Wimbledon organisers have sparked a storm across the tennis world, after banning all Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s championships.
The decision of the tournament’s All England Club organisers has been condemned swiftly by the men’s and women’s tours, as well as by American great Martina Navratilova, men’s world No.1 Novak Djokovic and Australia’s John Millman.
“I will always be the first one to condemn the war,” Djokovic said in Belgrade after a win at the Serbian Open.
“As a child of war, I know what kind of emotional trauma a war leaves. Us in Serbia, we know what was happening here in 1999.
“Ordinary people always suffer – we’ve had lots of wars in the Balkans. That being said, I cannot support the Wimbledon decision. It is crazy. It’s not the athletes’ fault. When politics interfere with sport, it usually doesn’t turn out well.”
It is the first time players have been banned on the grounds of nationality since the immediate post-World War II era, when German and Japanese players were excluded.
The world’s most celebrated tournament is the first tennis event to ban individual competitors from the two countries. The decision means world No.2 Daniil Medvedev, from Russia, and women’s fourth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, of Belarus, will be unable to play at the June 27-July 10 tournament.
Navratilova, who won Wimbledon a record nine times between 1978-1990, said it was “the wrong decision”.
“Exclusion like this, through no fault of these players, is not the way to go,” she told LBC Radio.
“Tennis is such a democratic sport it is difficult when you see politics destroy it. On the women’s side practically 10 per cent of the field is not allowed to play,” added the Czech-born American, whose wife is Russian.
“This decision was made in a vacuum by the All England Club. I understand their predicament but I just don’t think they’re seeing the big picture in a more global way. But I am devastated by the decision, quite frankly.”
Millman said financial help for Ukraine would have been more useful than a ban.
“I feel like Ukraine would be better served if Wimbledon donated their entire profit in support aid instead of banning Russian and Belarusian players,” he said.
“I’m in total support of Ukraine and its people. I just feel like Wimbledon is doing this more for their own gain, for good optics rather than to actually help.”
The AELTC’s decision came after Ukrainian players Elina Svitolina and Marta Kostyuk issued statements calling for a blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes from international events.
They were joined by countryman Sergiy Stakhovsky, who enlisted in Ukraine’s reserve army prior to Russia’s invasion. All urged Russian and Belarusian players to make clear their stance on the war.
On Wednesday (British time), the AELTC said it had to play its part in the efforts of government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.”
“We recognise that this is hard on the individuals affected, and it is with sadness that they will suffer for the actions of the leaders of the Russian regime,” AELTC chairman Ian Hewitt said in the statement.
The players have also been banned from British grass-court tournaments in the build-up to Wimbledon.
The ATP, which governs men’s tennis, said the “unilateral decision” by Wimbledon to exclude players from Russia and Belarus was “unfair” and could potentially set a damaging precedent for the game.
“Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP Rankings,” the men’s governing body said.
“Any course of action in response to this decision will now be assessed in consultation with our board and member councils.”
The Women’s Tennis Association said it was “very disappointed” with the decision and was “evaluating its next steps and what actions may be taken regarding these decisions”.
“Individual athletes should not be penalised or prevented from competing due to where they are from, or the decisions made by the governments of their countries,” it said.
“Discrimination, and the decision to focus such discrimination against athletes competing on their own as individuals, is neither fair nor justified.”
Both tennis governing bodies had banned Russia and Belarus from international team competitions following the invasion. Players from the two countries have been allowed to continue competing on their respective tours as neutrals.
Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev told the country’s Sport Express newspaper that there was nothing it could do.
“I think this decision is wrong but there is nothing we can change,” Mr Tarpischev said.
“The [Russian] Tennis Federation has already done everything it could.”
The Kremlin has called the ban “unacceptable”, and said it would hurt Wimbledon itself.
“Given that Russia is a strong tennis country, the competitions will suffer from this,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
“To make sports people hostages of political intrigue is unacceptable. I hope the players won’t lose their fitness.”