The All England Club announced Wednesday that it was banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at this year’s Wimbledon as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In its statement, the club cited a duty “to the broader UK public as a British sporting institution” and a “responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts … to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.” The statement continued: “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.”
More than 40 Russian and Belarussian players competed at Wimbledon last year, with 22 of those in the main draws of the men’s and women’s singles events. A Russian or Belarusian winning a Wimbledon singles title was a real possibility this year. Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka is ranked fourth in the WTA top 10, and Russians Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev are ranked No. 2 and No. 8 on the men’s side, respectively.
Wimbledon’s decision is not unprecedented. The Boston Marathon also banned individual Russians and Belarusians from competition. The Wimbledon ban also tracks with trends in the United Kingdom: Motorsport UK, the governing body for auto racing in Britain, banned Russian drivers back in early March. But Wimbledon has set itself apart from the rest of tennis. While all governing bodies have canceled tournaments held in Russia and Belarus and the International Tennis Federation barred Russian teams from men’s and women’s competitions, there had been no limitations on individual athletes in this individual sport. At ATP and WTA tournaments, Russians and Belarusians have continued competing, with their flags and nationalities redacted from tournament documents and graphics—a half-measure that had no meaningful effect on the competition.
Both the women’s and men’s tours have come out forcefully against Wimbledon’s move, as well as the decision by the Lawn Tennis Association, the national governing body for the sport in Britain, to ban Russians and Belarusians from all other tournaments held on British soil during the upcoming grass court season.
“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,” the WTA said in its statement. “Discrimination, and the decision to focus such discrimination against athletes competing on their own as individuals, is neither fair nor justified. The WTA will continue to apply its rules to reject discrimination and ensure that all athletes are able to compete at our Tour events should they qualify to do so, a position that until today’s announcement has been shared across professional tennis.” In its own statement, the ATP said that the Wimbledon ban “set a damaging precedent for the game” and, similarly to the WTA, affirmed “that players from Russia and Belarus will continue to be allowed to compete at ATP events under a neutral flag.”
What happens next? Here are the main questions that remain to be answered before Wimbledon begins on June 27.
How will players react? They’ve been split on the news early on. Ukrainian players have been fully supportive of the ban. “Yes, until they stop their criminal government, [R]ussia should be banned from the free world in anything possible, including all sports,” tweeted Aleksandr Dolgopolov, the recently retired player who was Ukraine’s best men’s tennis player this century, and who returned to Ukraine to join the war efforts. Ukrainian players Elina Svitolina, Marta Kostyuk, and Sergiy Stakhovsky also shared a joint open letter which called for further bans. “We demand to exclude and ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in any international event, as Wimbledon already done,” the statement read. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal and that time is now.”
Among those to come out against the ban: top-ranked Novak Djokovic. The Serbian called himself a “child of war” who knows “what kind of emotional trauma a war leaves.” Nevertheless, he said, “I cannot support the Wimbledon decision. It’s not the athletes’ [fault]. When politics interfere with sports, it usually doesn’t turn out well.”
Another current men’s player, Australia’s John Millman, argued that Wimbledon’s action is motivated by a desire for “good optics rather than to actually help;”; he suggested that “Ukraine would be better served if Wimbledon donated their entire profit in support aid instead of banning Russian and Belarusian players.” Martina Navratilova also said that she opposes the ban, saying that “exclusion like this … is not the way to go.”
Could players who oppose the ban boycott Wimbledon? There are no signs yet that this is a possibility, but there is precedent for such an action. In 1973, 81 male players refused to play that year’s Wimbledon out of solidarity with Yugoslavia’s Nikola “Niki” Pilic, who had been deemed ineligible for the tournament because he hadn’t competed in the Davis Cup team event.
Is there anything that Russian and Belarusian players can do to become eligible to play? Last month, before the ban came down, British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said that for Russian players to be eligible to compete, “I think we need to have some assurance that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to get assurances along those lines.”
No notable Russian or Belarusian players have come out in support of the invasion. Rublev wrote “No War Please” on a television camera in the days after the invasion commenced, while Medvedev said, “My message is always the same—I want peace in all of the world.”
It seems theoretically possible that Russian or Belarusian athletes could seek to get around the ban by competing for other countries, though there is no indication that any athletes will take that approach.
Nationality is a fickle thing in tennis, with many players representing countries other than the ones where they were born or where they live. Russians Medvedev and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, for example, have lived in France and speak fluent French. Belarusian Victoria Azarenka has lived most of her life in the United States, the country where she gave birth to her son. Sabalenka has lived in Miami. Russian Karen Khachanov has Armenian roots and has frequently spent time in Armenia.
And then there is Kazakhstan, which has for years offered Russian players considerable cash and prizes to switch their allegiance to Kazakhstan. Elena Rybakina, Yulia Putintseva, and Alexander Bublik, all of whom were born in Russia, will be eligible to play at Wimbledon because they now compete under the Kazakh flag.
Will other tournaments follow Wimbledon’s lead? Wimbledon is still more than two months away. Many other tournaments, including the French Open, which begins in May, will have a chance to take a similar stand before then, or to reject the idea of exclusion as the ATP and WTA tours have done. At the moment it doesn’t appear that the Wimbledon ban is the first move in a wave, though it could prove to be if other governments around Europe and the world see Wimbledon’s choice favorably. It’s worth remembering, though, that tennis is a famously fractious sport. Consider the response to the sexual assault allegations made by the Chinese player Peng Shuai. While the WTA won praise for pulling its events out of China at considerable cost, the ATP plans to hold tournaments there this fall.
Will the British tournaments face sanctions for their stance? Both the ATP and WTA statements alluded to possible repercussions for Wimbledon and the British association. While the tours do not have direct governance over Grand Slam events, they could refuse to award ranking points for the tournament, a move which could meaningfully damage the event’s credibility among players. The tours could also choose to suspend or decertify the events that are held in Britain in the lead-up to Wimbledon.
Is there any way the ban gets reversed? When FIFA banned Russia’s soccer teams from international competition, the Russian soccer federation asked the Court of Arbitration for Sport to immediately freeze that decision. The CAS denied that request, though it will still hear a full appeal of the FIFA ban. The Russian and Belarusian tennis federations, as well as individual athletes, could file their own appeals to the CAS, with the hope of getting the Wimbledon ban reversed before play begins in June.