Wimbledon has been warned it could face legal action from the Belarusian Tennis Federation after it was accused of acting illegally by banning Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s championships.
The All England Club’s decision, which was prompted by the invasion of Ukraine and fears of the optics of the Duchess of Cambridge having to present a trophy to a player from Russia or belaruswas condemned by the Russian world No 8, Andrey Rublev, who called it “complete discrimination”.
“The reasons they gave us had no sense, they were not logical,” said Rublev, who in February signed a camera lens with a “no war please” message at the Dubai Tennis Championship.
Rublev urged Wimbledon to consider giving Russian and Belarus players a statement to sign “to give all the prize money to humanitarian help – to the families who are suffering” and in exchange for being allowed to play, before indicating many players would agree. “I just want to show we are good people,” he said.
But Wimbledon is likely to be more concerned with the threat from the BTF, which said it was consulting international law firms to “protect” its stars, including the two-time grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka and the world No. 4, Aryna Sabalenka.
“Such destructive actions in no way contribute to the resolution of conflicts, but only incite hatred and intolerance on a national basis,” it said, referring to the decision of Wimbledon and the LTA to ban Russian players from all British grass court tournaments.
“Throughout the history of tennis, armed conflicts have occurred in the world – in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yugoslavia and other countries – but never until now have tournament organizers suspended athletes from the United States, Great Britain and other countries.
“Illegal decisions of international tennis organizations in relation to our athletes undermine the reputation of these organisations.”
It is understood Wimbledon took legal advice before making its decision, which will significantly alter the makeup of the tournament given 17 of the Top 100 in the men’s and women’s rankings, including the world No 2, Daniil Medvedev, are from Russia or Belarus.
However, the BTF said it was still exploring ways to challenge it. “At the moment, consultations of the BTF leadership with international law firms on sports law are ongoing and a strategy is being developed that is aimed at protecting, first of all, Belarusian tennis players around the world, and tennis in the Republic of Belarus as a whole,” it said.
Wimbledon’s decision has been criticized by the ATP and WTA, which run the men’s and women’s tours, as well as Martina Navratilova and Novak Djokovic.
Navratilova, who won Wimbledon a record nine times between 1978 and 1990, called the move wrong, saying: “Exclusion like this, through no fault of these players, is not the way to go. Tennis is such a democratic sport it is difficult when you see politics destroy it.”
Djokovic said that while he understood the emotional trauma of war given Serbia’s history, he was also against the decision. “It is crazy. When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good.” But the move was welcomed by the former Ukrainian player Alex Dolgopolov, who said it would make those in Russia understand its leaders were acting illegally.
“Wimbledon isn’t going to stop the war, it’s just an extra sign of the world condemning Putin,” he told the Independent. “The more of these signals, if it’s tennis or if it’s Fifa blocking them from football, it shows people that Russia is doing something wrong.”
Three Ukrainian players – Elina Svitolina, Marta Kostyuk and Sergiy Stakhovsky – have called on their counterparts from Russia and Belarus to denounce their government if they want to compete at international level.
They also urged the WTA, ATP and ITF to ask such players questions about whether they supported the invasion of Ukraine and the regimes of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and to ban them unless they came out against the invasion.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal, and that time is now,” they said.