The decision to allow tennis players from Russia and Belarus to compete at Wimbledon this year has sparked fury in Ukraine, as ITV News' Shehab Khan reports
Athletes from the two countries must sign declarations of neutrality and must not express support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and players who receive funding from the Russian or Belarusian states, including sponsorship from state owned or controlled companies, will remain barred.
The same conditions will apply for the other British grass-court tournaments including Queen’s, reversing the decision made by the All England Club and Lawn Tennis Association last year.
The prospect of a Russian or Belarusian winner of one of the singles titles at Wimbledon is fairly high.
Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, from Belarus, is a strong performer on grass, while Russian Daniil Medvedev has won more matches than any other player on the men’s tour so far this season.
Britain's tennis governing bodies were heavily penalised for its decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus that went against the rest of tennisWimbledon was stripped of ranking points, while the LTA was handed a seven-figure fine and threatened with losing its tournaments for their stance.
The threat of further sanctions against the British game was undoubtedly a major factor in the U-turn.
An LTA statement said: “The effect on British tennis of the LTA being expelled from the tours would be very damaging and far reaching for the game in our country. “The impact would be felt by the millions of fans that follow the sport, the grass roots of the game, including coaches and venues which rely on the events for visibility and to bring new players into the game, and of course professional British players.
“Our position in support of the people of Ukraine remains unchanged in 2023 as does our concern around the Russian and Belarusian regimes deriving reputational and other benefits by seeking to associate themselves with players. “There will also be a zero-tolerance approach to any flags, symbols or other actions which support Russia, Belarus or the war from anyone in our venues, including players and spectators.”
Ukrainian players, who welcomed Wimbledon’s stance last year, have spoken out about what they perceive as a lack of support from the tennis authorities. Last year Wimbledon ruled out forcing Russian and Belarusian athletes to sign declarations but now say “extensive engagement with the government and tennis stakeholder bodies has clarified and developed the form of declarations”.
There has also now been a year of players from the two countries competing around the world under a neutral flag without any instances of overt support for the conflict. There have been incidents – Novak Djokovic’s father was caught up, unwittingly he insisted, in a pro-Russia demonstration at the Australian Open, while locker room tensions came to the fore in Indian Wells a couple of weeks ago after Russian player Anastasia Potapova wore a Spartak Moscow shirt on court.
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Ian Hewitt, chairman 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.” Wimbledon organisers have also updated their conditions of entry to specifically bar Russian and Belarusian flags and symbols.