Wimbledon and LTA face decision over whether to lift ban on Russians and Belarusians
The Australian Open singles trophy bears the name of Aryna Sabalenka, but not Belarus – her country of birth.
The new champion played as a neutral in Melbourne last month, as have all Russians and Belarusians since the invasion of Ukraine.
With one notable exception. The UK’s grass courts were locked down last summer as the All England Club and Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) decided with “deep regret” to reject all entries from those two countries.
The announcement was generally very well received in the UK. But within the sport of tennis it caused enormous malaise, leading to the removal of ranking points at Wimbledon and leading to hefty fines being imposed on the LTA board of directors for breaching contracts with the ATP and WTA tours.
Over the next few weeks, the All England Club and the LTA will determine how they will proceed this year.
Early indications are that Sabalenka will be seen on the pitch alongside Victoria Azarenka and Daniil Medvedev this summer – although the severity of the terms involved and how that should be presented to a home crowd is still hotly debated will.
Most players, but especially not all Ukrainians, as Marta Kostyuk hinted at the Australian Open, believe that individual Russians and Belarusians should be free to play where they want.
The two countries are banned from team competitions in tennis, like most other sports, but in deciding to ban individuals, the All England Club and the LTA took a stance that is found in athletics and skiing but rarely elsewhere .
It may be helpful to the two organizations that the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee recently stated that “no athlete should be barred from competing solely because of his passport”.
If the decision is to be reversed despite no signs of a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the All England Club and the LTA will need to perform some skillful linguistic gymnastics to prove circumstances have changed.
Last year, the All England Club argued it had to do its part to limit Russia’s global influence and ensure the regime “didn’t take advantage of the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players”.
Another Sabalenka Grand Slam win at Wimbledon would create an excellent opportunity to do just that.
Public opinion played a role last year and will again. There was little disquiet in Australia, France or the US when it was announced that Russians and Belarusians would be free to compete in these Grand Slams, but a YouGov poll last April found that 69% of the British public supported Wimbledon’s decision supported.
But those who made the decision will have noticed that if they ban these players again this year, they will likely have to do so by the end of the war.
Another important factor over the past year has been the British government. While the All England Club may have overemphasized the pressure they were under to ban Russian and Belarusian players, government rhetoric and guidelines nonetheless significantly influenced their final decision.
These guidelines – for all sports organizations – have not changed. And they don’t trigger a blanket ban on these athletes. Generally speaking, if players compete under a neutral flag, don’t publicly support the war, or take money from the state, then they’re free to play. Then-Sports Secretary Nigel Huddleston suggested in March last year that a written statement to that effect could be made, although in practice this may not need to be shared publicly.
The All England Club are looking to rebuild some ailing relationships, ensure the strongest possible field and avoid another year without ranking points.
The stakes are even higher for the LTA. It was fined $750,000 (£608,355) by the Women’s Tennis Association and $1 million (£811,140) by the Association of Tennis Professionals for barring the players from the tour events they attended Venues such as The Queen’s Club and Eastbourne perform.
That’s a significant sum of money, even for a governing body that received £42.43million from Wimbledon last year. But of even greater concern, aside from the prospect of more fines, is the very explicit threat to the viability of the pre-Wimbledon tournaments.
Both tours have announced that they will terminate the LTA’s membership if it continues to practice “discrimination based on nationality”.
That would mean no grass court tour events in the UK leading up to Wimbledon. Queen’s and Eastbourne could theoretically continue as exhibitions, but few would want to play and the tournaments almost certainly would not go ahead.
The impact on the profile of the sport and the number of those who play or record it has been felt for many years.
This is, of course, a subject of great sensitivity.
The All England Club and the LTA hope they can embark on a path that preserves the integrity of the tournaments, preserves tennis in the UK for the long term and is broadly consistent with the rest of the sport.
They will hope to be able to do so without incurring the ire of the government or the displeasure of too many in the country.
And above all, try to avoid in any way worsening the ongoing suffering of the people of Ukraine.