As Roland Garros gets underway, tennis’ most prestigious grand slam has been thrown into chaos.
Reacting to the All England Club’s prior decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the event, the WTA and ATP have issued separate but consistent statements stripping ranking points from all events at this year’s Wimbledon Championships; which, in essence, sadly turns Wimbledon into a mere exhibition event. Albeit a prestigious and lucrative one at that.
The move is particularly surprising from the ATP given their inaction on China over concerns for Peng Shuai’s safety and the governing bodies' long-standing preference for inaction over action – good or bad.
Both statements (which are linked at the bottom of this article) reveal their decisions were founded on principles of fairness, equal opportunity, anti-discrimination, and a need to protect rankings integrity while also unequivocally condemning the Russian invasion.
Despite this drastic and unprecedented move, the All England Club remains steadfast in its decision and, at least for now, will not backflip in allowing Belarusian or Russian competitions at this year’s event.
“We appreciate that opinions differ in relation to our decision to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to The Championships this year, and we deeply regret the impact of this decision on the individuals affected”, The All England Club said.
“However, given the position taken by the UK Government to limit Russia's global influence, which removed automatic entry by ranking, and the widespread response of Government, industry, sport, and creative institutions, we remain of the view that we have made the only viable decision for Wimbledon as a globally renowned sporting event and British institution, and we stand by the decision we have made.”
Fortunately, other grass court lead-in events have not suffered the same fate as concurrent events provide the banned cohort playing opportunity – which is allegedly not the case during the Wimbledon fortnight – despite four ATP Challenger and two WTA 125 events being held elsewhere during the Championships.
The First Serve writers Val Febbo and Roddy Reynolds explore the decision below providing arguments in support and against the move by the ATP and WTA.
For the move
The anticipation for the grass-court swing in June is always at a high level, but the decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes is abhorrent and has marred what should be a wonderful occasion.
The LTA and AELTC have gone against their own by-laws by making this drastic call, one of discrimination and in this case a lack of empathy for players.
“Value diversity, and not unlawfully discriminate against anyone, or treat anyone less favourably or unfavourably, by reason of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage, civil partnership, pregnancy, maternity, race (including colour, nationality, or ethnic or national origins), religion, belief (including religious, philosophical or lack of
belief), sex or sexual orientation.” The laws state.
Players such as Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka are being persecuted for the nation that they were born in, whether you like it or not.
The ruling means that many possible contenders for the title will be forced to sit out of The Championships, causing the event to be a little more open than normal.
Why should the players be punished for the ruthlessness of their politicians?
Why should their rankings suffer when those around them can benefit from their absence?
The only fair thing to do in this situation is to strip the event of all its points, because it means that everyone is on a level playing field, and that the tournament does not give anybody a significant advantage.
Some would argue that the AELTC and LTA’s move is one of necessity and solidarity for the plight of Ukrainians, but sport and politics just do not mix, and these players are being used as pawns in an international game of chess.
What outcome are organisers really hoping for here?
Do they want Vladimir Putin to come out and say he’s sorry and change his outlook on the war so some people can go hit a ball in England?
It’s just not going to happen.
The ATP and WTA have not handled global issues on the same wavelength throughout the pandemic and the Peng Shuai situation, but to see a consistent outlook by the organisations is welcoming.
The only hope is that the new ruling that all players that will lose their ranking points from 2021 will emerge united and plead with the Wimbledon organisers to overrule their decision and allow Russian and Belarusian players to compete.
Many players have spoken against the move, including Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and rightly so, because it is simply ludicrous.
The Russian and Belarusian players have broken no laws and they have not raised arms in this war, their treatment is unwarranted and quite frankly disgraceful.
It is only fair that if they should miss their opportunity to push for glory and to strengthen their position in the rankings then everyone else should too.
What we all can agree on is that this war is having a devastating impact on the world, and that the global community must come together to figure out a way to end it.
However, banning some tennis players from a Grand Slam is not the way to do it, and the way that the ATP and WTA have formed a unified front has proved divisive, yet effective.
Against the move
Whichever way you look at it, it is sad to see that it has come to this.
Without question, Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players was a drastic move and has left many tennis fans betwixt and between. It may not have been strictly necessary, however, once decided it was a necessary evil in the pursuit of international peace and security, it ought not to be undermined.
Of course, the decision was not strictly "fair" to the banned competitors and it even violated the All England Club’s own by-laws. However, like most laws, these were written for times of peace, not war, and can be changed as quickly as an actual law or regulation.
Like the global economic sanctions imposed on Russia, its communities, and those with Russian ties, the purpose of the ban was to assist the global anti-war effort and to isolate Russia from the world.
Such moves serve to disturb the Russian pro-war community and encourage Russian citizens to question the validity of the invasion into Ukraine and its military aggression. For many Russians subject to exclusively state-run media, actions such as this are the only visible example of the world’s outrage at the Kremlin.
The All England Club did consider whether players could sign a declaration asserting their anti-war sentiment. However, such a public denouncement of the Kremlin’s behaviour was considered too dangerous for all involved.
Yet, while many in the tennis community appeared outraged when players like Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka were banned from Wimbledon, not a peep was uttered when government sanctions were imposed globally.
Sure, none of the above have encouraged or supported the war, nor have they invaded Ukraine themselves. Yet, if a McDonald’s worker in Moscow has to lose their job due to economic sanctions enforced to pressure Russia into retreating, it is not manifestly unfair to isolate professional athletes in a similar manner. Indeed, the loss of income from such a worker is likely of proportionately greater significance than that experienced by professional athletes.
That is not to suggest that Russian and Belarusian players should not be entitled to play at all. Rather, this is an imperfect response to a ghastly situation. You’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.
After all, principles of fairness went out the window when Russia commenced its invasion.
Of particular concern to the All England Club is the fear of sports washing. In this respect, Wimbledon has far greater considerations than the average tennis tournament for each singles champion is awarded their trophy by a member of the Royal Family. Joe Biden does not award the winner of the US Open their trophy, nor does Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
The potential for the Kremlin to use the imagery of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, presenting a trophy to someone such as Medvedev was too much for the All England Club to bear. While the Royal Family is strictly apolitical, the same cannot be said for Putin.
To illustrate, a mere two months ago, Vladimir Putin held a “pro-war” rally at Luzhniki Stadium, the home of Russia’s 1980 Olympic Games. In attendance were Russian athletes who had won medals at the Tokyo Olympics. The argument that sport and politics do not mix is fiction. They are, in the modern world, inseparably intertwined. Just look at the outrage directed towards the new rebel LIV golf league pushed by Greg Norman and backed by the Saudi Royal Family.
It can also be argued that unilateral decisions such as this create ambiguity and uncertainty in setting a dangerous precedent – as was suggested by the ATP. There is certainly some merit in this. However, parameters could be created and it is unarguable to suggest that full-scale military aggression is insufficient to warrant any action from sports bodies or events.
As to any idea of rankings integrity being lost, there were alternatives for the ATP or WTA to consider. For instance, banned athletes could have had their 2021 Wimbledon points frozen as was done throughout the pandemic. Here, none of the banned players would lose ground to their competitors – only opportunity.