Wed, 06 Jul 2022

An array of big names and organizations have weighed in on the debate

It's been a fortnight since officials at Wimbledon announced that Russian and Belarusian players would be barred from this year's grass court showpiece because of the conflict in Ukraine.

The ensuing period has seen tennis descend into civil war with widespread criticism of the decision, including from leading players and organizations.

We look at some of the key reaction to the decision by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) - with the likes of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray joining Novak Djokovic in recent days in their condemnation, alongside reports of potential retaliatory action by the ATP and WTA.

Denials of discrimination

Announcing its ban on April 20, Wimbledon organizers the AELTC claimed they were left with little choice.

"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," read a statement.

"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."

Simultaneously, the UK's Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) said no Russian or Belarusian players would be invited to events this summer.

Speaking later, AELTC chairman Ian Hewitt claimed the decision was aligned with UK government policy and denied that the step was "discrimination in the form that is being said."

"Even if we were to accept entries from Russian and Belarusian players with written declarations [against the Russian government] we would risk their success or participation at Wimbledon being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime - which we could not accept," Hewitt said. "Second, we have a duty to ensure that no actions we take should put the safety or welfare of players, or their families, at risk."

'Neither fair nor justified'

Wimbledon's decision immediately set it on a collision course with the ATP and WTA - both of which have allowed Russian and Belarusian players to compete under neutral status on their tours.

The WTA issued a statement on the same day as the ban was announced, saying it was "very disappointed" with the move.

"As the WTA has consistently stated, 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," read the message.

"Discrimination, and the decision to focus such discrimination against athletes competing on their own as individuals, is neither fair nor justified."

The ATP soon followed, asserting: "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," it added.

It has since been reported that both organizations are considering stripping Wimbledon of any rankings points as a retaliatory measure.

Big names wade in

Attention soon turned to how some of tennis' biggest names would react. Speaking on the sidelines of the Serbia Open last month, men's icon Novak Djokovic attacked Wimbledon.

"I will always condemn war, I will never support war being myself a child of war...," Djokovic said. "However, I cannot support the decision of Wimbledon, I think it is crazy. When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good."

Djokovic was followed at the weekend by fellow great Rafael Nadal. "I think it's very unfair (on) my Russian tennis mates, my colleagues. It's not their fault what's happening in this moment with the war," said the 21-time Grand Slam winner ahead of the Madrid Open.

Andy Murray echoed that stance, with the former world number one also commenting in Madrid. "I'm not supportive of players getting banned," said the Scot, although he said that Wimbledon organizers were in "a difficult position."

Current women's world number one Iga Swiatek of Poland said the opposing positions taken by Wimbledon on one side and the WTA and ATP on the other risked causing serious confusion.

"I feel like it would be nice to have all these bodies making the proper decision so that we're not going to have that kind of chaos," said the 20-year-old.

Elsewhere, Tunisia's Ons Jabeur - a tennis trailblazer for the Arab world - questioned why similar bans were not implemented over conflicts such as the one between Israel and Palestine.

"What about all the other countries where people and children have been dying every day?" said the 27-year-old. "For me, I don't think we should mix politics and sports. It's very sad what's happening in the world and one thing I hate in this world is politics."

The Russian and Belarusian view

A host of Russian and Belarusian stars will be forced to miss the grass court showpiece at SW19 this summer - including men's world number two Daniil Medvedev and women's number four Aryna Sabalenka.

Russian top-10 ace Andrey Rublev will also miss out and was among the first to attack the decision by bosses at the fabled grass court Grand Slam.

"What is happening now is complete discrimination against us. The reasons they gave us had no sense, they were not logical," said Rublev at the Serbia Open back in April, suggesting that a better solution would be to give all Wimbledon prize money to the victims of the conflict in Ukraine.

Fellow Russian men's star Karen Khachanov, who reached the last eight at Wimbledon last year, lamented the lost opportunity to compete at "one of the nicest tournaments in the world."

"I had a good run there last year - I played the quarterfinals... I'm really sad that the decision was taken," said the 25-year-old.

Belarusian women's icon Victoria Azarenka - a former world number one - called for a response from the WTA against Wimbledon.

"There should be a reaction to that," said the two-time Australian Open winner, who is on the WTA Player Council and has spoken to Wimbledon officials.

"When you take action, there are consequences. The one that Wimbledon takes, the one that WTA might take [in response]... If you are asking me if I agree with Wimbledon or I see their reasoning after being on a personal call with them, I don't see their reasoning," added the 32-year-old.

Ukrainian counter-claims

In contrast to the criticism, the move by Wimbledon has been welcomed by some Ukrainian tennis stars.

Ukrainian former ATP Tour star Alexandr Dolgopolov accused Russia's Rublev of "lying and hypocrisy" with his comments. "This statement of Rublev is a perfect example, why LTA decision is the right decision," said the 33-year-old.

Speaking last week, teenage Ukrainian ace Marta Kostyuk accused Russian players of acting like victims.

"They pretend like nothing is going on, they pretend that they are the victims of this situation, which I honestly cannot get," said the 19-year-old. "I don't know how much time needs to pass before they stop making excuses for themselves to do whatever, to do anything, any decision, any movement."

Ukrainian former world number three Elina Svitolina issued a series of demands for Russian and Belarusian players to be allowed to compete as neutrals, claiming they should have to publicly denounce the respective leadership of their countries and the military offensive in Ukraine. "If [they] don't speak out against the Russian government then it is the right thing to ban them," said the 27-year-old.

After Nadal issued his comments, the Spaniard was attacked by retired Ukrainian star Sergiy Stakhovsky. "Rafael Nadal, we competed together," Stakhovsky wrote on social media. "We've played each other on tour. Please tell me how it is fair that Ukrainian players cannot return home? How it is fair that Ukrainian kids cannot play tennis? How is it fair that Ukrainians are dying?"

Kremlin holds court

After politics played a part in Wimbledon's decision, the Russian government felt entitled to weigh in with its own verdict.

"Once again they simply turn athletes into hostages to political prejudice, political intrigues," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov when it was clear that a ban was imminent.

"This is unacceptable. Taking into account that Russia is a very strong tennis country, our athletes are at the top of world rankings, the competition itself will suffer from their removal."

Despite the widespread opprobrium, Wimbledon is set to get underway on June 27 without Russian and Belarusian stars.


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