Tennis players from Russia and Belarus will be allowed to compete at Wimbledon this summer after tournament officials reversed a policy that had barred them last year in the months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The decision to bar the players had drawn criticism at the time, even inside tennis, and the reversal of it had been expected. Wimbledon officials justified their decision in a statement in which they said keeping the policy in place would be “damaging” to the tournament, which is the most prestigious in the sport, and to tennis itself.
The biggest beneficiaries of the move will be Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who won the Australian Open in January and is ranked second in the world, and Daniil Medvedev, the 2021 U.S. Open champion, who is fifth in the men’s rankings.
Medvedev said he had been keeping a close eye on the developments over the past week as word circulated that the ban would be lifted, and that he was thrilled when he saw the news this morning.
“I always said I love this tournament,” Medvedev said, even though it is the only Grand Slam where he has failed to make the quarterfinals. “Beautiful tournament. Beautiful Grand Slam. Really happy I’m going to be able to play this year.”
To be eligible under Wimbledon’s new rules, players from Russia and Belarus must compete as “neutral athletes,” without anthems, flags or other nationalist trappings, and they must not express support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sponsorship from state-owned companies also will be forbidden.
Many sports moved quickly to make Russia and Belarus sporting pariahs as punishment for their countries’ roles in the invasion of Ukraine, but Wimbledon was the only tennis Grand Slam event last year to bar players without conditions. While support for Ukraine is widespread in tennis, Wimbledon’s ban — a joint move with Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, which controls the sport there — was roundly criticized throughout the sport as a troubling precedent.
In a statement released Friday, Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Club, said the organization continues to condemn the invasion and to support 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,” Hewitt said. “It is our view that, considering all factors, these are the most appropriate arrangements for The Championships for this year.”
Hewitt said the club would reconsider the position if circumstances shifted before the tournament, which is scheduled to begin July 3.
Like most Olympic sports, tennis united to ban the national symbols of Russia and Belarus and to prohibit those countries from playing in team competitions.
However, only Wimbledon and the L.T.A. prohibited the players from competing in their events, a move that Britain’s Parliament strongly supported.
The men’s and women’s professional tours, the ATP and the WTA, punished Wimbledon by electing not to award rankings points for victories in the tournament. The move was an attempt to turn the event into something of an exhibition, but it also hurt the tours and several top players, including Novak Djokovic and Elena Rybakina, because the rankings have not accurately reflected performances during the past 12 months.
In addition, a native Russian ended up winning the tournament anyway, as Rybakina, who was born and raised in Russia but began playing for Kazakhstan when she was 18, won the women’s singles title.
In a joint statement on Friday, the ATP and the WTA, which represent the players and the tournaments, said they were “pleased that all players will have an opportunity to compete at Wimbledon and L.T.A. events this summer. It has taken a collaborative effort across the sport to arrive at a workable solution which protects the fairness of the game.” The tours also reiterated their “unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine.”
The decision does have its opponents, including some prominent players. Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, said the players from Russia and Belarus should not be allowed at either Wimbledon or the Olympics. “I am on the Ukrainian side,” Kvitova said on Friday following her semifinal win over Sorana Cirstea of Romania.
Players from Russia and Belarus expressed disappointment in the decision last year but did not challenge it in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
In recent months, many top players, including Djokovic, have condemned the war but have also said that players from Russia and Belarus should be allowed to play, though Daria Kasatkina of Russia has been the only player from Russia or Belarus so far to openly criticize the war, which she did in a video posted lasted summer. Andrey Rublev, another Russian, appeared in the video and said he agreed with her statements, though he himself was not openly critical.
Sabalenka said in Australia that if there were anything she could have done to change what was happening in Ukraine, she would have. Victoria Azarenka, who is also from Belarus and who is a member of the WTA Tour’s Players’ Council, offered to participate in a fund-raising exhibition for victims of the war in Ukraine ahead of the U.S. Open, though players from Ukraine ultimately asked that she not participate.
Players from Ukraine have been forced to move out of their country. Several, including Lesia Tsurenko and Dayana Yastremska, have lobbied to have players from Russia and Belarus prohibited from competing in any professional tournaments unless they expressed opposition to the war.
There has been little contact between players from Ukraine and Russia and Belarus during the past year, though Kasatkina said she received multiple messages of thanks from players from Ukraine after she posted her video.
The All England Club’s move came just days after the International Olympic Committee announced that it would push to have athletes from Russia and Belarus compete at the Summer Games in Paris in 2024. In explaining the decision, Thomas Bach, the president of the I.O.C., cited tennis as having shown how players from those countries could compete even against players from Ukraine without disturbance.
Players from Russia have continued to excel in the game. On Friday afternoon, Medvedev beat his countryman, Karen Khachanov, in the semifinals of the Miami Open, one of the biggest tournaments of the year outside of the Grand Slams, to advance to the final against either Carlos Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner on Sunday. Rybakina will play in the women’s final on Saturday.
After losing to Medvedev, Khachanov said he had not looked at his phone all morning and did not learn that he could play at Wimbledon until after the match.
“All of the Russian and Belarusian players, we said before that we really would like to play there,” said Khachanov, who made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2021. “I’m in the Last 8 Club, and it’s really great and special event in tennis history.”