Back from being banished, Andrey Rublev quickly felt the affection of Wimbledon again.
Selfie-seekers mobbed the Russian who reciprocated by meeting every photo request for several minutes, soon after stepping back into the All England Club.
Even being outspoken against the war on Ukraine wasn’t enough for him to be allowed to compete here last year.
A blanket ban was imposed amid fears Vladimir Putin would use any sporting success for propaganda purposes.
But a hard-line stance crumbled as British tennis authorities faced fines from the world tours and ranking points were denied to Wimbledon competitors.
So Rublev and his compatriots could return – along with those from Russia’s war ally Belarus – as long as Putin’s invasion was not backed by them and they received no funding from their countries.
And Rublev is here as a neutral with 16 other Russian and Belarussian players in the singles competitions – a decision branded “immoral” by Ukraine.
All England Club CEO Sally Bolton told Sky News: “It was an incredibly difficult decision this year, very similar to last year. We took lots of factors into consideration and particularly the impact it would have on those affected.”
Ukrainians in particular, who have seen fellow athletes killed and their facilities attacked by Russian missiles.
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“Although we’ve made the decision to admit those athletes this year, that doesn’t change our position on the war in Ukraine,” Ms Bolton said.
“We completely condemn Russia’s illegal invasion. And so our focus now is just on allowing those athletes to compete.”
Rublev was in a rush on his return, beating Australia’s Max Purcell in straight sets as the first Russian into the second round. The result was marked on a scoreboard with no nationality displayed.
Image: Rublev wrote this message shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022 Just winning was enough after being excluded last year.
“If we really want to help or do what is better for tennis and for the people, I think obviously there were better options,” he reflected on Wimbledon 2022.
“Because in the end, there was no difference. They did only worse to themselves. For sure there were options for everyone. Now we are here and I’m really happy to be back and to compete.”
And there was no sign of hostility from the typically genteel Wimbledon crowd.
Image: Victoria Azarenka ‘felt great’ to be back. Pic: AP “It was really nice,” Belarusian player Victoria Azarenka said after beating China’s Yuan Yue.
“Today to hear people say, ‘Let’s go, Vika’ and cheering me on was also why I play, to play in front of the crowd, to put on a good show. So that felt great.”
It was just as the All England Club hoped.
“Wimbledon has a very strong reputation for a very respectful crowd,” Ms Bolton said.
“And we don’t anticipate that being any different this year.”