After weeks of speculation and conjecture, Wimbledon and the Lawn Tennis Association have confirmed they will allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete in their grass court tournaments in England this summer.
BACKGROUND TO THIS STORY
Last April, the All England Club were joined by the LTA in taking a stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last summer, banning Russian and Belarusian players from competing in UK grass court events.
While the decision was greeted with widespread support in the UK media and among large sections of the public, tennis chiefs at the ATP and WTA strongly opposed the move that ensured high-profile players such as Daniil Medvedev, Aryna Sabalenka and Andrey Rublev were blocked from competing.
The ATP and WTA handed down reported fines of $1million to the LTA as punishment for their decision, as they backed their Russian and Belarusian players.
That stance from tennis chiefs has forced Wimbledon and the LTA to change their position, with Russian and Belarusian players allowed to compete in English events this summer if they sign neutrality declarations and refrain from any reference to their nationalities when competing in England in June and July.
BREAKING: Wimbledon to accept entries from Russian and Belarusian players, subject to them competing as "neutral" athletes https://t.co/g76kc62UWG
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WHY THE CHANGE IN STANCE?
This decision appears to have been made reluctantly, with the ATP and WTA both threatening to ban the LTA from the right to stage tournaments in England if they imposed another ban on players this year. That would have meant the cancellation of marquee events like the cinch Championships at the Queen’s Club in London.
“We have consistently opposed these sanctions and remain deeply disappointed by the penalties imposed on us,” read an LTA statement.
“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.
“Given this, and our responsibility as the national governing body of tennis in Britain, we have worked closely with the UK Government, ATP, WTA and ITF, alongside the All England Club, to find a solution for 2023. We would like to thank all parties for their constructive approach to these discussions.
“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.
“Never the less we are aware that Russian and Belarusian players have played on the tours as neutrals for the past year.
“Taking these considerations together, we have agreed that all Russian and Belarusian players and support staff who wish to take part in our events in 2023 will be required to sign neutrality declarations. This is in line with the UK Government’s guidance and is an approach that has been used in other sports.”
Australian Open winner Sabalenka, who hails from Minsk in Belarus, has suggested in recent days that there has been ‘hatred’ shown toward her in the dressing rooms at tournaments amid suggestions that Ukrainian players are not being shown enough support by WTA chiefs.
Yet Belarusian star Victoria Azarenka shares a different perspective on the effect that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had on the WTA locker room.
“Personally, I have not seen that tension,” the Belarusian said. “Obviously, there are certain players that have different feelings and behaviours.
“Obviously, as a member of the Player Council, I am happy to provide all the facts. I think that would be a more appropriate way to have that conversation.”
With the entry deadline fast approaching for players to enter grass court events in England this summer, Wimbledon and the LTA needed to make their position clear.
As was the case a year ago, the decision announced on Friday is certain to divide opinions.
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