Tennis star Novak Djokovic has called a ban on Russian and Belarusian players competing at Wimbledon “crazy”.
His critique on Thursday came a day after the oldest tennis tournament in the world announced the measure, in light of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
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Wimbledon, which is based in the United Kingdom, became the first tennis tournament to prevent individual athletes from the two countries from competing amid the continuing conflict.
Speaking to reporters at the Serbia Open, Djokovic said he “cannot support the decision of Wimbledon”.
“I think it’s crazy,” he added. “When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good.”
He added, however, he will “always condemn war, I will never support war, being myself a child of war … I know how much emotional trauma it leaves. In Serbia, we all know what happened in 1999. In the Balkans, we have had many wars in recent history.”
The ban means world number two Daniil Medvedev from Russia and women’s fourth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus will not participate in the June 27-July 10 competition.
Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, said on Wednesday, “We recognise that this is hard on the individuals affected, and it is with sadness that they will suffer for the actions of the leaders of the Russian regime.”
Belarus tennis officials condemned the Wimbledon ban.
“The Belarusian Tennis Federation categorically condemns the decision taken by the organisers of Wimbledon to suspend Belarusian and Russian tennis players,” it said in a statement.
“Such destructive actions in no way contribute to the resolution of conflicts, but only incite hatred and intolerance on a national basis.”
The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), the breakaway players’ body launched by Djokovic in 2020, said it was committed to protecting the tennis community having heard the experiences of individuals impacted by the war.
“As major competitions throughout our sport contemplate banning Russian and Belarusian athletes, we have to reflect and understand that many of them have lost their freedom of choice and expression, due to the laws being enforced by the Russian and Belarus Federations,” the PTPA said in a statement.
“Speaking against Russian or Belarus or denouncing the invasion may result in imprisonment.”
Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina said Russian and Belarusian players who denounce Moscow’s invasion of her country should be allowed to participate at Wimbledon.
Medvedev made a plea for peace on Twitter in February while his compatriot Andrey Rublev wrote “No War Please” on the lens of a TV camera on his way to winning the Dubai title.
Sport meets geopolitics
Djokovic has not shied away from controversy during his professional career, most recently during a public standoff with Australian officials over his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The tennis player was also widely criticised in September of 2021 for dining with Milan Jolovic, a former commander of the notorious Drina Wolves paramilitary unit, which participated in the genocide against Bosniaks in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Jolovic is celebrated by many Serbs for saving the life of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic during the war in Bosnia in July 1993, when Serb forces came across the Bosnian army in the Bjelasnica area just outside Sarajevo and had their tank destroyed.
With his unit, Jolovic managed to save Mladic and he was subsequently promoted to a higher rank.
A UN court in 2017 found Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes in Bosnia and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Before the dinner, Djokovic was also seen singing at a wedding in Bosnia with Bosnia’s Serb member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, a well-known genocide denier who regularly advocates for the secession of Bosnia’s Serb-run entity, Republika Srpska, from the country.