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Wimbledon drops ban on Russian and Belarusian players

The Independent logo The Independent 3/31/2023 Jamie Braidwood

Wimbledon has lifted a controversial ban on Russian and Belarusian players from competing at this summer’s Championships, with the All England Club admitting it has been forced into an “incredibly difficult decision” due to “consequences” that if continued would be “damaging” to British tennis.

Players from the two countries will be asked to sign declarations of neutrality and have been told they must not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Players who received funding or sponsorship from the Russian and Belarusian states will remain banned.

Wimbledon moved to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to last year’s tournament, citing advice from the government following the invasion of Ukraine, but its decision was criticised by the other three grand slams and both men’s and women’s professional tours.

In response, Wimbledon was stripped of its ranking points and the ATP fined the Lawn Tennis Association £820,000, after it backed Wimbledon’s stance and banned Russian and Belarusian players from the other grass-court tournaments hosted in the UK.

The England Club’s decision sees Wimbledon fall back in line with the rest of the sport, where players from Russia and Belarus have been allowed to compete under neutral flags since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

A statement from Wimbledon read: “Our current intention is to accept entries from Russian and Belarusian players subject to them competing as ‘neutral’ athletes and complying with appropriate conditions.” The LTA has also reversed its ban ahead of its summer events.

Wimbledon added: “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.

“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.

Top players including Russian Daniil Medvedev and Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka will be allowed to return to Wimbledon (Getty Images) © Provided by The Independent Top players including Russian Daniil Medvedev and Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka will be allowed to return to Wimbledon (Getty Images)

“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.”

Both the ATP and WTA welcomed Wimbledon’s decision to allow players to compete as neutral athletes. The professional tours had condemned Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players from last year’s tournament as “unfair”, while accusing the All England Club of “discrimination” by excluding competitors based on their nationality.

A joint statement read: “We are pleased that all players will have an opportunity to compete at Wimbledon and LTA events this summer. It has taken a collaborative effort across the sport to arrive at a workable solution which protects the fairness of the game.

“This remains an extremely difficult situation and we would like to thank Wimbledon and the LTA for their efforts in reaching this outcome, while reiterating our unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine.”

When announcing its decision last year, Wimbledon said the move was intended “to limit Russia’s global influence”, adding that “it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships”.

Elena Rybakina won last year’s women’s title representing Kazakhstan, but was born in Russia (Getty) © Provided by The Independent Elena Rybakina won last year’s women’s title representing Kazakhstan, but was born in Russia (Getty)

Ian Hewitt, the chair of the All England Club, said: “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.”

The decision will allow top players such as Russian Daniil Medvedev and Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka to return to Wimbledon this summer. Sabelenka became the first player in the history of the sport to win a grand slam under a neutral flag when she lifted the Australian Open in January.

While Novak Djokovic won a seventh Wimbledon title in the men’s tournament last year, the women’s trophy was won by Elena Rybakina, who was born in Moscow but switched allegiances to Kazakhstan in 2019. As a patron of the All England Club, the Duchess of Cambridge awarded both men’s and women’s singles trophies and will do so again this July, even if won by a player from Russia or Belarus.

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