Why are Russian and Belarusian players allowed back at Wimbledon?

Top players such as Aryna Sabalenka and Daniil Medvedev are back after the All England Club lifted its controversial ban

Jamie Braidwood
Friday 14 July 2023 06:08 BST
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World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka is back at Wimbledon ahead of the 2023 Championships
World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka is back at Wimbledon ahead of the 2023 Championships (Getty Images)

Russian and Belarusian players will return to Wimbledon as neutrals this year after the All England Club lifted its ban on players from both countries competing in the Championships.

Wimbledon was the only one of the four grand slam tournaments to ban players from Russia and Belarus following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but was criticised by the men’s and women’s professional tours for doing so.

In response, Wimbledon was stripped of its ranking points and the Lawn Tennis Association was hit by a fine after the ban on Russian and Belarusian players was extended to the summer’s other grass-court events in Britain.

But in March this year, the All England Club announced it had reversed its decision ahead of this year’s Wimbledon to allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete, as long as they agreed to several strict conditions.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Why were Russian and Belarusian players banned last year?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, in which Vladimir Putin’s forces used Belarus as a key staging ground in its military operation, led to several sporting bodies banning teams from both countries from official competitions - including the Fifa men’s World Cup.

Tennis, however, allowed Russian and Belarusian players to continue to compete as neutral athletes on both the men’s and women’s professional tours.

Wimbledon was the only grand slam to ban players from both countries, a decision they announced in April 2022 following advice from the UK Government. In a statement, Wimbledon said the decision was made in order to "limit Russia’s global influence" and avoid a situation which could "benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime".

The decision, which was the first time Wimbledon had banned players because of their nationality since German and Japanese players were not allowed to compete following World War II, saw top players such as Russia’s Daniil Medvedev and Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka excluded from the Championships.

What was the response?

The professional tours hit back at Wimbledon’s decision, with the men’s ATP calling the ban on Russian and Belarusian players “unfair”. Wimbledon was also accused of setting a “dangerous precedent” by excluding players based on their nationality and the ATP and WTA responded by stripping the Championships of its ranking points.

The ATP and WTA also fined the LTA following its blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian players in the summer’s grass-court events. The ATP and WTA penalised the LTA $1m (£786,534) each, while British tennis’ governing body was threatened with expulsion from the tour if it repeated the ban on Russian and Belarusian players in 2023.

The LTA accused the ATP of a “lack of empathy” after receiving the fine.

Why are Russian and Belarusian players allowed back?

With the war in Ukraine now approaching its 500th day since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Russian and Belarusian players will return to Wimbledon after the All England Club fell back in line with the other three grand slams and the men’s and women’s professional tours.

In March, Wimbledon lifted the ban on players from both countries in what chair Ian Hewitt described as an “incredibly difficult decision”.

Wimbledon’s statement added: “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 with consequences which, if continued, would be damaging to the interests of players, fans, the Championships and British tennis.”

In announcing its decision, Wimbledon set out a series of conditions that Russian and Belarusian players will be required to meet in order to compete at the Championships.

In response, the ATP reduced its $1m fine by half, with the WTA also seeing its fine reduced to $500,000 following an appeal from the LTA.

The All England Club also announced a support package for Ukrainian players, with Wimbledon covering all of the accommodation costs for Ukrainian players and their teams during the Championships and the rest of the British grass-court season.

One pound will also be donated to Ukraine relief efforts for every ticket sold, which is expected to amount to around £500,000.

World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka is back at Wimbledon ahead of the 2023 Championships (Getty Images)

What conditions do Russian and Belarusian players have to meet?

Players from Russia and Belarus have been asked to sign declarations of neutrality and told they must not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This includes a ban on any messages of support for Russian president Vladimir Putin or Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Players must show they are not receiving any funding or sponsorship from the Russian and Belarusian states, or sanctioned companies, while any items, symbols or emblems that appear to support the war or Russia and Belarus are also prohibited.

This includes football shirts, following an incident at Indian Wells earlier this season where the Russian player Anastasia Potapova sparked outrage after wearing a Spartak Moscow football shirt ahead of her third-round match with Jessica Pegula.

What controversies have there been at other tournaments?

The incident at Indian Wells is far from the only moment of controversy over the past year.

Ukrainian players have been highly critical of the lack of condemnation of the war from Russian and Belarusians on tour - and they refuse to shake hands with opponents from both countries at the end of matches.

Players from Ukraine, such as Elina Svitolina and Marta Kostyuk, believe their Russian and Belarusian counterparts should have been banned from all competitions following the invasion of their country.

At last month’s French Open, both Kostyuk and Svitolina were booed by the Roland Garros crowd for not shaking the hand of Aryna Sabalenka - the top-ranked Belarusian player and world No 2.

Sabalenka also skipped two press conferences citing mental health concerns after being asked a series of questions about the war and her previous support for the Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko. Sabalenka then said she did “not support the war” and “therefore did not support Lukashenko right now".

Other leading Russian players, such as the men’s world No 3 Daniil Medvedev, are also set to be questioned upon their return to the All England Club. Medvedev has previously stated he hopes "for peace all over the world” but is yet to condemn the war or say he does not support Vladimir Putin and his actions.

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