Potapova controversy shows Wimbledon the pitfalls of allowing Russian players in

As revealed by i on Wednesday, Potapova was given a formal warning by the WTA and told wearing a shirt of one of Russia’s biggest football teams was neither ‘acceptable or appropriate’

March 15, 2023 3:18 pm(Updated March 16, 2023 9:48 am)

Wimbledon organisers are readying themselves for a barrage of questions at next month’s spring press conference, where Russia will be top of the agenda.

i revealed on Wednesday that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have been forced to issue a formal warning to world No 28 Anastasia Potapova after she walked out for a match in Indian Wells wearing a Spartak Moscow football shirt.

The All England Club (AELTC) is expected to reverse its decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from the grass-court grand slam, and instead ask them to play as neutral athletes.

That is the stance that every other tennis tournament in the world has taken, making the AELTC pariahs in the tennis world and incurring a series of fines from the professional tours that totalled $2m, when you include the sanctions levelled at the national governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). They were even threatened with expulsion from the tours.

It will not be a straightforward U-turn though, especially as the UK Government continues to back unilateral bans for Russian athletes, including at next year’s Olympic Games.

And Potapova’s public appearance wearing the colours of one of Russia’s best football teams highlights yet another tricky issue Wimbledon will have to negotiate this summer.

Potapova said she had supported the team since she was a child and saw no problem in what she had done, but it sparked outrage in some corners, not least with Poland’s Iga Swiatek, who has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine throughout the war.

“I thought the player realised that she should not, even if she is a fan of the team, show her views in this way at such times,” world No 1 Swiatek said.

“I’ve talked to the WTA and in a way I found out that there should be less such situations because they will explain to other players that you can’t promote any Russian teams these days, which reassured me a bit.”

i understands that the shirt was very much seen as inflammatory, deliberately or otherwise, and the WTA have told the 21-year-old her behaviour was neither “acceptable or appropriate”. Players are also expected to reminded of their responsibilities in terms of clothing and symbolism by email. Changes to the WTA rulebook are even understood to be under consideration.

Swiatek also said that “if there had been better leadership from the beginning, maybe we would have avoided such situation”, something that Wimbledon bosses should heed carefully.

The AELTC is expecting to announce its decision regarding entries to this year’s championships in the next six weeks. Russian players had hoped to play in the third-tier ITF events in Nottingham at the end of April, after the spring press conference when a decision is expected to be announced, especially after tournament documents made no mention of the ban. However, i has been told that this was merely an oversight, and the suspension remains in place.

It is not clear under exactly what conditions the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka will be allowed to return to SW19, but some sort of declaration of neutrality and the stripping of all Russian or Belarusian symbolism from their entry seems inevitable.

Wimbledon is fortunate that its dress code will cover some of that, with players required to wear the famous all-white in “court surrounds”, which would have caught Potapova out when she walked out against Jessica Pegula at the weekend. (Nick Kyrgios bent those rules significantly last year though when he walked out on Centre Court in a red hat and trainers.)

And those regulations are even more relaxed at the Aorangi practice courts, where players largely wear what they want – including football and basketball shirts. What then is to stop Potapova rocking up in a Spartak shirt? The same shirt which bears the name “Lukoil” (in Cyrillic script) on the front, Russia’s second-largest oil company. The same “Lukoil” whose CEO stepped down last year after being sanctioned.

Organisers will have to incorporate all such loopholes and potential problems into any additional regulations they write for this summer’s championships. Alarms were already raised in London when a small group of Vladimir Putin’s supporters stood on the steps of the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne and sang pro-Russia songs. This was exactly the kind of thing organisers are desperate to avoid.

But Potapova’s transgression, inadvertent or otherwise, highlights the number of grey areas that could be thrown up. There will be intense scrutiny of Wimbledon this summer, where the lockstep with the UK Government that was achieved last year will probably be impossible.

Good luck. It won’t be easy.

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