Russian and Belarusian players will be allowed to compete at Wimbledon this year, the All England Club has announced.
Athletes from the two countries must sign declarations of neutrality and must not express support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while players who receive funding from the Russian or Belarusian states, including sponsorship from state owned or controlled companies, will remain barred.
The same conditions will apply for the other British grass-court tournaments including Queen’s, reversing the decision made by the All England Club and Lawn Tennis Association 12 months ago.
By barring players from Russia and Belarus completely, the two governing bodies went against the rest of tennis and were heavily penalised, with Wimbledon stripped of ranking points, while the LTA was handed a seven-figure fine and threatened with losing its tournaments.
Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, said: “We continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted. It is our view that, considering all factors, these are the most appropriate arrangements for the Championships for this year.
“We are thankful for the Government’s support as we and our fellow tennis stakeholder bodies have navigated this complex matter and agreed on conditions we believe are workable.
“If circumstances change materially between now and the commencement of the Championships, we will consider and respond accordingly.”
Both governing bodies reiterated their disappointment with tennis’ reaction to last year’s ban, and Wimbledon chief executive Sally Bolton said: “We absolutely stand by the decision that we took last year in the circumstances we found ourselves in.”
Wimbledon will face accusations of hypocrisy given the ongoing conflict, and organisers highlighted why they have come to a different decision 12 months on.
Last year they ruled out forcing Russian and Belarusian athletes to sign declarations but now say “extensive engagement with the Government and tennis stakeholder bodies has clarified and developed the form of declarations”.
Players and their support staff will not have to expressly condemn the Russian or Belarusian authorities but must declare they are not using the tournaments as a way of supporting those governments.
There has also now been a year of players from the two countries competing around the world under a neutral flag without any instances of overt support for the conflict.
There have been incidents – Novak Djokovic’s father was caught up, unwittingly he insisted, in a pro-Russia demonstration at the Australian Open, while locker room tensions came to the fore in Indian Wells a couple of weeks ago after Russian player Anastasia Potapova wore a Spartak Moscow shirt on court.
Ukrainian players, who welcomed Wimbledon’s stance last year, have spoken out about what they perceive as a lack of support from the tennis authorities.
Wimbledon organisers have been in contact with Ukrainian players, and Bolton said: “Those are private conversations so I wouldn’t be sharing the detail but obviously it’s an incredibly difficult time for them operating on the tour and we recognise that the decision that we’ve made is challenging for them.”
Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, reacted furiously on Twitter to the U-turn, saying: “Wimbledon’s decision to permit the participation of Russian and Belarusian players is immoral.
“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.”
The threat of further sanctions against the British game was undoubtedly a major factor in the U-turn, with an LTA statement saying: “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 impact would be felt by the millions of fans that follow the sport, the grass roots of the game, including coaches and venues which rely on the events for visibility and to bring new players into the game, and of course professional British players.
“Our position in support of the people of Ukraine remains unchanged in 2023 as does our concern around the Russian and Belarusian regimes deriving reputational and other benefits by seeking to associate themselves with players.
“There will also be a zero-tolerance approach to any flags, symbols or other actions which support Russia, Belarus or the war from anyone in our venues, including players and spectators.”
Wimbledon organisers have also updated their conditions of entry to specifically bar Russian and Belarusian flags and symbols.
Reacting to the announcement, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said: “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. We therefore support the approach of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Lawn Tennis Association on the basis of following that guidance.
“The AELTC and LTA should never have been fined by the international tennis tours for taking a principled stand against Russian aggression. The UK Government will continue to work closely with governing bodies and event organisers to do all we can to show solidarity with Ukraine.”
The prospect of a Russian or Belarusian winner of one of the singles titles at Wimbledon is fairly high, with Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka a strong performer on grass, while Daniil Medvedev has won more matches than any other player on the men’s tour so far this season.
The ATP and WTA welcomed the decision, saying in a joint statement: “We are pleased that all players will have an opportunity to compete at Wimbledon and LTA events this summer.
“It has taken a collaborative effort across the sport to arrive at a workable solution which protects the fairness of the game.
“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.”
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