Wimbledon lifts its ban on Russian and Belarusian players
Wimbledon has completed its about turn on Russian and Belarusian athletes by confirming that they will be able to play at this summer’s Championships, as long as they sign a declaration of neutrality.
Although the decision has been widely expected within British tennis since before Christmas, it is still a bitter pill for the All England Club to swallow, after they took a moral stand on Vladimir Putin’s war last year.
The opposition from the two tours turned out to be excessively hostile, with last summer’s Wimbledon being stripped of its rankings points for the first time since the ladder was devised. The wider ecosystem of British tennis also suffered, with the Lawn Tennis Association receiving heavy fines for following the AELTC’s lead.
“We continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine,” said Ian Hewitt, the AELTC chairman, in a statement. “This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted.”
The LTA has also shifted its position to move in line with the AELTC. There was little practical alternative, considering that – if the ban continued – the tours were threatening to cancel events like Queen’s and Eastbourne and sell those franchises overseas.
Despite the frustration expressed by leading Ukrainian players such as Martya Kostyuk and Lesia Tsurenko, the men’s and women’s tours have refused to see any merit in the argument that Russians and Belarusians should suffer for their governments’ actions.
But Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, voiced his frustration on the decision on social media, tweeting: "Wimbledon's decision to permit the participation of Russian and Belarusian players is immoral. Has Russia ceased its aggression or atrocities? No, it’s just that Wimbledon decided to accommodate two accomplices in crime. I call on the UK government to deny visas to their players."
Indeed, the two tours have been so determined to accommodate Russian and Belarusian players that IOC president Thomas Bach used tennis as his primary example last week when arguing that the Olympics should also admit athletes from those countries.
In a sport that is famous for its disunity, the bitterness surrounding the issue has further strained relations between the four grand slams and the two tours. This is reflected in the wording of the AELTC’s statement: “There was a strong and very disappointing reaction from some governing bodies … last year with consequences which, if continued, would be damaging to the interests of players, fans, The Championships and British tennis.”
In justifying the shift in stance, the AELTC pointed out that a year of tennis competition has gone by without any players making political statements in favour of the war in Ukraine. The two most notable incidents involved the pro-war demonstration by fans on the steps of Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne in January – which caused controversy when Novak Djokovic’s father Srdjan posed for photos with flag-wavers – and the Spartak Moscow football shirt worn by Russian player Anastasia Potapova on her way onto the court in Indian Wells a fortnight ago.
The AELTC also said that they had worked out a formula for a declaration of neutrality, which would have to be signed by all Russian and Belarusian players.
As the statement explained: “These will prohibit expressions of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in various forms and prohibit entry by players receiving funding from the Russian and/or Belarusian states (including sponsorship from companies operated or controlled by the states) in relation to their participation in The Championships.”