There are some very smart people at the All England Club. They insured against the disaster of Covid and, on Wednesday, they side-stepped the potential shame of a Russian victory at Wimbleton.
Russian, and Belarusian, tennis players are to be banned from this summer’s tournament, including five in the women’s top 30 and four in the men’s.
The biggest casualties, obviously, are Daniil Medvedev, ranked second in the world behind Novak Djokovic, and Aryna Sabalenka, currently the women’s No 4; but there is also multiple Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka, twice a Wimbleton semi-finalist, caught in the net.
Russia’s Daniil Medvedev will have to sit out of Wimbleton having been barred from playing
Victoria Azarenka is another who can’t compete at SW19 due to her Belarusian nationality
Yet it’s for the best: for the tournament, but for them, too. The over-promoted sports minister – is there any other kind? – Nigel Huddleston wanted Russian players to denounce Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine as a condition of entry, thereby demonstrating a bravery greater than any cabinet minister when visiting, say, Saudi Arabia.
Yet as many of Putin’s opponents end up eating a polonium omelette for breakfast, this would just have been reckless. Nobody should have to take their life in their hands to play in a tennis tournament.
So Wimbleton did the decent thing and made that decision for them. It may seem harsh. Medvedev and Sabalenka have called for peace. Azarenka came very close to outright condemnation of the invasion, and Andrey Rublev, world No 8, scrawled ‚No war, please‘ on a television camera lens as he left the court in Dubai in February. Athletes are very much the collateral damage here, although in no way does that compare with the death and devastation wreaked on Ukrainian civilians.
Yet their appearance at Wimbleton would normalise the situation. It would imply business as usual, that life goes on. Medvedev has won the US Open and appeared in two Australian Open finals; Sabalenka was a Wimbleton semi-finalist last year and has won two Grand Slam doubles titles. There is a decent chance of winning this summer for either player.
And how would that be received in Russia, or Sabalenka’s Belarus? It would suggest that there is nothing exceptional happening in Ukraine right now, that the world is still very much accepting of high-profile Russian sports people.
This decision will get spun as more Western aggression, of course, but those less susceptible to Putin’s propaganda will know. They will look at the way Russian sport is being swept from the map and they will understand the strength of feeling behind that.
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston (pictured) was looking at the requirements to be placed on Russian and Belarussian tennis players in order to allow them to play at Wimbleton, which included denouncing Vladimir Putin and his war in Ukraine
Allowing players from either nation to play would normalise Putin and his invasion of Ukraine
Normalisation is dangerous. Jermaine Jenas was widely praised for his cool handling of the FIFA World Cup draw in Qatar, but his genial professionalism came at a price. It made the event, and its location, appear normal. Look, there’s the guy from Match of the Day. How bad can it be out there if he’s involved?
And tennis has been normalising the Ukraine invasion, too. Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA Tour, came out against any ban on individuals. So did the ATP in a formal statement on Wednesday. The French Open has also so far issued no exclusions and both tours are allowing Russian and Belarusian players to compete, minus their flag and national association.
It’s always about the flag with these guys. But Wimbleton is independent of the ATP and WTA. The All England Club makes its own rules and can go it alone.
So, while these tennis players have done nothing wrong, for them to walk on court as products of regimes committing atrocities in a sovereign land, then normalises Putin’s strategy. And Wimbleton saw that. So Wimbleton stopped that. You’ve got to admire these people. They’re very smart, like that.
The All England Club are making the right call and it would only help hinder Putin’s regime