Last month, the Lawn Tennis Association confirmed that players from both Russia and Belarus would be able to compete at Wimbledon this year under a neutral banner. The decision represented a U-turn on the stance taken by organisers in 2022, with the tournament at SW19 the only Grand Slam event to ban competitors from both countries.
As a result, authorities stripped the grass court event of ranking points, and threatened further action if the ban remained in place this year. But world No 1 Iga Swiatek believes an opportunity has been missed for tennis to strongly affirm its opposition to the war.
“After World War Two, German players were not allowed as well as Japanese and Italian [players], and I feel like this kind of thing would show the Russian government that maybe it’s not worth it,” she told the BBC. “We are just athletes, a little piece in the world, but sport is pretty important and sport has always been used for propaganda.
“Tennis, from the beginning, could do a bit better in showing everybody that tennis players are against the war. Tennis didn’t really go that way, but now it would be pretty unfair for Russian and Belarusian players to do that because this decision was supposed to be made a year ago.”
Players from both countries will have to adhere to strict conditions in order to participate, but the decision has still been slammed by Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, who argued the decision was “immoral” given the war was still ongoing: “Has Russia ceased its aggression or atrocities?” he said. “No, it’s just that Wimbledon decided to accommodate two accomplices in crime. I call on the UK Government to deny visas to their players.”
Last year, Wimbledon bosses were left with an awkward situation when Elena Rybakina triumphed in the women’s singles. Despite technically representing Kazakhstan, the 23-year-old was born in Russia and remains based in the country, previously switching her allegiance citing indifference with national tennis authorities.
And Swiatek, who has two French Open titles and an US Open to her name, did emphasise that the players themselves could not be blamed: “It’s not their fault they have a passport like that, their situation is pretty complicated,” she added.
“And it’s hard for them to speak out loud about it. On the other hand, we all have some kind of impact and anything that would help stop the Russian aggression, we should go that way in terms of the decisions the federations are making.”