Efforts to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine by stripping Russian citizens of commercial opportunities abroad reached new heights on Tuesday, when British sports minister Nigel Huddleston suggested that the world’s No. 1 ranked men’s player, Daniil Medvedev, must somehow assure the government he is not a supporter of Vladimir Putin or risk being banned from Wimbledon.
“Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled,” Huddleston warned in a government hearing. “We need some potential assurance that they are not supporters of Putin.”
Neither the Grand Slam Board, which represents the interest of the U.S. Tennis Association, the French Tennis Federation, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and Tennis Australia, nor AELTC itself has commented on Huddleston’s remarks. Representatives for Medvedev have likewise declined to weigh in. Wimbledon is set to begin on June 27.
On March 1, the two international governing bodies of tennis—the ATP and WTA—announced that “players from Russia and Belarus will continue to be allowed to compete in international tennis events on Tour and at the Grand Slams.” The allowance, however, is predicated on the players not “competing under the name or flag of Russia or Belarus.”
Like other governments, the U.K. has wide discretion in permitting foreign nationals to enter, and remain in, British territory. This principle was apparent in January when Australia deported Novak Djokovic, who was ranked No. 1 at the time, because he was unvaccinated against COVID-19.
The U.K. government can also take actions against foreign-owned assets, as it did in sanctioning current Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich for his alleged ties to Putin and moving to oversee Chelsea’s sale.
Huddleston’s demand should be viewed in the context of British law. Although British citizens can share political and social views, there is no equivalent under U.K. law to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. To that point, the U.K. features more plaintiff-friendly libel and defamation laws. British courts are also willing to allow the government to engage in censorship, including the use of prior restraint where “offensive” material can be denied publication.
While using different levers to hold Putin accountable is logical, the kind of “assurance” suggested for Medvedev is nonetheless problematic.
First, there is no known eligibility rule for Wimbledon that requires disavowing a government action. Eligibility is based on ranking among top players, winning in qualifying events or receiving a wild card. Similarly, while the ATP features eligibility-related rules, including in regard to players’ age, there is no rule about knocking one’s home country. Medvedev, 26, could credibly argue in a British court that he meets the stated requirements of play and that any new eligibility rule must be formally adopted.
Second, it’s unclear what might happen to Medvedev, or to his family or his wife’s family in Russia, should he speak about Putin. To the extent that he has reason to worry about his safety or that of his friends and family, conditioning his eligibility on an ill-defined “assurance” seems ill-advised.
Third, anything Medvedev says might be detrimental to his marketability. At this point, if he slams Putin or the invasion, it might be viewed as disingenuous and merely a means to play in a tournament. Medvedev, who now resides in Monte Carlo, reportedly has endorsement deals with Lacoste, BWM and other major brands.
Fourth, precedent would be set where a sports organization engages in what might be regarded as political extortion. There will be other unpopular moves by other athletes’ countries in the years ahead. A tournament that conditions eligibility on those athletes demonstrating opposition to a political leader could motivate players to not compete. That could diminish the quality of play in tournaments, reduce the value of tournament sponsorships and lead to an inferior product for viewing fans.