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'Devastated' Martina Navratilova reduced to tears by Wimbledon ban on Russian players

20 April 2022, 18:25 | Updated: 20 April 2022, 20:07

By Sophie Barnett

Devastated nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova breaks down in tears over Wimbledon's ban on all Russian and Belarusian tennis players.

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In an exclusive LBC interview, Ms Navratilova, who is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, said it was the "wrong decision" by the All England Tennis Club as she recalled fleeing communist Czechoslovakia to live in the US when she was just 18 years old.

The 65-year-old told LBC's Tonight with Andrew Marr it was a "big ask" for Russian and Belarusian players to denounce their country in order to play at Wimbledon this summer, and said they would be putting their families and themselves at risk.

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She was reduced to tears, telling Andrew: "The Russian and Belarusian players, some have even expressed, vocalised, their opposition to the war.

"The only option therefore now for them to play would be to leave their country.

"That's something that I had to do in 1975, because of a totalitarian regime and now we are asking them to do the same, because of politics, because of optics.

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"I understand the banning of teams, of course, representing the countries, but on an individual level, I just think it's wrong."

The All England Club’s main committee announced the decision today, as hopes of peace talks fade as Russian troops continue to bombard the Donbass region of Ukraine.

Organisers said in a statement that "with deep regret" they would have to "decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to The Championships 2022."

The move will be a huge blow for world number two Daniil Medvedev and women's number four Aryna Sabalenka.

Andrew asked Ms Navratilova whether the decision brings back the trauma she experienced, when she was accused of being too Americanised by the communist regime in Czech at the time.

She became an American citizen in 1981, angering the communist Czech regime, which immediately stripped her of her nationality.

She only reacquired her Czech citizenship in 2008.

"I'm ready to cry now," she told Andrew, with her voice beginning to tremble.

"You're close to crying right now? I'm sorry Martina, I'm sorry," he replied.

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Asked whether the All England Club should reconsider its decision, Ms Navratilova admitted she thinks it's "too late".

She said it's "unfair to the whole world" and the decision is "not helpful", but she thinks it would be too difficult to reverse.

The decision for many senior players, including Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka, will be "devastating", she explained.

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"For most players, Wimbledon is the one event they really want to play and now this is completely beyond their control," she continued.

"As a player growing up, this is the one you dream about the most.

"And now because of politics not to be able to play, unless you denounce your country and leave, and risk your family's wellbeing as well as your own, maybe never to be able to return to Russia.

"It's a big ask for the players to ask them this.

"What I had to go through, leaving my country, I would not wish that on anybody."

She said her heart is "torn", saying she cannot imagine what it's like for Ukrainian players to be competing while the devastation tears through their homeland.

But she said exclusion for Russian and Belarusian players, "through no fault of their own", is not the answer.