Updated at 13:30,25-01-2023

Wimbledon on collision course with tennis world after player ban

Sean Ingle, The Guardian

Wimbledon on collision course with tennis world after player ban
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Daniil Medvedev of Russia. Composite: Shutterstock, EPA
Wimbledon has set itself on a potential collision course with the rest of tennis after banning Russian and Belarusian players from this summer’s championships due to the scale and severity of the invasion of Ukraine.

The decision was taken after nearly two months of deliberations and legal advice, with the All England Club also concerned about the image it would present if the world No 2, Daniil Medvedev, lifted its famous silver gilt cup on Centre Court.

In an unusually strong statement Wimbledon expressed “sadness” that individual players would suffer, but stressed it wanted to play its part “to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible”.

“In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with the Championships,” it added.

The Lawn Tennis Association, which runs all the other major summer grass court tournaments in Britain, including the prestigious Queen’s Club event, has also announced a ban.

Those set to miss out include the men’s world No 8, Andrey Rublev, who wrote “No war please” on a TV camera lens after a match in Dubai, and the two-times women’s grand-slam champion Victoria Azarenka.

However that may not be the end of the matter, with Wimbledon and the LTA’s decision being condemed by the ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, as “unfair” and “discriminatory”.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ATP – along with the WTA, which runs the women’s game – has only required tournaments to bar Russian and Belarussian players from displaying their national flags and playing their national anthems. And it made its displeasure at the news coming out of London clear in a pithy statement that left open the possibility of future sanctions.

“Our sport is proud to operate on the fundamental principles of merit and fairness, where players compete as individuals to earn their place in tournaments based on the ATP rankings,” the ATP said. “We believe that today’s unilateral decision by Wimbledon and the LTA to exclude players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s British grass-court swing is unfair and has the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game.

“Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP rankings. Any course of action in response to this decision will now be assessed in consultation with our board and member councils.”

Wimbledon’s decision came after the UK government had initially floated the idea that the All England Club could require Russian players to sign a document condemning the Russian leader Vladimir Putin if they wanted to play. However, that idea was rejected as unworkable, with Wimbledon fearing it could place the families of Russian players in harm’s way, as well as creating a dangerous precedent.

Instead, after nearly two months of deliberations, and with Russian hostilities showing no sign of abating, Wimbledon decided that an outright ban was the best solution. That means that this year’s championships will also no longer be shown on Russian TV, while publications from Russia and Belarus will also be barred.

“We recognise that this is hard on the individuals affected, and it is with sadness that they will suffer for the actions of the leaders of the Russian regime,” said Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Club.

“We have very carefully considered the alternative measures that might be taken within the UK government guidance,” he added. “But, given the high-profile environment of the championships, the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime, and our broader concerns for public and player – including family – safety, we do not believe it is viable to proceed on any other basis.”

The world No 1 Novak Djokovic criticised the move, calling the decision “crazy”.

“I will always condemn war, I will never support war being myself a child of war,” he said at an ATP event in Belgrade. “I know how much emotional trauma it leaves. In Serbia we all know what happened in 1999. In the Balkans we have had many wars in recent history.

“However, I cannot support the decision of Wimbledon, I think it is crazy. The players, the tennis players, the athletes have nothing to do with it [war]. When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good.”

Wimbledon’s decision was welcomed by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who said: “Whilst the withdrawal of individual athletes is a complex issue, there is a bigger cause at stake. This decision means Putin won’t use the most iconic grand slam in tennis to try to legitimise the horrors he is inflicting on the Ukrainian people. The right move.”

Her Labour shadow, Lucy Powell, said: “We welcome this decision by Wimbledon and the LTA. The LTA is ahead of the curve compared with other national tennis bodies and they should be applauded. Sporting and cultural organisations have rightly taken a stand against Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

However, there was outrage in Moscow, with Britain accused of using sport to play political games. “Given that Russia is a strong tennis country the competitions will suffer from this,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “To make sports people hostages of political intrigue is unacceptable.”

But the most pithy response came from the American Reilly Opelka, the world No 17, who posted a link to the story with a blunt assessment: “I feel like everything is heading towards a lawsuit,” he predicted.