A decision by the organizer of the Wimbledon tennis tournament to ban players from Russia and Belarus from competing at this year’s championships has divided the sport and sparked concerns over discrimination.
The All England Club, which runs Wimbledon, said on Wednesday that it would be “unacceptable for the Moscow regime to derive any benefits” from the involvement of its players at the championships, which start in June. The club cited Russia’s “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression” in Ukraine.
However, the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tennis tours, both of which have condemned the Russian invasion, hit back and warned against “discrimination”. The bodies, which produce player rankings, exercise an influential role in the sport.
Wimbledon is among the most prestigious competitions in tennis. It is the oldest of the sport’s four so-called Grand Slam tournaments, which also include France’s Roland-Garros, the Australian Open and the US Open.
The All England Club’s decision is set to rule out Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, the men’s world number two who won the US Open in September last year and lost in the final of the Australian Open this January to Spain’s Rafael Nadal. Andrey Rublev, their top-10 rival, will also be unable to compete.
Aryna Sabalenka, the Belarusian women’s world number four, will also miss out, as will top-20 women’s players Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
The outright ban by the All England Club is the first for an individual tennis tournament. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year, took place before the invasion of Ukraine. Last month, the organizers of the French Open, which starts in late May, said they had no plans to exclude Russian or Belarusian players although they will have to adhere to neutrality rules.
The International Tennis Federation, the world governing body, in March banned Russian and Belarusian teams from taking part in team competitions, the Billie Jean King Cup and the Davis Cup.
A number of the world’s other major sports have taken action after the invasion of Ukraine. Russian teams have already been barred from football tournaments, including the prestigious Fifa men’s World Cup in Qatar later this year, while Formula One racing team Haas parted ways with Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. But to date bans have mostly targeted Russian national teams rather than individual athletes.
Ian Hewitt, chair of the All England Club, said it was important to prevent sport from being used to “promote” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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,” said Hewitt.
The Lawn Tennis Association, the governing body for tennis in Britain, also banned all Russian and Belarusian nationals from competing in the UK. The LTA said it recognized that individual players “may not agree with the actions of their governments” but that it was “important to do all it can to support Ukraine at this time”.
But the ATP said: “Discrimination based on nationality. . . constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP rankings. ”
The WTA said a fundamental principle of the organization was that individual athletes could participate in professional events based on merit and without any form of discrimination. “That principle is expressly set forth in our rules and has been agreed to by both [The All England Club] and LTA. Prohibitions against discrimination are also clearly expressed in their own rules and the Grand Slam rules. ”
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said it was “unacceptable to make sportsmen hostages once again to political prejudice and intrigue, to hostile acts against our country”, according to the Interfax agency.
Peskov told reporters that Russia was a “very strong tennis nation” and banning its players would “make the competitions suffer”.
The All England Club said it would reconsider its decision in the event that “circumstances change materially between now and June”.
UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston welcomed the move, although he acknowledged the “complexity” of barring athletes in individual sports.
“The UK has taken a leading role internationally to make clear that President Putin must not be able to use sport to legitimize Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine,” he added.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon
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