Tennis Channel Live: When Wimbledon barred Russians and Belarusians from competing

Russia has not achieved much success lately on the battlefields in Ukraine, but it just secured a significant public relations victory with Wimbledon’s announcement that the storied tournament will allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete again in this year’s Championships. Those players were banned last year due to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to start and pursue his unprovoked war in Ukraine.

Sugar coat this any way you wish, but this decision helps perpetuate an insupportable illusion of normalcy in world affairs at a time when Putin has declared the conflict an existential war between his nation and the collective West, and has doubled-down on threats of nuclear war. The Kremlin may also reap great fodder to feed the domestic audience from Russian success at Wimbledon.

Why offer that quarter, you may wonder? Wimbledon certainly did.

“We continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine”' All England Club chairman Ian Hewitt said in a statement announcing the club’s reversal. “'This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted.”


So Wimbledon acquiesces, but there might yet be some positive outcomes from the decision. Wimbledon seems intent on putting more, sharper teeth into the relatively puny sanctions placed thus far on Russian and Belarusian athletes by the ATP and WTA (no tiny Russian flags beside their names or on scoreboards, etc.). Wimbledon competitors will have to make “personal player declarations” that disavow support for the war and compete as neutrals in compliance with stipulations that, among other things, will prohibit “expressions of support” for the invasion.

“My first reaction was one of disappointment,” Cliff Drysdale, a founding member and first president of the ATP told me on Friday in a telephone interview. “I thought, ‘We still have this atrocity going on, and who’s paying the price?’ But you [meaning Wimbledon] can’t be the only one out there. If the other majors had gone along with the ban it might have been a different story. But Wimbledon was left hung out to dry.”

Make no mistake, Wimbledon did not choose to fall on its own sword. It was shoved onto it in a shrewd political move by the ATP and the WTA when their reaction to last year’s ban was a punitive denial of tournament rankings points. Wimbledon’s statement makes that crystal clear: “There was a strong and very disappointing reaction from some governing bodies in tennis to the position taken by the All England Club and the LTA last year.”


No Russian or Belarusian players were allowed to compete at Wimbledon last year, a decision that led the ATP and WTA to strip the esteemed tournament of its ranking points.

No Russian or Belarusian players were allowed to compete at Wimbledon last year, a decision that led the ATP and WTA to strip the esteemed tournament of its ranking points.

The pre-emptive strike by the players’ associations damaged the credibility of post-Wimbledon rankings, which will remain somewhat skewed until the 52-week rankings cycle includes this year’s Championships. More importantly, the player organizations let it be known that if Wimbledon maintained the ban this year, British ATP and WTA tournaments could have their licenses to operate tour events yanked and sold to . . . whomever.

One of the more interesting conditions Wimbledon said it would impose on the players in question is a prohibition of entry to players “receiving funding from and/or Belarusian states (including sponsorship from companies operated or controlled by the states) in relation to their participation in The Championships.” It’s hard to puzzle out exactly what that means, beyond the fact that we won’t be seeing patches of Belarusian sponsors on the players’ clothing.

Unlike some other international athletic agencies, the ATP and WTA, along with the other three Grand Slam tournaments, are looking the other way while Russia continues to bomb Ukraine back into the stone age (and despite the fact that the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of Putin for war crimes). While there is no silver lining to Wimbledon’s decision, the revised policy might yield some unexpected, counter-intuitive outcomes. Wimbledon has prepped the ground for them by declaring that the club’s protocols for participation were “adopted through constructive dialogue with the UK Government, the LTA and international stakeholder bodies in tennis, and are aligned with the Government’s published guidance to sporting bodies in the UK.”


My first reaction was one of disappointment. I thought, ‘We still have this atrocity going on, and who’s paying the price?’ But you [meaning Wimbledon] can’t be the only one out there. Cliff Drysdale

The text of the “personal player declarations” has not been revealed, but they will be welcome if they go beyond anodyne platitudes about “world peace” to explicitly repudiate the Russian invasion, and perhaps even express recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty. That would provide a valuable truth bomb to supporters of Ukraine.

The sanctioned players were invisible last year, and thus the controversy surrounding the ban tended to focus more on the impact of their absence and the attendant rankings issue. This year, their presence will certainly fire passions and generate a significant public outcry. Things could become very uncomfortable for the affected players, as the British have a robust reputation for public demonstrations, when something matters enough to them.

The ATP and WTA may yet suffer some repercussions from bending Wimbledon to their will, especially if Russian failures continue the accelerating deterioration of relations with the West. Russian and Belarusian players are in a tough situation, but spare your tears. It could be worse. They could be Ukrainian. One day the ATP and WTA may even realize and act on that.