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Wimbledon has triggered fury from the Kremlin after issuing an unprecedented blanket ban on all Russian and Belarusian players from competing at this year’s Championships.
Amid fears over the prospect of Daniil Medvedev winning the tournament, and parading one of sport’s most prestigious trophies on Centre Court, the All England Club announced that it would be “unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players”.
Medvedev, the reigning US Open champion and current world No 2, would be among the tournament favourites and it is understood that the optics of a potential trophy presentation on Centre Court has been high on decision-makers’ minds.
The presentation often involves members of the Royal family and this year is also the centenary anniversary of the Centre Court. After last year’s final, the Duchess of Cambridge, who is the royal patron of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, watched Novak Djokovic triumph on Centre Court from the Royal box and congratulated the Serbian as he received the trophy.
The ATP and WTA Tours, as well as the International Tennis Federation have so far only barred players from displaying their national flags or playing their national anthems, with Russian and Belarusian players currently permitted to play at next month’s French Open.
The Lawn Tennis Association has also backed the ban, meaning that it will extend to all professional senior or junior tournaments on British soil, including prominent events this summer like Eastbourne and the Queen’s Club Championships.
The decision has provoked outrage in Moscow, with British administrators accused of using sport to play political games. "Once again they simply turn athletes into hostages to political prejudice, political intrigues," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "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.”
The British Government has previously indicated that Russian and Belarusian players would need to denounce Vladimir Putin’s regime in order to compete at Wimbledon but, amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and a crackdown on internal opposition, there were serious doubts over whether this was ever a realistic proposition.
The All England Club has also been advised their independent status means that it could exert a ban and not face any legal repercussions.
As well as Medvedev, who also gained numerous new fans in losing a five-set classic to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final earlier this year, the ban will also rule out Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov and Aslan Karatsev, who are among the world’s top 30 men. Rublev had written the words "no war please" on a television camera lens last month after winning a match in Dubai.
World #7 tennis player Andrey Rublev of Russia writes 'No war please' on a camera following his win in Dubai. pic.twitter.com/JhITa8gCsA
— The Recount (@therecount) February 25, 2022
World number four and last year’s semi-finalist Aryna Sabalenka, as well as Victoria Azarenka, who was a gold medallist at London 2012, who are both from Belarus, also miss out, as do the Russian players Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetova who are among the top 30 in the women’s rankings.
It followed comments by Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, who has been adamant that Russia must not be allowed to make political capital from the exploits of athletes in Britain.
“We share in the universal condemnation of Russia’s illegal actions and have carefully considered the situation in the context of our duties to the players, to our community and to the broader UK public as a British sporting institution,” said a Wimbledon statement.
“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.
"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. It is therefore our intention, with deep regret, to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players.”
Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Club, added: “We recognise 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. If circumstances change materially between now and June, we will consider and respond accordingly.”
An LTA statement said that the “continuing participation of Russian and Belarusian nationals at events risks providing a boost to these regimes when there is an unprecedented international effort to isolate them and sanction their actions”.
The LTA also confirmed that the decision would extend to pro-level adult and junior events, subject to regular review.
Steve Simon, the head of the women’s WTA tour, previously told the BBC that he felt “very, very strongly” that players should not be “penalised by the decisions of an authoritarian leadership that is obviously doing terrible, reprehensible things.”
The autonomy of the All England Club, however, has apparently underpinned a confidence that they could act on the issue. The British government has been in regular talks with sports governing bodies over their reaction to the atrocities in Ukraine. Speaking last month, Huddleston said that "absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled", adding that “we need some potential assurance that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin”.
The war has already had a huge impact on sport, with Russia excluded from the final qualifying phase for this year’s football World Cup and Russian athletes excluded from the Paralympics.