this point, been cherished as one of the most reputable, family friendly and well-mannered sporting events in the world. Alas, seeing Kyrgios shamelessly flout the etiquette only to be credited by those who should consider themselves to have an implicit duty to promote good standards of conduct – standards of which are inseparable from the aesthetics of the tournament – is truly an insult to those who reserve two weeks of their year to watch it.
The warning signs of such looming apathy in the world of tennis, however, have been around for some time. During Wimbledon 2015, Lewis Hamilton, having accepted his invitation to the Royal Box, attempted to enter without meeting the stated dress code. Hamilton was rightfully denied entry on this occasion. Just months before in the same year, Swiss player Stan Wawrinka wore pink-chequered shorts at the French Open as part of a public protest against strict dress codes. And in 2018, Serena Williams’ meltdown at the US Open final against Naomi Osaka – where she was issued a hefty fine for calling the umpire a “liar” and “a thief” – quickly became source material for intersectional feminism.
It is not difficult to see a picture building here. The stage is basically already set for a self-righteous figure, whether that be a present player or an ex-player, to take advantage of an event or an allegedly unflattering statistic that somehow justifies why the tournament and the hosting club should change until it is basically beyond recognition. Such a figure will likely use the buzzphrase of “embracing diversity and inclusion” so as to allow transgender women to participate in the biological women’s tournament, and argue for the dissolution of the allegedly “colonial, white supremacist remnants” that, according to the prevailing intersectional narrative, “continue to pervade Western institutions” such as the All England Club today. No doubt one person will be ambitious enough to throw in the ridiculous argument that the white-centric dress code is a direct expression of white supremacy. Regrettably, this is actually what some Critical Race Theorists claim inspired American expeditionists to make the trip to the North Pole.
When these malicious, career race-baiters make their move, the All England Club should simply not answer to them. They would be congratulated for doing so, because much of the attraction that players and spectators across the world have for Wimbledon is owed to its aristocratic veneer. Players from all around the world grow up aspiring to be a part of Wimbledon because of the honour that comes with the invitation to participate. It is a beautiful tournament in appearance and in spirit, but such beauty is inseparable from the pathos of distance which only aristocracies or private members clubs can sustain.
Amidst such an entertaining spectacle, and the natural enthusiasm for the underdog, it is easy to forget that standards must matter. They matter not only to the members who should be allowed to run the club as they judge appropriate: they matter to the competitors and the spectators too. Among those who make the grade will, naturally, likely be those like Wawrinka, Williams and Krygios who, in their different ways, believe their right to express their unique quirks is more important than sporting traditions. No doubt, hiding in the mist will be an angry mob of wet blankets waiting to jump at the opportunity to argue why the club should change until it is virtually beyond recognition (they have, after all, already mutilated swimming, cycling, athletics, football and Formula One, and it is extremely unlikely that they’re going to make an exception for tennis). The only way the All England Club can ensure that it doesn’t end up handing the keys over to those who want to destroy it from the inside, is to be brave enough to say “no”, before proceeding to dismiss both the accusation and the legitimacy of the intersectionalist court standing it on trial.
Naturally, should such resistance be posed, the angry mob will double down. To accusations of Kyrgios crossing a line, they will likely rely on the predictable non-sequitur that the contrasting public reaction between him and John McEnroe is owed to one being white and the other not, purposely forgetting, of course, that broadcasting and public opinion over the latter responded in synchronous condemnation of his behaviour on the court, particularly his attempts to make a public example of the umpire. Regrettably, there appears to be no such synchrony today, most likely because there lies an unconscious nervousness emerging from the fear of upsetting the crocodiles in addition to a collective forgetting for why upholding standards of conduct mattered in the first place..
This forgetting must be reversed if Wimbledon is to remain what it is. Any feeling of encroachment and disgust at Kyrgios’ swearing in the presence of children, including the future King of the United Kingdom, intimidating the officials, blaming his inability to deal with the occasion on the spectators and to top it all off, being praised by legacy figures merely for being an antinomian, is a moral one coming from the intense love that people have for Wimbledon. This love extends to those who inherit the tacit duty to preserve it: The All England Club itself. However, the club will need to hold firm with more conviction than it has so far to ensure that there is something to be passed on other than just the name.
Kyrgios is almost certainly a competitor with a short temper instead of a committed, political subvertist. But if antinomianism is allowed to become an intrinsic gesture of the tournament, then Wimbledon is already lost.