Tennis officials have banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing at Wimbledon this year, citing the “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression” in Ukraine.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and the Committee of Management of The Championships announced Wednesday that they made the decision based on government guidance regarding sporting events and after considering their duties to the players, their community and the broader U.K. public.
“Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” they wrote.
Wimbledon, one of four tennis Grand Slam tournaments, is set to take place in London from June 27 to July 10. Organizers said in their statement that “if circumstances change materially” before then, they will consider and respond accordingly.
The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) — the governing body of tennis in Great Britain — also announced on Wednesday that it is joining the AELTC in banning Russian and Belarusian players at its events, so that British tennis can deliver “a consistent approach across all events over the course of the summer.
The ban makes Wimbledon one of the first tennis events to suspend players from the two countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and excludes several highly ranked players from competition.
Those include men’s world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev of Russia and women’s world No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. There are four Russian men in the top 30 — including two in the top 10 — and two Belarusian women in the top 20, the Guardian notes.
Russia and Belarus have faced some consequences in the tennis world
Athletes from Russia and Belarus have been allowed to remain on the ATP and WTA tours (just not playing under their countries’ name or flag) and sign up to compete at the French Open, which begins on May 22.
They have been shunned by the tennis world in some other ways, however.
Russia was banned from defending its titles at two team events: the Davis Cup and last week’s Billie Jean King Cup (at which the U.S. narrowly beat Ukraine in the qualifying round after a tie.) The WTA and ATP have suspended a combined event set to take place in Moscow this fall, and the International Tennis Federation also canceled its events in Russia.
Supporters of the ban say it would send a strong message
The AELTC had been consulting with the U.K. government about whether to let Russia and Belarusian athletes compete in Wimbledon, which is the world’s oldest tennis tournament and widely considered the most prestigious.
U.K. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said last month that “nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled” to play in it.
“But I think it needs to go beyond that, I think we need to have some assurance that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to get assurances along those lines,” he added. “In short, would I be comfortable with a Russian athlete flying the flag of Russia? No.”
Several former and current Ukrainian players have also called for such a ban. Olga Savchuk, the captain of Ukraine’s Billie Jean King Cup team, told The New York Times that “it cannot just be a sanction against 90 percent of the Russian people and 10 percent not.”
“It has to be even and I think it is collective guilt,” she added.
Some critics say athletes shouldn’t have to pay for their governments’ actions
However, not everyone is convinced. Steve Simon, head of the WTA, told the BBC last month that he believed players should not be penalized because of the “decisions of the authoritarian leadership.”
He added that the WTA had never before banned athletes from participating on its tour as a result of their country’s political positions, and that it would take something very significant for that to change.
“I’m hoping that we continue with the sanctions, we continue doing everything we can to get peace, but again these people are the innocent victims of that, and being isolated as a result of these decisions I don’t think it’s fair.”
The LTA acknowledged in its Wednesday announcement that individual athletes may not support the actions of their governments, but said it believes it is important to do everything possible to bolster Ukraine and that the ban has the support of the British public.
“After careful consideration the LTA believes that tennis must join many other areas of sport and public life in sending a clear signal to the Russian and Belarusian states that their actions in Ukraine are the subject of international condemnation,” officials wrote.
They added: “The continuing participation of Russian and Belarusian nationals at events risks providing a boost to these regimes when there is an unprecedented international effort to isolate them and sanction their actions.”
Some Russian athletes have spoken out against the war
Several Russian players have notably protested the war on the world stage.
A day after Russia first invaded, Andrey Rublev wrote “no war please” on one of the courtside cameras. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Russia’s top-ranked women’s player, spoke out about the war in a since-deleted tweet in which she wrote that “personal ambitions or political motives cannot justify violence.”
Medvedev has also called for peace. He said last month that he hoped to continue playing on the world stage.
“It’s always tough to talk on this subject because I want to play tennis – play in different countries,” he said, according to Eurosport. “I want to promote my sport, I want to promote what I’m doing in my country for sure, and right now the situation is that that is the only way I can play.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.