First appeared in BOXSCORE
By Aron Solomon
Early on Friday, Wimbledon and all British professional grass court season events announced that Russian and Belarusian players would be allowed to play in this year’s tournament if and only if they sign personal player declarations that have been “clarified and developed” with the government and tennis stakeholder bodies.
Looking back at the history of this issue, Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from the 2022 tournament due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ban included top players such as Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Aryna Sabalenka, among many others.
While Wimbledon defended the decision, ATP and WTA organizers criticized it as unfair and very disappointing.
The ATP stated that discrimination based on nationality violates their agreement with Wimbledon that player entry is based solely on ATP rankings while correctly asserting that the decision could set a damaging precedent for the game.
The WTA expressed similar sentiments and noted that discrimination based on nationality violates their principles of merit and fairness.
The entire thing was a mess, leaving Wimbledon 2022 as a glorified exhibition, no matter how Wimbledon organizers and the tournament’s rabid fans bristled at that characterization.
But that was the reality, as evinced by the women’s champion, Elena Rybakina, winning the Wimbledon money but not the points that would have qualified her for the WTA Tour Finals. On the men’s side, finalist Nick Kyrgios was also denied the points that would have put him right on the cusp of entry to the ATP Tour Finals.
So is Wimbledon’s solution for 2023 a good solution?
This demand of fealty – having Russian and Belarusian players sign a declaration – is a horrible and potentially dangerous idea.
This neutrality declaration brings a ton of legal and political baggage with it.
There is the blatantly obvious here – that a Russian or Belarusian athlete signing a neutrality document in regards to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be perceived by their government in potentially dangerous ways to them and their families. In other words, agreeing to sign this document has the potential to be viewed not as a “declaration of neutrality,” but as a declaration against Putin’s war.
As Attorney Nancianne Aydelotte points out:
“Any athlete who is asked to sign any type of declaration needs to seek legal counsel to understand exactly what it is that they’re signing and what possible consequences, if any, come with the document.”
From where I sit as a very close observer of professional tennis, I would advise no athlete to sign this declaration. If every Russian and Belarusian tennis player would refuse to sign it, Wimbledon and the month of other British grass court tournaments would be in a ridiculously uncomfortable situation of their own (meaning the tournaments and the poor counsel and direction they have been given by the UK government) creation.
I have spoken and written about the responsibility of the WTA and ATP to protect ALL of their athletes. Indeed, the WTA in particular has done a horrible job protecting their Ukrainian players, as I recently wrote about here.
Minutes after Friday morning’s announcement by Wimbledon, the WTA and ATP issued this joint message of support:
But if the responsibility of the professional tennis tour is to protect all players, then by supporting Wimbledon’s ill-conceived plan, they aren’t protecting Russian and Belarusian athletes. What the tours are doing is supporting Wimbledon putting these athletes in a very precarious position in the nations in which they might still reside and many of their family members still do.
What Wimbledon is doing here is discriminatory. Does the policy only apply to players based on citizen and passport? Why not ask every player on tour to sign the declaration? Would Wimbledon ban a French, Serbian, Colombian, or Canadian player who refused to sign a legal document that records their views on a critically important global geopolitical issue?
Tennis seems to have a unique policy of making its path more difficult than it needs to be. Wimbledon had a binary choice to ban or not ban Russian and Belarusian players and they couldn’t even get that right.
The responsibility here is now on the ATP and WTA tours to do what they absolutely won’t do, which is to recant the statement of support they released on Friday.
As usual, it seems as if the WTA and ATP don’t fully understand the scope, power, and impact of their actions and inaction. Supporting a policy allowing all of their athletes to play this year’s Wimbledon without having undertaken the depth of risk analysis their athletes deserved, is yet another abrogation of the duty the tours have to protect all of their players.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.