Novak Djokovic leads backlash at Wimbledon ban on Russian players over Ukraine invasion

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Ukrainian tennis star Elina Svitolina says Russian and Belarusian players should only be allowed to compete at Wimbledon if they are prepared to denounce Vladimir Putin and the war in her country.

Wimbledon yesterday issued a blanket ban on players from both countries playing in this summer’s Championships, sparking a furious backlash from across the sport, led by Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova.

The All England Club’s (AELTC) decision was backed by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), meaning the likes of world No2 Daniil Medvedev and world No4 Aryna Sabalenka will be unable to compete on grass in the UK this summer.

The governing bodies of men’s and women’s professional tennis denounced the move as “unfair”.

World No25 Svitolina says Russian and Belarusian players should only be allowed to compete if they are prepared to condemn their governments in the strongest terms.

“We don’t want to ban them completely,” said Svitolina, who is taking a break from playing due to a back problem and the emotional impact of the war. “We want them to speak up. To say their choice: if they are with the rest of the world or the Russian government. This is, for me, the main point. If they didn’t vote for this Government, it’s fair they should be allowed to compete.”

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

The British Government has previously indicated that Russian and Belarusian players would need to denounce Putin’s regime in order to compete but the AELTC decided the request was unreasonable given the potential threat of reprisals against their families, and instead decided to ban them outright.

Russian world No.15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has called for the war to stop, while Andrey Rublev, the men’s world No8, daubed ‘No War’ on a television camera lens after winning a match in Dubai last month.

“This is a light statement,” added Svitolina in an interview with BBC Radio 5-Live. “How do we understand ‘No War’? What does it mean - that our Ukrainian soldiers should give up and give away our land? You can think about this in different ways.”

World No1 Djokovic described the move as “crazy”, while Navratilova, the game’s most successful ever player, said it was “unfair to the whole world” and had left her close to tears.

The men’s body, the ATP, warned it could “set a damaging precedent for the game”, while the women’s body, the WTA, said it was “very disappointed”.

The pair are both considering their responses, amid speculation they could pursue legal action against the AELTC or LTA.

Andrey Olkhovsky, the Russian former doubles Grand Slam champion, has already urged banned players to consider a “class action lawsuit”.

Since the start of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is supported by Belarus, players from both countries have been allowed to compete on the men’s and women’s tours as neutrals, barred from displaying their national flags or playing their country’s anthems.

Russian and Belarusian players are set to be allowed to play at next month’s French Open.

Explaining its decision, the AELTC said it had a responsibility to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible”, adding that the move could be overturned if “circumstances change materially between now and June”.

Medvedev, the US Open champion, would be among the favourites to win Wimbledon, which runs from June 27 to July 10, and the prospect of a Russian player being presented with the trophy by a member of the Royal Family on Centre Court would be a public relations disaster, and is believed to have influenced AELTC’s thinking.

The UK government backed the AELTC, with sports minister Nigel Huddleston welcoming the “decisive action” and culture secretary Nadine Dorries calling it “the right move”.

The decision provoked a furious reaction in Moscow, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying: “It is unacceptable to make the athletes once again hostages of certain political prejudice, intrigues and hostile actions towards our country.”

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