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The Rally: How should the tours answer Wimbledon’s ban of Russian and Belarusian players? Should a boycott be on the table?
Published Apr 20, 2022
Tennis Channel Live: Chanda Rubin and Nick Monroe on Wimbledon's decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players
It’s official: Wimbledon will ban players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s tournament.
That is staggering news, a decision that strikes me as unfair to the athletes—and sets a dangerous precedent. Should similar steps be taken with athletes from other countries whose leaders go to war, or engage in questionable human rights practices? The slope is slippery beyond belief. Who should next be considered for a banning?
My sense all along was that this was driven less by the All England Club and more by leaders in British government; most notably, British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston. Minister for Sport, Tourism Heritage, and Civil Society: That title alone intrigues me. Though once upon a time John Kennedy created The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, that has a lot more to do with citizens staying healthy than government leaders creating policies about professional sports and the fate of athletes who aren’t even from their country. So here, a British politician has pursued the banishment of individual athletes from tennis’ premier event. Does he really think this will change the tide of the war?
I’m also surprised that Wimbledon—usually independent and committed most of all to hosting the greatest players and staging a first-rate tournament—would join forces with the British government this way.
This is also one of those unfortunate moments that reveals how the lack of a player union hurts tennis. There are dozens of Russian players in the National Hockey League, but while the league has cut off business relations with Russia, its players remain—and the union’s power likely has much to do with that.
So I wonder what steps the ATP and WTA will take as they witness their players being banned. And what about the fledgling PTPA? Head back to 1973 when Niki Pilic was suspended from Wimbledon because he declined to play a Davis Cup tie. The ATP, at the time less than a year old, took a major step towards credibility when 80 of its members stood behind Pilic and boycotted Wimbledon. Woud the PTPA consider such an action?
What are your thoughts on this, Steve?
I’d like to say I disagree with you, for the sake of creating some conflict in this Rally. But I’m with you. I’ve thought from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that there wasn’t a good reason to punish individual tennis players for Vladimir Putin’s actions. Keep the country out of Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup, definitely. Remove the Russian flags from players’ names, OK. But the spirit of the pro tours—which Wimbledon, like it or not, is a part of—has always been that players compete for themselves and under their own names, rather than the names of their nations.
Wimbledon’s statement read, in part, “In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships.”
Let’s imagine that Daniil Medvedev had won the tournament. He has said that he wants “peace,” which is probably the strongest statement we can expect from a Russian citizen who opposes Putin’s war right now. Anything more could be dangerous for him. If Medvedev had succeeded at Wimbledon, I don’t think his victory would have redounded to the greater glory of Russia or Putin. It might even have been seen as a blow against the autocrat, because we know Medvedev doesn’t support what Putin is doing in Ukraine. We also know that Andrey Rublev and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, among other players, feel the same way. By banning individual Russian athletes, Wimbledon might also end up feeding into Putin’s narrative that the West has always been against Russia and its interests.
If Medvedev had succeeded at Wimbledon, I don’t think his victory would have redounded to the greater glory of Russia or Putin. It might even have been seen as a blow against the autocrat, because we know Medvedev doesn’t support what Putin is doing in Ukraine.
But let me also mention two potentially complicating factors.
What if a Russian player vocally backs Putin and his invasion? What would and should Wimbledon have done then? Should Russian players be forced to disavow the war, the way the Sports Minister in London, and Ukrainian player Elina Svitolina, have maintained? That’s not an ideal solution, either; like I said, it could put a Russian player in a dangerous situation. The possibility of that happening at Wimbledon is now moot, but war-disavowal could be an issue at Roland Garros and the US Open, both of which plan to allow Russian and Belarusian players to participate. To me, a call for peace is enough.
The other complicating factor is the view of Svitolina and her fellow Ukrainians. I would understand if they agreed with Wimbledon’s decision, and if they feel differently about it from you and I. Olga Savchuk, Ukraine’s coach for the Billie Jean King Cup, says that Russians, including tennis players, share a “collective guilt.” Former pro Alexandr Dolgopolov says “Russians are accountable for the actions of their country, and the leaders they choose for 20 years.”
But while I won’t fault a Ukrainian for taking an anti-Russian position, I also don’t think that banning individual athletes is an effective deterrent, or a useful symbol of Western unity. It hits, and hurts, the wrong target.
Joel, you wondered what the ATP, WTA or PTPA might do now? What would you like to see happen next?
Dare I say it?
While that probably won’t happen, I hope the ATP, WTA and PTPA at least ponder, discuss and consider some form of action that goes beyond mere silent acceptance.
Wimbledon’s action puts it in direct conflict with the rights of individual players. As WTA CEO Steve Simon said last month, “The WTA feels strongly that individual athletes should not be penalized due to the decisions made by the leadership of their country.”
Let’s recall the original purpose of the ATP and WTA. In the early 1970s, soon after tennis went Open in 1968, tennis was growing at warp speed. New tours, new events, new sponsors and new leaders simultaneously created exciting new opportunities and vied for territory alongside longstanding organizations and events—sometimes in collaboration, sometimes in conflict. Amid such a swiftly changing landscape, someone who appeared to be a rebel one day was considered an establishment figure the next. Call it the stuff of political science dissertations.
Amid all this, the players asked: Where’s our voice in this? How do we make sure we don’t get drowned out and, as in the pre-Open amateur era, treated like dirt? When should we take major action? How? As mentioned, the ATP took its stand during Wimbledon in 1973. That was the same month the WTA was formed—and around that time, Billie Jean King threatened to boycott the US Open unless there was equal prize money. Though over time, these groups have become more a complicated mix of labor and management, their roots in addressing the needs of players run deep.
So in the wake of one of tennis’ superpowers taking action on its own, might there be a way for ATP, WTA and PTPA members to make a statement on behalf of their fellow players? Will they collectively petition Wimbledon and the British government to change the policy? In their post-match press conferences, should they agree to cite the names of the players who have been banned? Is there a shirt patch of support, waiting to be designed? Beyond just Wimbledon, might these recent events trigger a dialogue about the connection between tennis and national identity? I’ve long felt that if anything should transcend borders, it’s a sport played by individuals. This situation validates that belief.
But Steve, do you think this might indeed lead to a boycott? Or is there another path the ATP, WTA and PTPA might take?
You’re right that this situation bears a strong resemblance to the impasse that inspired the original Wimbledon boycott in 1973. Pilic’s suspension was also a case of conflicting responsibilities: to his tour and his fellow players on the one hand, and to his country’s Davis Cup team on the other. That he chose his tour, and his fellow players backed him to the hilt, was a turning point in the sport’s history. From then on, the pros played for themselves, and not for their national federations.
A Wimbledon boycott in 2022 would be a continuation of that legacy, and a defense of tennis’ global, individual ethos. It would also push back against similar bans of individual Russians that we’ve seen in other walks of life, especially the performing arts. That’s a statement of solidarity—with people’s right to be seen and treated as individuals—worth making.