Professional tennis, which had been unusually united of late, is back in disaccord after Wimbledon’s bold and difficult decision to bar Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s tournament was met with strong disapproval by the men’s and women’s tours.
For just over 50 days, the ATP, WTA, International Tennis Federation and the four Grand Slam tournaments all agreed that the proper response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Belarus’ support, was to ban Russia and Belarus from team events but allow their players to continue competing as individuals albeit without national identification.
But Wimbledon, under pressure from the British government, broke ranks on Wednesday, and Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association also confirmed that it did not plan to allow Russian and Belarusian players to participate in the grass-court circuit that precedes Wimbledon and includes events in Eastbourne and at Queen’s Club in London.
“Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” Wimbledon said in a statement Wednesday.
“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.”
Wimbledon, the oldest Grand Slam tournament, is scheduled to begin in late June, and while the ATP and WTA have limited leverage over Wimbledon, which operates independently, the tours could respond by reducing or removing rankings points from the event. Individual players might also take legal action.
The WTA said it was “very disappointed” with Wimbledon’s decision, while the ATP in a separate statement called it “unfair” and said it had “the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game.”
“Individual athletes should not be penalized or prevented from competing due to where they are from, or the decisions made by the governments of their countries,” the WTA said. “Discrimination, and the decision to focus such discrimination against athletes competing on their own as individuals, is neither fair nor justified.”
Martina Navratilova, one of the sport’s greatest champions, said in an interview: “I don’t think this is the right thing to do” and argued that though Ukrainians are the victims in this war, banning Russian and Belarusian players makes them victims, too.
But some Ukrainian former and current players, including Alexandr Dolgopolov, a retired player now serving in the Ukrainian military, praised the move. The question is whether, in light of Russia’s brutal invasion, there would be sufficient support from the full player group for strong countermeasures in favor of their Russian and Belarusian colleagues.
Wimbledon, in its statement, left open the possibility of revising its position, stating that “if circumstances change materially between now and June, we will consider and respond accordingly.” But that would likely require the British government to soften its stance or require a quick resolution of the war in Ukraine’s favor, both of which seem highly unlikely.
The ban would block some highly ranked players from competing. Four Russian men are ranked in the top 30 on the ATP Tour, including No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, who is the reigning U.S. Open men’s singles champion, although he is recovering from a hernia operation. Russia has five women in the top 40 of the WTA Tour rankings, led by No. 15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus is ranked No. 4 and was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, expressed dismay with the ban. “Our players are among the top in the world ranking and so the tournaments will suffer from their suspension,” Peskov told reporters during a regular briefing. “Once again, it is unacceptable to make athletes hostages of political prejudice, intrigue and hostile actions toward our country.”
Officials with the ATP and WTA have expressed support for Ukraine but argued that the Russian and Belarusian players should not be blamed for the invasion or their countries’ policies and remarked that several leading players, including the Russian stars Andrey Rublev, ranked No. 8 in men’s singles, and Pavlyuchenkova, have made clear their opposition to the war.
“Of course it’s very tragic, what’s happening in the world,” said Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a Russian who was ranked No. 1 in singles in the late 1990s, in an interview from Moscow. “I’m totally shocked with what is going on, but to hold hostage people like Medvedev, Rublev and Pavlyuchenkova, I think it’s wrong. And knowing what kind of position they took before when this all started, I think Wimbledon is making a mistake on this one. They’ve gone a bit too far.”
But though there are questions about why the sports world is barring athletes in this instance after declining to do so during many previous conflicts, numerous international sports, including track and field and figure skating, have excluded individual Russian and Belarusian athletes from competitions. The Boston Marathon barred those who live in Russia and Belarus from Monday’s race, facing some blowback from runners who said they don’t get to choose where they are born. But Wimbledon ultimately decided that it did not want to risk the optics of a Russian or Belarusian player holding up a champion’s trophy on the 100th anniversary of its iconic Centre Court.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, said of Wimbledon’s decision: “We recognize 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.”
After the invasion began in February, tennis was quick to bar the Russians and their Belarusian allies from team events like the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup, both of which were won by Russian teams in 2021. The sport’s seven governing bodies announced that ban collectively on March 1.
But there had been calls for more from several former and current Ukrainian players, including the rising women’s star Marta Kostyuk and the former player Olga Savchuk, the captain of Ukraine’s Billie Jean King Cup team, which competed against the United States in Asheville, N.C., last week.
“It cannot just be a sanction against 90 percent of the Russian people and 10 percent not,” Savchuk said. “If you think about it, why is somebody who works in McDonald’s in Russia losing their job because of sanctions and the tennis players are exceptions? It has to be even, and I think it’s collective guilt.”
Wimbledon could remain an outlier on this issue among the Grand Slam tournaments. Leaders of the French Open, which begins next month and is the next Grand Slam event on the calendar, have shown some resistance behind the scenes to Russians competing as individuals in Paris but have made no move toward a ban. The United States Tennis Association said on Wednesday that no decision has been made regarding Russian and Belarusian players’ participation in this year’s U.S. Open, which will be held in New York in late August and early September.
For now, regular tour events — like this week’s ATP event in Barcelona, Spain — are proceeding with Russians and Belarusians in their draws. But Wimbledon came under considerable pressure from the British government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to take a stronger stance. Wimbledon received government guidance last month recommending that prospective Russian and Belarusian players should provide “written declarations” that they were not representing their countries; not receiving state funding or sponsorship from companies with strong links to the Russian state; and had not and would not express support for the invasion of Ukraine or their countries’ leadership.
Put in a difficult position, Wimbledon decided against requiring players to effectively denounce their governments out of concern that it would put them or their families in a precarious situation. A ban, though not part of Wimbledon officials’ initial thinking, prevents players from having to make such a choice and also averts potential controversy during the tournament linked to the scrutiny of player declarations.
Wimbledon has not barred individual athletes from specific countries since the aftermath of World War II when players from Germany, Japan and other nations were not permitted to play in the tournament.
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.