Wimbledon under fire over 'immoral' backflip on Russian and Belarusian players

The All England Club has announced that players from Russia and Belarus will be allowed to compete this year.

Aryna Sabalenka and Daniil Medvedev, pictured here at Wimbledon.
Aryna Sabalenka and Daniil Medvedev will be allowed to compete at Wimbledon in 2023. Image: Getty

Wimbledon's decision to backflip on their ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes has drawn a divided response from the tennis and wider communities, with Ukraine condemning the 'immoral' move. Players from Russia and Belarus were barred from competing at the grass-court grand slam in 2022 due to Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

The ATP and WTA tours strongly opposed the stance of the All England Club and stripped the grand slam of the right to award rankings points in retaliation. On Friday the All England Club announced a backflip on the decision, opening the door for Russian and Belarusian players to compete.

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That means the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev from Russia, and Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka from Belarus, will be free to play. However they must sign 'declarations of neutrality' and comply with 'appropriate conditions', including not expressing any support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted," said All England Club chairman Ian Hewitt in a statement on Friday. "We continue to condemn totally Russia's illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine. It is our view that, considering all factors, these are the most appropriate arrangements for the championships for this year."

The backflip has drawn a very mixed response around the world, with some praising the move after the ban seemed to unfairly affect the players who had nothing to do with the war. However others have strongly criticised Wimbledon for backing down, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemning the reversal as "immoral."

Kuleba wrote on Twitter: "Has Russia ceased its aggression or atrocities? No, it's just that Wimbledon decided to accommodate two accomplices in crime. I call on the UK government to deny visas to their players."

All England Club slams ATP and WTA tours

The All England Club pointed out the "strong and very disappointing reaction" from the ATP and WTA tours last year as one of the reasons for the backflip. The Lawn Tennis Association and All England Club were hit with heavy fines last year after the LTA banned Russian and Belarusian players from a number of warm-up events prior to Wimbledon.

On Friday, the LTA said it stood by its decision to ban the players in 2022. But it highlighted the "real prospect of the termination of our membership if we were to repeat the ban in 2023", which would mean the cancellation of tournaments. "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 LTA said.

The All England Club said: "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."

Novak Djokovic, pictured here being presented with the Wimbledon trophy by Catherine Duchess of Cambridge.
Novak Djokovic is presented with the Wimbledon trophy by Catherine Duchess of Cambridge. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

In a joint statement, the ATP and WTA said they were satisfied with the outcome. "It has taken a collaborative effort across the sport to arrive at a workable solution, which protects the fairness of the game," the tours said. "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."

The UK's Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said the government backed the new policy. "Throughout Putin's ongoing war in Ukraine, we have been clear that Russian and Belarusian athletes representing their country should not be permitted in domestic and international sporting competitions. That position still stands. Individual, self-funded Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete in the UK, subject to following our guidance on neutrality."

The All England Club's statement described "personal player declarations", but didn't provide details. The LTA said the players and support staff "will be required to sign neutrality declarations" similar to those used in other sports. The overwhelming sentiment on social media was one of disagreement towards Wimbledon's backflip.

with agencies

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