Wimbledon fears Russian hackers could target scoreboards in retaliation for player ban

Tennis authorities are on high alert for cyberattacks at this years Wimbledon Championships as a result of the decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players.

Wimbledon organisers have real concerns that hackers will disrupt the tournament given Russia’s recent history with cyberattacks. Picture: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Wimbledon organisers have real concerns that hackers will disrupt the tournament given Russia’s recent history with cyberattacks. Picture: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Wimbledon security chiefs are on high alert for the threat of cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the tournament’s computer systems at this month’s championships in retaliation for the ban on Russian and Belarusian players.

The All England Club has also announced record prize money of £40.35 million, with £50,000 guaranteed for first-round losers. This should entice the vast majority of top players to Wimbledon, which starts on June 27.

There have not yet been any high-profile withdrawals, which is of much relief to tournament organisers on the 100-year anniversary of Centre Court, and the prize money should go some way to counter the removal of ranking points by the ATP and WTA tours in retaliation for the ban imposed because of the invasion of Ukraine.

The ban has, however, heightened concerns about cyberattacks — Russian hackers targeted sports organisations after athletes were excluded from competitions in 2016 as punishment for state-organised doping. There are fears hackers may attempt to break into the scoring system and disrupt it during matches, causing reputational damage for the tournament.

Electronic boards are used all around the Championships’ grounds. Picture: AELTC/David Gray-Pool/Getty Images
Electronic boards are used all around the Championships’ grounds. Picture: AELTC/David Gray-Pool/Getty Images

IBM, which carries out the cybersecurity for Wimbledon and runs the tournament’s computer systems, said on its website that it blocks tens of millions of “security incidents” during the fortnight every year. IBM is understood to be confident it can deal with any enhanced threat to the system, which is used for all the scoring, results, scheduling and statistics.

Artificial intelligence brought in by IBM five years ago called “QRadar Advisor with Watson” has proved invaluable in detecting cyberattacks and it prevented any breaches of the website last year.

Wimbledon announced the ban on Russian and Belarusian players in April, citing “the high-profile environment of the championships [and] the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regimen and our broader concerns for public and player [including family] safety”.

It was immediately condemned by Russia’s ambassador to the UK as “discriminatory and unlawful”. After Emma Raducanu lost at the French Open to Belarus’ Aliaksandra Sasnovich last month, Russia’s embassy tweeted that “Wimbledon’s motives become clear”.

Victoria Azarenka is one of a number Belarusian players who won’t be allowed to play at Wimbledon. Picture: Ben Stansall / AFP
Victoria Azarenka is one of a number Belarusian players who won’t be allowed to play at Wimbledon. Picture: Ben Stansall / AFP

Wimbledon says there has been no increase in hacking attempts since the ban but one All England Club member has told The Times there are real concerns about cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the tournament itself given Russia’s recent history.

A Russian hacking operation called the Fancy Bears gained access to files from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and football’s world governing body, FIFA, among other sports organisations in 2016 and 2017. It leaks happened after Wada’s recommendation that Russian athletes be denied invitations to the Rio 2016 Olympics over state-sponsored doping.

The former Wada president Sir Craig Reedie has written in a book to be published next month that he was informed the leader of the hacking operation was the same Russian secret service agent who was involved in the Salisbury poisonings of 2018.

IBM’s website says about Wimbledon that “inevitably, such a high-profile sporting event and iconic brand attracts a huge amount of unwanted attention from cyberattackers, whose aim is to disrupt and cause reputational damage”.

It adds that the QRadar Advisor with Watson technology has drastically reduced the time taken to investigate suspicious incidents — it is 60 times faster compared to manual analysis, has allowed five times the number of security incidents to be analysed over the course of the tournament and that “zero breaches impacted the 2021 Wimbledon website and brand”.

The increase in prize money means the overall pot for the championships passes £40 million for the first time. It represents almost a 6 per cent increase on the £38 million in 2019, the fairest comparison possible as the most recent championships with a 100 per cent spectator capacity before the pandemic.

The return of full crowds this year will provide some of the revenue to fund the increase, as will an extra £10 million in ticket sales and broadcast rights from the new additional day of play on Middle Sunday, which was previously a rest day.

The now-retired Ashleigh Barty with the Wimbledon trophy last year. This year’s women’s champion will receive £2 million, as will the men’s winner. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
The now-retired Ashleigh Barty with the Wimbledon trophy last year. This year’s women’s champion will receive £2 million, as will the men’s winner. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There is a noticeable shift in the distribution of prize money towards lower-ranked players. The men’s and women’s singles champions will each receive £2 million, a 14.9% decrease on 2019, although this is still more than the French Open (£1.88 million), Australian Open (£1.65 million) and US Open (£1.99 million). The runners-up and semi-finalists will also receive less compared with three years ago.

Every other stage, however, has increased. First-round losers will be given £50,000 just for turning up, meaning a lucrative payday is guaranteed for the fortunate British wildcard entrants. Even in the qualifying competition, which plays host to players generally ranked between No 110 and No 250, those who fail to win a match will be given £11,000.

The prize money for the mixed doubles is still relatively low compared with other events. The champions will split £124,000, a 24 per cent increase on 2019 but still well below the men’s and women’s doubles at £540,000.

Ian Hewitt, the All England Club chairman, said: “This year’s prize money distribution aims to reflect just how important the players are to the championships as we look to continue to deliver one of the world’s leading sporting events.”

Daniil Medvedev will have to wait until the US Open to add to his Grand Slam tally. Picture: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
Daniil Medvedev will have to wait until the US Open to add to his Grand Slam tally. Picture: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, has criticised the British government for influencing the Wimbledon ban.

He told a meeting of international federations in Lausanne: “Look at our friends from tennis. In Paris, Russian players can play as neutral athletes. In London, at Wimbledon, the government is saying, ‘No way, and if we allow this, if we give into this, then we are lost.’

“This is against all the principles we are standing for, if we leave this to the governments then we are becoming a political tool and we cannot guarantee any more a fair competition.”

The Times