Sally Bolton is one of a small but growing number of influential women at the highest levels of international tennis, and the incoming chief executive of the All England Club knows she has a duty to listen to voices from other marginalised groups who have been ignored for too long.
“I absolutely appreciate that my gender is a story,” says Bolton, the first woman to be chief executive at Wimbledon. “I do hope that I’ll be judged on what I achieve. I also appreciate that it’s important for women and girls to be able to see it’s possible to achieve senior roles in sport. And I’m very supportive of diversity in the boardroom, and in sport generally. So it’s exciting times.”
While the club has been progressive in many ways, drawing on the experience of the BAME community has not been a noticeable plus. There is no one from an ethnic minority on the club’s board, admits Bolton, 46, who takes over from Richard Lewis in August.
“A focus on diversity is something that we have had for a long time, in line with many hundreds of other sporting organisations. While we have done a lot of good work in this area already, we know there is a lot more we can do. And we will. We are very committed to that.”
Asked if she would support positive discrimination the next time a board vacancy arises, Bolton said it was not a decision for the chief executive to make, and passed the hot potato to the other new arrival at the club, Ian Hewitt, a 72-year-old retired lawyer and former county player who is becoming chairman. He dropped it.
Asked if he knew the percentage of BAME membership at the club, Hewitt said: “The short answer is that I don’t. I would like to think that we are as welcoming for all players, members, fans without any form of discrimination and I would just like to treat everyone equally. I honestly haven’t done the statistics.”
He added: “I take the point that you are hinting at, as it were, and we certainly look to ensure that we have diverse skills and experience in all senses of the word. Diverse as we can. I think it would be wrong to commit to proportional representation, or any other form. But we look to see who has the appropriate skills and experience across the board. That will certainly be my aim in making recommendations for the future.”
Lewis came to the rescue in the group interview with the observation that there are at least signs of change. “I would just say that the last time I looked at statistics, it was reasonably diverse – not as diverse as it should be. In many ways, it is a reflection of British tennis.”
The Lawn Tennis Association, meanwhile, is trying to be more inclusive, and Lewis says: “We would strongly support the LTA in their drive to make British tennis more diverse. Players from an ethnic minority background who have reached a reasonable level in British tennis have actually become members of the club, so I think it is a broader question. But certainly people from all ethnic backgrounds are always made welcome either as members or as guests.”
None of which might be plucked out for a slogan to adorn a Black Lives Matter placard. Charitably, perhaps, we are in an interregnum. The 2020 championships were due to begin on Monday and the pause has allowed the new management to move in more quietly than they might have done in normal circumstances.
As for players taking the BLM knee (which they have been doing all week at the Battle of the Brits at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton), Bolton plays it low-key.
“Certainly in the past we have had examples of players wanting to make a statement of some sort,” Bolton says, “and, in each of those cases, we have worked with those players to agree how they are going to go about doing that. So there would not be a ban. We would have that conversation individually or as a group. It certainly would not be a ban.”
Was she shocked by how white tennis appeared to be? “There is no doubt whatsoever that tennis has a great opportunity to be more accessible to more people. That will help the sport in two ways in the UK: one is in terms of increasing participation and the other is about finding the very best talent. We’re hugely supportive of what the LTA are doing, and there’s no doubt that sport generally has some further steps to take in this area and tennis among all of them.”
The noise is encouraging and well-meant. Change has been painfully slow. That is Bolton’s challenge.