According to reports, the All England Club and the LTA have been offered a £500k reduction in the fine levied by the WTA to let Russian and Belarusian players back into the grass court season this coming summer.
I very much hope they'll [Wimbledon] continue, and I'm thinking if it comes round a second time there will be no stripping of points because the players hated that. It would show that money isn't everything in this world. I learned the hard way what you need to be happy in life is completely different to what I expected and what I thought - you don't need much. You need to have your family, you need to be safe, and you need to be warm. Sergiy Stakhovsky
This would represent a 50% reduction of the £1m penalty imposed on Wimbledon and the LTA last year when players from both countries were denied entry to The Championships as well as the warm up events, including Nottingham, Birmingham and Eastbourne.
Last year the All England Club argued it must play its part in limiting Russia’s global influence and ensure the regime does not ‘derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players’.
While the ban was generally very well received in the UK, within the sport it set the cat amongst the pigeons, leading to the removal of ranking points at Wimbledon and resulting in the large fines being issued for breach of contracts with both the ATP and WTA Tours.
“As we have said before, we disagree with the outcome and the fines levied,” an LTA spokesperson said.“Nevertheless, our current focus is on working with the WTA, ATP, ITF, AELTC and UK government in order to find a resolution for events in 2023.”
The International Olympic Committee Executive Board recently declared that ‘no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport’, which also sparked a backlash among many.
Recently, the UK government announced that 30 nations had pledged support for an ongoing ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes competing in international sporting competitions, which places further pressure on both British tennis organisations.
France is among the coalition of countries that signed a joint statement calling on the IOC to clarify the definition of ‘neutrality’ for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.
French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra signed the statement, which expressed ‘strong concerns’ over the feasibility of Russian and Belarusian athletes participating under a neutral banner, along with politicians from the likes of the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan.
The collective statement came as a result of an international Summit chaired by British Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer on 10 February that brought together more than 35 nations to discuss the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes.
The British Government released a statement which raised ‘many questions and concerns’ over the IOC’s decision to consider readmitting Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutrals.
“Russia and Belarus sport and politics are closely intertwined,” the statement read. “We have strong concerns on how feasible it is for Russian and Belarusian Olympic athletes to compete as ‘neutrals’ – under the IOC’s conditions of no identification with their country – when they are directly funded and supported by their states (unlike, for example, professional tennis players).
“The strong links and affiliations between Russian athletes and the Russian military are also of clear concern.
“Our collective approach throughout has therefore never been one of discrimination simply on the basis of nationality, but these strong concerns need to be dealt with by the IOC.
“As long as these fundamental issues and the substantial lack of clarity and concrete detail on a workable ‘neutrality’ model are not addressed, we do not agree that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be allowed back into competition.
“Noting the IOC’s stated position that no final decisions have been made, we strongly urge the IOC to address the questions identified by all countries and reconsider its proposal accordingly.
“We also note that Russia and Belarus have it in their own hands to pave the way for their athletes’ full return to the international sports community, namely by ending the war they started.”
While the consensus among countries was about athletes not being allowed to compete for their nations, it still leaves a loophole for tennis, where players compete as individuals, and both the WTA and ATP continue to insist that both tours must remain open to all.
Russian and Belarusian athletes have been largely frozen out of international sport since the invasion of Ukraine last year, with the IOC recommending their exclusion from competitions.
This new move by the IOC, though, has sparked criticism in Ukraine, with the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accusing the organisation of losing its ‘honesty’.
“We agree that Putin cannot use sport to legitimise his actions on the world stage,” said Frazer. “This coalition of nations has supported Ukraine on multiple fronts and we will continue to do so.
“Today we are setting out our serious concerns with the International Olympic Committee’s plans which could see a route back into elite athletics for Russia and Belarus.
“Any plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in Paris are not credible.
“With the prospect of tanks from the United Kingdom, United States and European partners arriving in Ukraine over the coming weeks, and President Zelenskyy expressing serious concerns that a spring offensive by Russia is imminent, we urge the IOC to reconsider its position.”
Ukraine is considering a boycott of Paris 2024 in response to the IOC’s shift while also trying to mobilise support from other nations.
This all leaves the AELTC and the LTA in a quandary, and there is suggestion that opinions are softening, with a possible climb down from the stance last year, which saw the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka unable to compete at Wimbledon but saw a Moscow-born Kazakh in Elena Rybakina winning the women’s singles, now likely to be on the cards.
Public opinion, however, especially in the UK and in Ukraine, is against such a move, with Sergiy Stakhovsky, a former player famous for knocking Roger Federer out of Wimbledon in 2013, who is fighting for his country, saying that there is no such thing as a neutral in sport: “It just spits in the face of every Ukrainian athlete that’s going to the Olympics – if they’re gonna go.
“There’s no other way than for us to continue to fight,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of stopping. If we stop at any point and try to draw a line at any part of Ukraine to find some peace, we’re gonna have a massive invasion two years after.
“We know the Russians will rebuild and will strike harder. We have to push, and we have to get them out from our land. We have to find a way to protect our borders.
“Imagine sending them on the 100 metres starting line with Russian athletes [who] support the war, whose family members [may be] serving in the army and may have even killed Ukrainians.
“And God forbid they’ve killed some family members of athletes standing on the same line.
“Ukrainian athletes cannot practise, there have been more than 300 sport facilities destroyed by Russian missiles and artillery.
“It’s not going to be an equal field while the war is on and even after it’s not going to be an equal field. We’re gonna lose a generation of athletes, those who do not have the resources to leave Ukraine.”
An Olympian at London 2012, Stakhovsky thinks it would be a good idea for major countries to propose a boycott.
“I think the possibility of a boycott would be enough to put pressure on the IOC to change their thinking,” Stakhovsky added, while he also believes that Wimbledon should make a stand again this summer.
“I very much hope they’ll continue, and I’m thinking if it comes round a second time there will be no stripping of points because the players hated that. It would show that money isn’t everything in this world.
“I learned the hard way what you need to be happy in life is completely different to what I expected and what I thought – you don’t need much. You need to have your family, you need to be safe, and you need to be warm.”
World No 1 Iga Swiatek has been sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause and vocal since the invasion began, using every opportunity to draw attention and promote support for the stricken country.
When she won the Doha title for the first time a couple of weeks ago, she once again drew attention to the plight of Ukrainian people.
“When I sat there I had a throwback to last year – that was the first tournament that I had a chance to make a speech when the war started in Ukraine,” the 21-year old Pole said during the trophy ceremony. “I feel like we have pretty short memories.
“We should all support Ukrainians with everything they are coping with every day. It’s disappointing this situation is not changing, but hopefully they will stay strong.”
Her words were met with applause, many of whom may not have seen that she continues to wear a small loop of yellow and blue ribbon pinned to her ever-present baseball cap.
Swiatek calling attention to Ukraine’s suffering earned praise from another serving soldier and former player, Alexndr Dolgopolov.
After spending a week honing his skills at a shooting range, Dolgopolov is now a drone operator in a unit attached to Ukrainian military intelligence.
He took to Twitter to thank the World No 1: “Congrats @iga_swaitek. One day you will understand, that you stood up against the evil of our days and it will make you proud not less than tennis results. We hear your voice and be sure, Russia will not approach Polands borders from our side!” the Ukrainian wrote.
Marta Kostyuk is also an avid campaigner for banning Russian and Belarusians from both tours, but many feel individual players should be free to play where they like.
While the situation in Russia and Ukraine remains tense and the conflict is far from being resolved, the dilemma faced by the British tennis authorities also remains conflicted.
The LTA is under threat of full suspension from the WTA and ATP Tours if they uphold the ban of Russian and Belarussian players this year, leaving the future of Eastbourne and Queen’s in doubt.
These iconic grass tournaments are hugely popular events leading to the most prestigious event in the world, Wimbledon, and a ban leaves the future of these events up in the air.
Despite chatter suggesting that a ban might be repeated, it is widely expected that the LTA will make a U-turn and allow players to compete this year, unless the government steps in and refuses to issue visas to Russian and Belarusian players, which would take the hot potato out of their hands.
“The situation is extremely serious and one that I don’t think a lot of people have appreciated the full impact of,” an LTA source told the Daily Mail.
An announcement is expected by the end of the month, or in early April.