By Shrivathsa Sridhar and Rohith Nair
(Reuters) -Wimbledon lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian players on Friday and will allow them to compete in the grasscourt Grand Slam this year as “neutral” athletes in a climbdown from the stance it took after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The players will be prohibited from expressing support for the invasion and must not receive funding from the Russian or Belarusian states, tournament organisers the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) said in a statement.
“We continue to condemn totally Russia’s illegal invasion and our wholehearted support remains with the people of Ukraine,” AELTC chairman Ian Hewitt said.
“This was an incredibly difficult decision, not taken lightly or without a great deal of consideration for those who will be impacted.
“It is our view that, considering all factors, these are the most appropriate arrangements for The Championships for this year.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wimbledon’s decision was “immoral” and urged Britain to deny Russian and Belarusian players visas.
“Has Russia ceased its aggression or atrocities? No, it’s just that Wimbledon decided to accommodate two accomplices in crime,” Kuleba wrote on twitter.
Wimbledon had said last year that barring players from the two countries was its only viable option under guidance provided by the British government following the invasion, which Moscow calls a “special military operation.”
Wimbledon said in its statement on Friday that the option of personal player declarations was not viable last year, but these difficulties had since been overcome following engagement with the government and tennis stakeholders.
It added the approach had the support of the government, Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), the men’s ATP, the women’s WTA and global tennis body the ITF.
Due to last year’s ban, Wimbledon had its ranking points taken away. The WTA and ATP Tours also imposed huge fines on the LTA and the AELTC.
The ATP and WTA welcomed the lifting of the ban, saying it took a collaborative effort to arrive at a “workable solution” that protects the fairness of the game.
“This remains an extremely difficult situation and we would like to thank Wimbledon and LTA for their efforts in reaching this outcome, while reiterating our unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine,” the two governing bodies said.
Britain’s Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said the government maintained its position that Russian and Belarusian athletes representing their nations must not be permitted in domestic and international competitions but supported the AELTC approach.
“Individual, self-funded Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete in the United Kingdom, subject to following our guidance on neutrality,” Frazer added.
The ITF, which suspended the Russian and Belarusian federations from its membership and competing in international team competitions, said in a statement its position would not change.
The LTA said a continued ban would have led to the prospect of its membership being terminated and Wimbledon tune-up events at Queens, Eastbourne, Birmingham and Nottingham being cancelled.
“The effect on British tennis… would be damaging and far reaching for the game in our country,” the LTA said.
“Given this and our responsibility as the national governing body of tennis in Britain, we have worked with the government, ATP, WTA and ITF, alongside the All England Club, to find a solution for 2023.”
The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), which has defending Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic on its executive committee, said they supported the decision while reaffirming their support for Ukrainian players.
“Our PTPA principles make clear we support fair play and equal treatment of all players, regardless of their country of origin,” it said.
“We believe that sports should not be used as a political weapon, and we applaud this step towards inclusivity and respect for the game.”
The LTA said there would be a zero tolerance approach at its venues to flags, symbols or actions backing Russia and Belarus from anyone including players and fans.
Flags of the two countries were banned at this year’s Australian Open following a complaint from Ukraine’s ambassador.
Wimbledon was the only major to ban competitors from Russia and Belarus, which has been a staging area for the invasion.
Hewitt said the AELTC would respond if circumstances changed between now and the beginning of the tournament on July 3.
Players from the two nations have been competing on the tours and at the other slams as individual athletes without national affiliation.
Two Russians feature in the top 10 of the men’s rankings — Daniil Medvedev (5) and Andrey Rublev (7). Both have previously called for peace.
Among the women, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka is second in the world and she also won the Australian Open earlier this year, to become the first neutral Grand Slam champion. Russia’s Daria Kasatkina is eighth in the world.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair and Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by David Goodman, Toby Davis and Christian Radnedge)