Victoria Azarenka is anticipated to miss this year’s Wimbledon Championship as a result of the All England Club’s decision to ban players of Russian or Belarusian nationality. Amidst the geopolitical background of Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, and under guidance provided by the British government, Wimbledon announced its ban last Wednesday in order to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.” Despite the All England Club’s noble intentions, the 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. Azarenka’s case highlights the unproductive reality of this decision.
Under the ruling, the former World No. 1, who was born in Minsk, Belarus, will be barred from the tournament this June despite living in the United States and Monaco for the entirety of her adult life. Similarly telling are her recent comments denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I am devastated by the actions that have taken place over the last several days – against – and in Ukraine,” Azarenka commented in reaction to the war. She went on in a lengthy Twitter post, writing, “It is heartbreaking to see how many innocent people have been affected and continue to be affected by such violence. I have always seen and experienced Ukrainian and Belarusian people friendly and supportive of each other. It’s hard to witness the violent separation currently taking place.”
What more can Azarenka do to be deemed acceptable in the eyes of the All England Club? Given the UK government’s intervention on the issue, not much. “The UK Government has set out directional guidance for sporting bodies and events in the UK with the specific aim of limiting Russia’s influence,” elaborated Chairman Ian Hewitt In a press conference earlier today. “[…] there is no viable alternative within the framework of the government’s position to the decision we have taken in this truly exceptional and tragic situation,” he added.
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. Former World No. 1 and activist Billie Jean King also spoke out recently against the ban in a statement. “One of the guiding principles of the founding of the WTA was that any girl in the world, if she was good enough, would have a place to compete. I stood by that in 1973 and I stand by that today,” she wrote. It remains to be seen how the WTA will respond to the impending player ban. Steve Simon, Chief Executive of the WTA, promised “strong reactions” to the All England Club’s policy last week in a statement.