Wimbledon and LTA must decide whether or not to lift the ban on Russians and Belarusians

Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka won the Australian Open women’s singles title in January

The Australian Open women’s singles trophy is named after Aryna Sabalenka, but not Belarus – her country of birth.

The new champion was playing as a neutral athlete in Melbourne last month, as all Russians and Belarusians have been since the invasion of Ukraine.

With one notable exception. Grass courts in the UK were banned last summer as the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) decided with “deep regret” to refuse all registrations from these two countries.

The announcement was generally very well received in the UK. But in the sport of tennis, it caused huge unease, led to ranking points being stripped at Wimbledon and led to heavy fines being levied against governing body the LTA for breaching contracts with the ATP Tours and WTA.

Over the next few weeks, the All England Club and the LTA will finalize how they will proceed this year.

Early indications are that Sabalenka will be seen alongside Victoria Azarenka and Daniil Medvedev on grass this summer – although the stringency of the terms attached and how this will be presented to a national audience is still hotly debated.

Most players, but certainly not all Ukrainians, as Marta Kostyuk indicated at the Australian Open, believe that Russians and Belarusians should be free to play wherever they want.

Both countries are banned from team competitions in tennis, like most other sports, but in choosing to ban individuals, the All England Club and LTA have taken a stance seen in athletics and skiing, but rarely elsewhere.

It may prove helpful to both organizations that the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee recently stated that “no athlete should be prevented from competing solely because of their passport”.

If the decision is to be overturned, despite no sign of a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the All England Club and the LTA will have to perform deft linguistic gymnastics to prove that circumstances have changed.

Last year, the All England Club argued it must play its part to limit Russia’s global influence and ensure the regime ‘does not derive any benefit from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players’ .

Another Grand Slam success for Sabalenka at Wimbledon would create a unique opportunity to do just that.

Public opinion played a role last year and will do so again. There was little concern in Australia, France or the United States when it was announced that Russians and Belarusians would be free to participate in these Grand Slam tournaments, but a YouGov poll last April revealed that 69% of the British public supported the Wimbledon decision.

But it will not have been lost on those making the decision that if they ban these players again this year, they will likely have to continue to do so until the end of the war.

Another big factor last year was the UK government. While the All England Club may have overemphasized the pressure they were under to exclude Russian and Belarus players, government rhetoric and guidance still significantly influenced their final decision.

These guidelines – to all sports organizations – have not changed. And they don’t trigger a blanket ban on those athletes. Generally speaking, if players are competing under a neutral flag, not publicly supporting the war, or receiving state money, then they are free to play. Then-sports minister Nigel Huddleston suggested in March last year that a written statement could be made to this effect, although in practice this need not be shared publicly .

The All England Club will want to rebuild battered relationships, secure the strongest possible field and avoid another year without ranking points.

The stakes are even higher for the LTA. He was fined $750,000 (£608,355) by the Women’s Tennis Association and $1m (£811,140) by the Association of Tennis Professionals for excluding players from tours they run in places like the Queen’s Club and Eastbourne.

That’s a significant sum of money, even for a governing body that received £42.43m from Wimbledon last year. But what is even more concerning, besides the prospect of further fines, is the very explicit threat to the viability of pre-Wimbledon tournaments.

Both tours have said they will rescind LTA membership if it discriminates further on the basis of nationality.

This would mean there would be no UK grass court events in the lead up to Wimbledon. Queen’s and Eastbourne could, in theory, continue as exhibitions, but few would want to play, and the tournaments would almost certainly not take place.

The consequences on the profile of the sport, and the number of those who practice or participate in it, could be felt for many years.

This is obviously a very sensitive issue.

The All England Club and the LTA hope they can chart a course that maintains the integrity of the tournaments, preserves tennis in the UK for the long term and broadly aligns with the rest of the sport.

They hope they can do this without incurring the wrath of the government or the displeasure of too many in the country at large.

And, above all, try to avoid in any way aggravating the continuing suffering of the Ukrainian people.

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