Banning Russian players from Wimbledon is a new kind of racism

JANET STREET-PORTER: Putin’s war is abhorrent but banning Russian players from Wimbledon is simply a new kind of racism that serves only to protect tennis’s lucrative sponsorship deals – not the poor people of Ukraine

The organisers of the prestigious Wimbledon tennis tournament have banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing in their Grand Slam this June. 

The ruling, after months of deliberation, marks the first time since the ending of the Second World War that a major sporting event has banned a player because of their birthplace.

In 1946, Japanese and German players were not allowed to compete. Three quarters of a century later, surely there is room for a more nuanced approach? 

The Beijing Winter Olympics took place earlier this year despite China’s appalling human rights record towards Uighur Muslims – gold medals are seen by global leaders as an important way of promoting nationalism.

Although the UK and USA publicly condemned China and refused to send diplomats to attend the games, they allowed their national teams to compete. Which seems cynical, to say the least. 

Three of the women’s world top 20 will be banned – including Aryna Sabalenka (pictured)

President Putin is said to have delayed the invasion of Ukraine until the Russian team had completed their efforts in Beijing and brought home the gold medals.

As for the 2022 Football World Cup, there have been multiple accusations of human rights abuses in Qatar, with allegations of slavery and deaths amongst the immigrant work force building the stadiums. 

Russian stars who will miss out at Wimbledon 


Daniil Medvedev 

World ranking: 2 

Wimbledon 2021 result: Fourth round

Andrey Rublev

World ranking: 8

Wimbledon 2021 result: Fourth round


Aryna Sabalenka 

World ranking: 4

Wimbledon 2021 result: Semi-finals

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 

World ranking: 15

Wimbledon 2021 result: Third round

Victoria Azarenka 

World ranking: 18

Wimbledon 2021 result: Second round

And yet, every nation will put their differences aside to play football. The (Muslim) host country is even allowing alcohol to be served.

Sport is full of double standards.

The war in Ukraine is an abomination, with daily atrocities carried out at the behest of a dictator drunk with his own lust for power. 

No sane or right-minded person wants this war to continue one more minute. Justice must be done, and the instigators brought to justice.

But should individual sports professionals be discriminated against for the actions of despotic leaders? Must the world’s number two tennis player, Moscow-born Daniil Medvedev, be held responsible for what is happening in Ukraine?

Should he have to condemn his government’s actions in order to compete? Even if agreed, what would be the impact on his family?

According to nine times Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova, who made the desperate decision to flee her homeland of Czechoslovakia for the USA at the height of the Cold War and start a new life, the British Lawn Tennis Association decision is ‘wrong’ and highly damaging for the sport.

She reckons it could affect up to 10 per cent of the female competitors, penalised for their nationality – when most live in tax havens like Monte Carlo anyway. 

It will certainly bar Aryna Sabalenka, ranked fourth in the world, and two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka.

The current Wimbledon men’s champion, Serbian Novak Djokovic, has called the decision ‘crazy’. 

The six-times winner said ‘I will always condemn war, I will never support war, being myself a child of war….when politics interfere with sport, the result is not good’.

Russian duo Daniil Medvedev (left) and Andrey Rublev (right) are both unable to compete

I disagree with Djokovic on many things – his opposition to vaccines, his ludicrous theories about Covid – but in this particular instance, he is 100 per cent right.

He thinks that the decision means that players could have to decide whether to leave their country and any public statement they make could have a huge impact on their close relatives back home.

The tennis world had already decided to exclude teams from Russia and Belarus from competitions including the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian and Belarusians individuals have been allowed to compete in Grand Slam events, but their flags and national anthems have been banned – which seems a measured approach.

Predictably, the British establishment is cheering at the Wimbledon decision, with the Sports Minister welcoming this ‘decisive action’.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – who played in the 2021 French Open final – is also now banned

The Daily Telegraph suggests the ruling is partly because the Duchess of Cambridge is a keen player and Patron of the Club, and it would be unseemly for a Royal to sit and watch a Russian hoist up the trophy, especially in Centre Court’s centenary year (and the Queen’s Jubilee).

Is it not possible to play top tennis without placing every player under the microscope to discover if their politics chime with your own? Do these rigorous standards apply to competitors in motor racing, football, golf and badminton? 

At the end of the day, top players live out of their suitcases travelling the world and doing their job – which is providing the rest of us armchair critics with top entertainment.

Few tennis players have ever entered the world of politics.

In February, Russian Andrey Rublev (current ranking eighth), was in tears when he wrote on a camera lens ‘NO WAR PLEASE’ after qualifying for the ATP men’s final in Dubai.

Victoria Azarenka from Belarus will also be banned from playing at Wimbledon this year

For that brave gesture, we should salute him. But not all his countrymen and women will be able to follow suit, for a variety of reasons.

Announcing their astonishing decision, Wimbledon bosses issued a statement saying, ‘we recognise that this is hard on the individual concerned’, stressing the importance of not allowing the sport to be used to promote the Russian regime, adding they had concerns for ‘player and public safety’.

Australian player John Millman thought that the tournament would have done better to donate all their profit to aiding victims of the conflict.

Ironically, the Wimbledon organisers could be breaking their own rules because all Grand Slam events specify that players earn their right to compete based on their ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) rankings alone. 

The ATP issued a statement saying the British decision had the potential to set a damaging precedent.

Russian and Belarusian tennis players will be banned from competing at Wimbledon this year

The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) said that individual players ‘should not be penalised or prevented from competing due to where they are from or (because of) the decisions made by the governments of their countries’.

As a result, top tennis is in a mess as event organisers rightly want to protest about the invasion of Ukraine whilst still appeasing lucrative sponsors. Because of the Wimbledon ban, the tournament will not be shown on Russian television.

Currently, the French Open – held directly after Wimbledon- remains open to Russian and Belarusians players. The US Open – held at the end of August – has not been decided.

Reilly Opelka (ranked 17) offered a chilling observation – ‘I feel everything is heading towards a lawsuit’.

Harsh, but probably true.

Why should a tennis player (or a ballet dancer, musician, or artist) be punished for the actions of a crazed leader?

This is a new kind of racism.

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