It is 500 days since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine but, at the venue that once imposed sport’s most controversial ban of its athletes, you really would never have known.
Applause, whoops and cheers were all that greeted the combined skills at Wimbledon on Saturday of seven of Belarus and Russia’s finest players, notably Daniil Medvedev, the third seed on the men’s draw, women’s number two seed Aryna Sabalenka and, just briefly, the precocious 16-year-old qualifier Mirra Andreeva.
As a standing ovation greeted Medvedev’s four-set victory over Marton Fucsovics, the BBC’s on-court interviewer Rishi Prasad even noted that the crowd “seem to be on your side and will be supporting you”.
Medvedev had earlier described it as the most positive crowd reaction since he first played at Wimbledon in 2017. “It’s much better than I had before,” he said.
Outrage over the return of players from Russia and Belarus has also been negligible so far throughout the grounds of SW19, suggesting that, for all the historical overlap between Vladimir Putin’s regime and sport, the Wimbledon fans are here simply to enjoy their tennis.
That outlook will face its biggest test so far on Sunday when the Belarusian former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka will play Elina Svitolina, one of three women from Ukraine whose progress to the third round or better has already made it their most successful ever Wimbledon.
Svitolina and her compatriot Lesia Tsurenko are both adamant that their fourth round matches will be about much more than just tennis. “Firstly I think for my country,” said Svitolina. “I will go out there and put the fighting spirit on for every single point.”
Tsurenko added: “When I am totally exhausted in my matches, I remind myself that I am from Ukraine. It gives me strength. I tell myself that I have to win, not only for myself. I am very glad that my results and the results of the other Ukrainian girls bring some positive emotions because we all need them right now.”
The All England Club has required Russian and Belarusian players to sign declarations of neutrality and provide reassurance that they are not receiving funding from their government or connected companies, despite doubts expressed by Tsurenko among others over whether that really can be enforced.
What has been implemented is the complete non-mention of Russia and Belarus in any official tournament communication. There have also been no reported breach of rules banning any objects or clothing inside the All England Club which bears the Russia and Belarusian flags.
Many of the fans at Wimbledon on Saturday were in support of Russian and Belarusian players again competing following a ban last year that cost the Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club more than £1 million in fines from international tennis’s governing bodies.
Players touched by warm reception
“It’s really not their fault that their country is at war, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to play if they’re good enough to qualify,” said Erin, a 27-year-old from Sydney.
Justin Davis agreed. “I think Russians should be allowed to play so long as they’re denouncing the war itself,” he said. “There are going to be people around the world who are Russian that are good people.”
David Sidthorp, 78, said that, “as long as they say that they’re not for the war then I think they should be allowed to compete” although his wife, 77-year-old Angela, wanted the ban to remain in force.
“I’d rather they weren’t here,” she said. “I just think we’ve got to make a stand in some way. It’s a small thing but it would be something.”
There has certainly been considerable appreciation – and relief – from the Russian and Belarusian players at the crowd reaction so far. “People are very nice,” said Azarenka, who will play Ukraine’s Svitolina on Sunday. “I felt like I was very welcomed everywhere. And I really appreciate that.”
Aryna Sabalenka, the No 2 seed from Belarus who was victorious on Saturday in straight sets against Russia’s Anna Blinkova, admitted that she had not known what reception to expect.
“The support really means a lot,” she said. “They can’t even imagine how much it means. I was really thankful. It was an amazing atmosphere, an amazing feeling. I think I actually didn’t realise how much I missed Wimbledon.”
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