Wimbledon has confirmed an about-turn on its ban of Russian and Belarusian players, and will allow them to compete at The Championships in July, providing they take part as ‘neutrals’ and sign a declaration.
The WTA and ATP tennis associations still allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to continue playing. But I hope that we will be able to change this situation. There are already many organisations that are trying to provide all the arguments in our favour. Their most common argument is that sports belong outside of politics. They say that athletes have nothing to do with politics... After all, they just don't want to open their eyes and face the truth. Elina Svitolina
In its statement, the AELTC said: “Our current intention is to accept entries from Russian and Belarusian players subject to them competing as ‘neutral’ athletes and complying with appropriate conditions.
“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.
“The conditions have been carefully developed through constructive dialogue with the UK Government, the LTA and international stakeholder bodies in tennis, and are aligned with the Government’s published guidance to sporting bodies in the UK.
“Three developments, taken together, have informed our current position:
“The option of personal player declarations was not in our view viable last year. Since then, extensive engagement with the Government and tennis stakeholder bodies has clarified and developed the form of declarations and produced workable measures for their implementation and enforcement.
“This approach has the full support of the Government and the LTA, ATP, WTA and ITF.
“There was a strong and very disappointing reaction from some governing bodies in tennis to the position taken by the All England Club and the LTA last year with consequences which, if continued, would be damaging to the interests of players, fans, The Championships and British tennis.
“Tennis events outside of the UK have experienced a year of competition with players from Russia and Belarus competing as ‘neutral’ athletes.
“We also consider alignment between the Grand Slams to be increasingly important in the current tennis environment.”
Ian Hewitt, Chairman of the All England Club, commented: “We continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted.
“It is our view that, considering all factors, these are the most appropriate arrangements for The Championships for this year.
“We are thankful for the Government’s support as we and our fellow tennis stakeholder bodies have navigated this complex matter and agreed on conditions we believe are workable.
“If circumstances change materially between now and the commencement of The Championships, we will consider and respond accordingly.”
Wimbledon and the LTA made a stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last summer, when Russian and Belarusian players were banned in a move that rocked the game, and the ATP and WTA strongly opposed the move, imposing huge fines and stripping The Championships of ranking points, which had a negative impact on all their members.
“First of all, I want to reiterate that we always condemn and will condemn war,” the ATP Chief Andrea Gaudenzi told Globo recently. “I know it’s obvious to say this, but it’s important to repeat and reassure, because we send this message very clearly.
“I think we are very much in line with the guidance of the IOC. Our players cannot play under their flags in team competitions like any other sport. But there are sports that ban individual players.
“Generally speaking, we do not believe in collective guilt. These guys have done nothing wrong. They’ve played tennis their whole lives. We feel that, in fairness, they need to have opportunities, like everyone else.
“We also feel that they need to be able to compete and have a voice, say what they think.
“We saw Rublev write ‘No war please’ on camera. I think this is an important message. We want these players to play, to be able to express their feelings, even for this to reach their own people, their own country. To give your own version of the story.
“Generally speaking, we are for justice and freedom, and obviously against war, and we will continue to fight for these principles.”
Wimbledon’s decision is likely to send further shock waves, especially among Ukrainian players at a time when the government of Ukraine has announced that their athletes will not be allowed to compete in qualifying events for the Olympic Games in Paris next year if Russians are participating.
“At the meeting of the Government, a protocol decision was made on the proposal of colleague [Ukrainian Sports Minister and NOCU President Vadym] Gutzeit that we take part in qualifying competitions [for the 2024 Olympics] only where there are no Russians,” Oleg Nemchinov, Secretary of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and a member of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine (NOCU) said.
“Accordingly, participation outside these criteria may be grounds for depriving Federations of their national status.”
The warning to National Federations was clear, that any who ignore the ruling will be punished.
The decision followed an announcement by the IOC Executive Board on Tuesday that individual athletes from Russia and Belarus should be allowed to return to international sport, as long as they do not support the invasion of Ukraine or are affiliated to the military.
Nemchinov admitted the decision could mean that some Ukrainian athletes would miss their opportunity to compete at the Olympics, but it was a price they must pay.
“You know, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he said. “Yesterday I attended another funeral of a good friend of mine who devoted more than 20 years to athletics and died in the Kharkiv direction. And who has three children left.
“He voluntarily went to the war. And he did not serve in the kitchen, so to speak. That is, he was in combat units.
“So, I want to say to our fellow athletes who are worried that because of the IOC measures and the admission of Russians or Belarusians to the competition, and accordingly Ukrainians will not be able to participate, that their careers will be broken or something else.
“But your life and that of your children will remain.”
According to Marta Kostuyk, IOC President Thomas Bach is wrong to argue that Russian and Belarus athletes can return to international competitions because they already compete without friction in some sports, and citing in particular tennis.
Bach used the example of Kostyuk’s recent victory at the WTA 500 tournament in Austin, Texas over Russia’s Varvara Gracheva in the final earlier this month, reinforcing his point on Tuesday that Russians already compete in some sports without problems.
“My game was mentioned by Bach,” Kostyuk said in a conference call on Wednesday with Olympic champions and other international athletes who oppose the re-admission of Russia and Belarus. “We have a ranking system in our sport.
“If I don’t participate, I will lose my ranking and my career will be over,” added 20-year old Kostyuk, ranked 38 in the world.
She snubbed her opponent after her win, refusing to shake the Russian’s hand in a move that made global headlines.
“A lot has been said, and I wanted to say from myself, we have not been doing it publicly, but for the last year we have been fighting to exclude Russians and Belarusians from our sport,” she said. “Unfortunately we are not independent players.
“We are working for WTA and ATP organisations [tour organisers], and we do not have a lot of power to make changes.”
Fellow Ukrainian tennis player Lesia Tsurenko said every match against Russians or Belarusians was an ordeal.
“It is an ethical conflict every time we play against them,” Tsurenko said. “It affected me so that I had, kind of, panic attacks.”
The IOC has cited human rights concerns for Russian athletes, and the current participation of Russians and Belarusians in some sports as reasons for the decision, and they will do so as neutral athletes, without a flag, emblem or anthem.
Meanwhile, former Ukrainian No 1 Elina Svitolina has slammed tennis bosses because, she claims, Russians still are being allowed to continue playing as normal.
The former World No 3 said that Russians are competing without any consequences, while Ukrainian athletes are ‘dying for our country’.
Svitolina has joined the growing calls for tennis bosses to meet with Ukrainian players over the handling of Russian players and the war.
The 16-time title winner has been very involved in raising money and awareness for Ukrainians over the last 13 months, and joined calls for Russians to be banned from Wimbledon again.
While the 28-year-old has been side-lined for a year on maternity leave, she believes the tennis world has not done enough to punish Russians.
“It’s hard for me to say how they are treated, because I didn’t take part in competitions [over the past year],” she said. “But I don’t think anything has changed there, unfortunately.
“The WTA and ATP tennis associations still allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to continue playing.
“But I hope that we will be able to change this situation. There are already many organisations that are trying to provide all the arguments in our favour.”
Svitolina added that in previous meetings with tennis chiefs and other sporting bodies, they have refused to ‘face the truth’.
“Their most common argument is that sports belong outside of politics,” she explained. “They say that athletes have nothing to do with politics.
“I already have had so many meetings with various officials of the Olympic Committee and tennis organisations that, to be honest, I no longer have the moral strength to fight them. After all, they just don’t want to open their eyes and face the truth.”
A WTA spokesperson has confirmed that a request from the Ukrainian players has been received by the organisation and that a meeting will be held when a suitable date can be found to discuss their concerns, adding that they have granted previous requests for meetings, which had been held.
Meanwhile, locker-room tension with Russian and Belarus players continues to simmer in the sport, prompting Sabalenka to admit last week that she has faced ‘hate’ over her country’s role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It was really tough to understand that there’s so many people who hate me for no reason,” 24-year old Sabalenka told BBC Sports. “I did nothing. It was really tough for me because I’ve never faced that much hate in the locker room.
“There are a lot of haters on Instagram when you’re losing matches, but in the locker room I’ve never faced that.
“I had some, not like fights, but I had some weird conversations with, not the girls, but with members of their team. It was tough. It was [a] tough period. But, now it’s getting better.”
Ukraine’s Tsurenko withdrew from a match against Sabalenka, the 2023 Australian Open champion, at Indian Wells last week due to a panic attack induced after a conversation with Steve Simon, the WTA Chief about the sport’s response to Russia’s invasion.