A year after tennis players from Russia and Belarus were banned from playing at Wimbledon following the invasion of Ukraine, organizers have accepted entries from players from the two countries for the 2023 grand slam tournament if they have complied with “appropriate conditions” and compete as neutral athletes.
Though tournament organizers have been keen to emphasize that they “continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion,” chatter around the war at Wimbledon remains a touchy subject.
Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with Belarus playing a key role in allowing Moscow’s troops to use its territory as a staging ground for the attack.
Although “other nationality flags” are allowed in line with tournament restrictions on size, Russian and Belarusian flags are not permitted to be displayed both in court or “on anything official,” a spokesperson for the the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club confirmed to CNN.
During the opening week, fans at Wimbledon have generally been quite warm to the Russian and Belarusian players but they’ve been especially enthusiastic to the Ukrainians.
But away from the courts, tensions are apparent. Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka began her post-match conference earlier this week telling reporters: “Before we continue I would like to say I’m not going to talk about politics. I’m here to talk about tennis only.”
To a reporter who asked what Wimbledon means to Russian culture, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka fired back: “You do know I’m not from Russia, right?”
Meanwhile at Russian Veronika Kudermetova’s post-match media conference, a moderator told a reporter who had asked about relationships with Ukrainian players in the locker room, to “Move it on to tennis, if it’s okay.”
However, Ukrainian Elina Svitolina made it clear she doesn’t have the luxury of focusing just on tennis – the conflict in her home country weighs on her every day.
“When I wake up, I always check [the] news,” she explained. “Every moment that I’m not on the court I’m checking how my family is doing, how the situation is in Ukraine, monitoring all the time what is happening and how me and my foundation, the team around me, how we can help in that particular moment for some kids, for my family, for friends, for anyone,” she said in a post-match media conference.
“So this is pretty much the life that I have now on the day-to-day basis.”
Last month, residents of Svitolina’s home city of Odesa told CNN they lived in “constant fear” as the city remains a target for Russian missile strikes.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has called the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes “immoral.”
“Has Russia ceased its aggression or atrocities? No, it’s just that Wimbledon decided to accommodate two accomplices in crime. I call on the UK government to deny visas to their players,” Kubela wrote in March.
On announcing the decision to accept players from the two countries for this year’s championships, Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, said in a statement in March: “We continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine.”
“This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted,” he added.
Yevhen Zukin, Vice President and Executive Director of the Tennis Federation of Ukraine, said while he was disappointed that last year’s ban wasn’t extended, “we also understand that no one supported Wimbledon and the LTA [Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association] in their decision to bar Russians and Belarusians from the competition,” he told Ukrainian tennis publication BTU.
“The whole tennis world abandoned them in this decision. Unfortunately, they could not fight the professional Tours and others on their own,” added Zukin, who also said the ATP and WTA could do more to support Ukrainian players.
“For our part, we are dissatisfied with the fact that the professional tours – both WTA and ATP – take a firm position on the admission of Russians to the Tour under a neutral flag. In fact, this is only a formality,” said Zukin.
“Everyone knows that the political regimes of Russia and Belarus use their players as a tool in their propaganda. We believe that this is wrong while the war is going on,” he added.
CNN reached out to the WTA, ATP and The Russian Tennis Federation for comment.
Away from the crowds and the cameras, Russian and Ukrainian tennis players revealed there are also strained relationships in Wimbledon’s locker rooms.
Russian Kudermetova admitted the reception from Ukrainian athletes differs: “I say hi to them … Some people, they reply; some not.”
Tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg told CNN Sport that in general, tensions surrounding the war remains “unresolved” at Wimbledon as players from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus compete alongside one another.
“Every solution they’ve done is not totally satisfying,” said Rothenberg. “It’s unique, there’s players on both sides of it, and especially women’s tennis. It’s been uncomfortable and awkward,” he added.
“It’s unique, there’s players on both sides of it, and especially women’s tennis. It’s been uncomfortable and awkward.
“Unless something dramatic happens on court, which I wouldn’t expect it to, it’s up to the media to decide how much they want to keep foregrounding the story because players are more or less going about their business,” continued Rothenberg, adding that most Russian and Belarusian players are leading “fairly apolitical existences.” “They just kind of focus on their craft and their jobs.”
In other tennis tournaments before Wimbledon, this strain has spilled over.
World No. 36 Marta Kostyuk, who is from Kyiv, said at the start of the year that she would not shake hands with Russian or Belarusian players while the war rages in her country, along with Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.
Kostyuk was booed at the French Open when she refused to meet Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka at the net. Sabalenka condemned the booing and said she understands why Ukrainian players won’t shake her hand.
The WTA “formally warned” Russian player Anastasia Potapova for wearing a Spartak Moscow football jersey ahead of a match at Indian Wells this year, calling it “not acceptable nor an appropriate action.”
At the Australian Open earlier this year, organizers banned Russian and Belarusian flags from Melbourne Park after some fans had displayed the Russian flag at matches.
Meanwhile, several players – including Poland’s Iga Świątek, Slovakia’s Anna-Karolína Schmiedlová and Svitolina – have worn the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine at tournaments.
On the court at Wimbledon, for some, the end of the controversial ban has been a game changer.
Russian Daniil Medvedev commented he had “never had such a good reception at Wimbledon. It’s much better than I had before.”
He said “there was zero let’s say negative energy that I felt.”