Several months ahead of the year’s only grass-court Major, Wimbledon officials have published a new policy to ban players of Russian or Belarusian origin. The exclusionary move was announced amidst the geopolitical background of Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine. According to a statement issued by the All England Club last Wednesday, the decision to ban entry from Russian and Belarusian competitors was made with the intention to prevent the Russian regime from deriving any benefits from its players’ success––propaganda or otherwise. However, as many have noted, the players affected by the ban, such as Russia’s Andrey Rublev and Belarus’s Victoria Azarenka, have consistently spoken out against the ongoing war. The All-England Club’s decision to ban players from competing on an individual basis––not under the country flag of the national team––sets a dangerous precedent of discrimination in professional sports.
In late February, Russia unilaterally invaded Ukraine, drawing international condemnation from heads of state and human rights activists. Since the invasion commenced, economic and social retaliation against Russia has proved swift, including the suspension of hundreds of businesses operating in Russia, such as Mcdonald’s, Ford, and IBM. Multilateral asset freezes against the Russian regime and numerous state-adjacent oligarchs, such as Chelsea F.C. wonder Roman Abramovich, have also worked to accelerate international pressure against the Russian invasion. In the tennis world, the ATP, WTA, and ITF released a joint statement outlining new restrictions related to conflict last month. According to the statement, all tournaments scheduled to take place in Russia will be suspended. Additionally, Russian and Belarusian teams are restricted from playing in ITF international events, like Davis Cup, until further notice.
Despite the precedent of economic and social coercion against Russian and Belarusian actors––including bans on Russian national teams––the All-England Club’s latest decision to ban individual players at Wimbledon based on nationality is singularly extreme in its impact. For example, Victoria Azarenka, the former world No. 1 from Belarus, will be unable to compete in Wimbledon this summer despite moving to the United States at 15 years old, and currently living in Los Angeles. “I am devastated by the actions that have taken place over the last several days – against – and in Ukraine,” Azarenka commented upon news of the invasion.
In effect, the Belarusian national joins competitors Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova as political hostages to the larger posturing of the United Kingdom. As Ian Hewitt, Chairman of the All-England Club, commented in a statement, “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.” These individuals, despite speaking out against the war, retaining minimal ties to their home nations, and competing on an individual basis, will nevertheless be excluded solely due to their country of birth.
The backlash to such a blatant act of discrimination from the All-England Club has already circulated throughout the tennis world. Reigning Wimbledon men’s singles champion Novak Djokovic criticized the policy, calling it “crazy” in a press conference at the Serbia Open last week. Both the ATP and WTA government bodies joined Djokovic in expressing their disapproval of the player ban. “We believe that today’s unilateral decision by Wimbledon and the LTA to exclude players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s British grass-court swing is unfair and has the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game,” the ATP announced shortly after the ban.
Main Photo from Getty.