When the Russian military invaded Ukraine, the world paused. No one knew what exactly this war would mean for the future, but now, over two months since February 24, 2022, the effects of the war are turning heads. For Ukrainians, the war means massive destruction to their homeland and an unrelenting fight for freedom. For Russia, the war has produced bans, sanctions, and an international reputation that is having devastating effects on its citizens, specifically its athletes.
On Wednesday, April 20th, Wimbledon announced its plan to ban Russian and Belarusian tennis players from the tournament in 2022 in protest of the war. Wimbledon has a history of acting alone. It is the only Grand Slam with an all-white dress code and the only one that is played on grass. However, with this sudden decision, Wimbledon has once again chosen to separate itself from the other majors.
Following the announcement of the ban, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have made it abundantly clear that Wimbledon is not only acting alone but working in direct contradiction to the stance of tennis as a whole. The current policy remains that Russian and Belarusian athletes may compete, but as neutral players, under no flag. WTA CEO Steve Simon said that “The WTA feels strongly that individual athletes should not be penalized due to decisions made by the leadership of their country.” Rafael Nadal, a 21-time Grand Slam title winner, and Novak Djokovic, with 20, recently spoke out in opposition to Wimbledon's decision. Nadal said that he is “sorry for [the Russian players]” and that “it’s not their fault what’s happening at this moment in the war.” Similarly, Djokovic said that he will “stand by [his] decision that [he] doesn’t support the decision” and believes it is “just not fair.”
Now, the backlash and distaste for Wimbledon's decision may have just hit a breaking point. The ATP has just threatened to strip Wimbledon and other UK grass-court tournaments of their official rankings points. This would make Wimbledon nothing more than an exhibition tournament. Even though the slam is independent of the rest of the tour, ATP gets to create the ranking system. This would be devastating for Wimbledon. There is no word now whether they plan to stick by their decision, but many athletes are positioned to lose a lot should Wimbledon hold firm. Daniil Medvedev, the reigning US Open Champion, who just achieved World No.1 (and has since dropped to No.2 after not being able to compete), has the most to lose. Other noteworthy players include World No. 7 Andrey Rublev, and WTA’s current No.4 ranked player Victoria Azarenka, from Belarus. Azarenka has been a US resident since she was a teenager but competes under the Belarusian flag.
What started out as questions about the future of Russian and Belarusian athletes in tennis has turned into questions about the future of the sport. The answer is unclear, but the question still remains: should athletes be punished for the decisions of their country?