The head of the WTA ‘feels very strongly’ that Russian and Belarusian players should continue to compete
Russian and Belarusian tennis stars should not be punished with blanket bans, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has said, but admitted he could not rule out changes if individual governments take action.
Players from Russia and Belarus are currently allowed to compete in events on the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tours, but without any national symbols and strictly as neutrals.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has banned both countries from team events and no competitions can be held in Russia or Belarus “until further notice,” after Moscow launched its military operation in Ukraine.
WTA chief executive Steve Simon said a complete ban on stars such as Russian men’s world number one Daniil Medvedev or Belarusian two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka would be wrong.
“You never know what the future may bring. But I can tell you that we have never banned athletes from participating on our tour as the result of political positions their leadership may take,” Simon told the BBC.
“So it would take something very, very significant for that to change, but again we don’t know where this is going.”
On Tuesday, UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddlestone suggested that Russian stars such as Medvedev could be forced to miss Wimbledon unless they denounce Vladimir Putin.
“Nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled,” Huddlestone told a parliamentary committee.
“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.”
WTA boss Simon admitted that the organization may be powerless if specific governments choose to bar Russian and Belarusian athletes from the country.
“It will force us to change our position, because obviously we have to follow the rules of government,” said the American.
Simon accused the Russian leadership of doing “reprehensible things,” but reiterated that sportsmen and women should not suffer because of politics.
“I feel very, very strongly that again these individual athletes should not be the ones that are being penalized by the decisions of an authoritarian leadership,” said Simon.
“But if that happens, which is again part of the overall strategy of making Russia, and Russian citizens, pay the consequence for the decision their government has made, then it won’t be something that we support.
“We are hopeful that they will refrain from that because I think there are an awful lot of other issues that go with it.
“I don’t think you can just pick on the athletes… 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.”
After Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine last month, partly entering via Belarus, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended that all Russian and Belarusian athletes be suspended from international competitions wherever possible.
That stance was adopted by sporting federations such as football’s FIFA and UEFA, although the ITF resisted calls for a complete ban on its Russian and Belarusian stars.
Instead, they will not be allowed to compete under their country’s name or flag, while the Russian and Belarusian teams will be barred from the 2022 Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup – where Russia are the reigning champions in both events.
Russian officials and sporting bodies have condemned the swathes of sanctions being imposed on athletes, branding them discriminatory and undermining the principle of sport being outside of politics.