Belarusian and Russian charge in Melbourne throws spotlight on Wimbledon ban

LONDON, Jan 25 (Reuters) - A first ever Grand Slam final featuring two players from Belarus remains a possibility while a Russian also remains in contention at the Australian Open -- a scenario that will not have gone unnoticed by the organisers of Wimbledon.

Former world number one Victoria Azarenka will continue her quest for a third Australian Open crown when she faces Kazakhstan's Elena Rybakina, who was born in Moscow, in the semi-finals on Thursday before Aryna Sabalenka takes on Poland's Magda Linette.

On Friday, Russia's Karen Khachanov faces Stefanos Tsitsipas as he bids to reach his first Grand Slam final.

Khachanov, Azarenka and Sabalenka were all absent from Wimbledon last year as the grasscourt Grand Slam took the unilateral decision to exclude players from Russia and Belarus as a consequence of President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special operation".

Wimbledon, and the other British tournaments, had their ranking points taken away and Britain's Lawn Tennis Association was slapped with huge fines from the women's WTA and men's ATP as a result of its ban.

With the conflict in Ukraine showing no sign of ending, a decision about Russian and Belarusian players competing at the All England Club is pressing.

"I hope. I don't know. I mean, the last information that I heard was, like, maybe one week ago that the announcement will be in couple of weeks," Russian Andrey Rublev, who lost his quarter-final to Novak Djokovic, told reporters in Melbourne.

"We're all waiting. Hopefully we'll be able to play. I wish, I would like, and I would love to play. Of course, Wimbledon is one of the best tournaments in our sport."

Russia and Belarus have also been banned from team events like the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup but the likes of Rublev, Azarenka and Sabalenka are free to play everywhere else as individuals, albeit without a country affiliation.

Australian Open organisers even banned Russian and Belarusian flags from Melbourne Park last week after a complaint from Ukraine's ambassador to the country.

While on Wednesday, organisers Tennis Australia said four supporters with "inappropriate flags and symbols" are being questioned by Victoria Police following the quarter-final between Rublev and Djokovic. read more

Tennis Australia did not provide details, but a video emerged on social media showing a fan on the steps of Rod Laver Arena holding up a Russian flag with the image of Putin on it.

Sabalenka has faced regular questions about the situation and was asked again on Wednesday after beating Donna Vekic.

"I would say that of course it affects me a lot. That was tough and it's still tough. But I just understand that it's not my fault. Like, I have zero control. If I could do something, of course I would do it, but I cannot do anything," she said.


Nine-times Australian Open champion Djokovic has urged Wimbledon to allow Russian and Belarus players to enter the 2023 tournament, a view also backed by American great John McEnroe.

"Obviously this is an horrific situation which is going on in the war and people deal with it in different ways," McEnroe told Reuters in a video conference arranged by Eurosport.

"I disagreed with it last year that Wimbledon didn't allow the Russians or Belarusian players to play. I would disagree with it this year. I don't know what they're going to do.

"It's a situation that no one wants. So hopefully something will change that allows the players to play. It happens that in our sport, some of our top male and female players come from those two countries. They shouldn't, I don't believe, be punished for something that they have nothing to do with."

Wimbledon is reported to be considering lifting the ban but it is unlikely to make an announcement until it reveals plans for the tournament at its Spring news conference in April.

American icon Billie Jean King said this week that she would support such a move.

"I hope they (Wimbledon organisers) do (lift the ban). Just keep it the same way the other ones are. Life is too short," King was quoted as saying in The Times.

Reporting by Martyn Herman Editing by Christian Radnedge

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