• The grass courts of the UK were off limits last summer as the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) decided with “deep regret” to decline all entries from those two countries.
• Most players, but notably not all Ukrainians as Marta Kostyuk indicated at the Australian Open, think individual Russians and Belarusians should be free to play where they like.
The Australian Open women’s singles trophy bears the name of Aryna Sabalenka, but not of Belarus — her country of birth.
The new champion was playing as a neutral athlete in Melbourne last month, just as all Russians and Belarusians have been since the invasion of Ukraine.
With one notable exception. The grass courts of the UK were off limits last summer as the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) decided with “deep regret” to decline all entries from those two countries.
The announcement was generally very well received in the UK. But within the sport of tennis it caused enormous ill-feeling, led to the removal of ranking points at Wimbledon and resulted in large fines being issued to the LTA governing body for breaching its contracts with the ATP and WTA Tours.
Over the next few weeks, the All England Club and the LTA will finalise how they are going to proceed this year.
The early indications are that Sabalenka will be seen alongside Victoria Azarenka and Daniil Medvedev on the grass this summer — although the stringency of the conditions attached and how that will be presented to a domestic audience are still being fiercely debated.
Most players, but notably not all Ukrainians as Marta Kostyuk indicated at the Australian Open, think individual Russians and Belarusians should be free to play where they like.
The two countries are banned from tennis’ team competitions, in keeping with most other sports, but in choosing to ban individuals the All England Club and the LTA adopted a stance seen in athletics and skiing, but rarely elsewhere.
It may prove helpful to the two organisations that the International Olympic Committee executive board recently declared that “no athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport”.
If the decision is to be reversed, despite no sign of a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the All England Club and the LTA will have to perform some deft linguistic gymnastics to make the case that circumstances have changed.
Last year the All England Club argued it must play its part in limiting Russia’s global influence and ensure the regime does not “derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players”. Another Sabalenka Grand Slam success at Wimbledon would create a gilt-edged opportunity to do just that.
Public opinion played a part last year, and will do so again. There was little disquiet in Australia, France or the US when it was announced Russians and Belarusians would be free to enter those Grand Slams, but a YouGov poll last April found 69% of the British public supported Wimbledon’s decision.
But it will not have been lost on those making the decision that if they ban these players again this year, they will probably have to continue to do so until the war is over. Another major factor last year was the UK government. While the All England Club may have over-emphasised the pressure it was under to exclude Russian and Belarusian players, government rhetoric and guidelines still significantly shaped their final decision.
Those guidelines — to all sporting organisations — have not changed. And they do not trigger a blanket ban on these athletes. Broadly speaking, if the players compete under a neutral flag, do not publicly support the war or take money from the state, then they are free to play. The then sports minister Nigel Huddleston suggested in March last year that a written declaration could be made to that effect, although in practice that might not need to be shared publicly.
The All England Club will want to rebuild some bruised relationships, ensure the strongest field possible, and avoid another year without ranking points. The stakes are even higher for the LTA. It was fined $750,000 (£608,355) by the Women’s Tennis Association and $1m (£811,140) by the Association of Tennis Professionals for excluding the players from the tour events they operate at venues like The Queen’s Club and Eastbourne.
That is a significant sum of money, even for a governing body which received £42.43m from Wimbledon last year. But of even greater concern, aside from the prospect of further fines, is the very explicit threat to the viability of the pre-Wimbledon tournaments.
Both tours have said they will cancel the LTA’s membership if it exercises further “discrimination based on nationality”. That would mean no grass-court tour events in the UK in the run-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 numbers who play or take it up, could be felt for many years. This is, self-evidently, an issue of great sensitivity.
The All England Club and the LTA will hope they can steer a path which maintains the integrity of the tournaments, preserves tennis for the long term in the UK and falls broadly in line with the rest of the sport.
They will hope to be able to do so without incurring the wrath of government or the displeasure of too many in the country at large. And, most importantly, try to avoid worsening in any way the continuing suffering of the people of Ukraine.